Harris and Edelstein explore WWI illustrations in a Special Collections exhibition
En Guerre: French Illustrators and World War I runs through January 2, 2015, in the Special Collections Research Center Exhibition Gallery at the University of Chicago Library. In this edited interview, co-curators Neil Harris, Preston and Sterling Morton Professor of History and Art History Emeritus, and Dr. Teri J. Edelstein speak with Rachel Rosenberg about the role of French illustrators in World War I, the satiric and surprising aspects of their art, and the origins of the exhibition.
What role did French illustrators play in World War I, and how would you say that affects their illustrations?
HARRIS: The French had a very well developed illustrated tradition by the time the war began, and that was one of their assets in the war. They recognized this on a whole series of levels. A number of the illustrations are funny. That is, they’re satirical—they’re pointed. These artists were aware of the ironies of war and are part of a long French tradition of political caricature. Many illustrations in this show are by artists who were—I wouldn’t say twisting the knife in the back of the government, but skeptical about official wisdom. They glorified ordinary people as best they could while raising questions about the war’s logic. The illustrations convey a more complicated set of messages than the propaganda posters of the time.
EDELSTEIN: The posters, by and large, were made officially by government or quasi-government agencies. They were recruitment posters. They urged people to buy national bonds. The illustrations in this exhibition reflect a much more nuanced and personal take on the war. Many of the illustrators were motivated by patriotism, and many of these artists served in the war.
HARRIS: Many were wounded. There was a total mobilization in France, so almost all of their artists who were fit and of age—and who were not foreign nationals, like Picasso—went to war. Many went to the front. They were wounded—in some cases, killed. The enemy was demonized by many of the artists. The Germans, and the Austro-Hungarians, and the Turks were caricatured mercilessly—particularly the leadership. So that wasn’t nuanced. But what was more nuanced was the way French illustrators presented the experiences of the war and focused on the poilu—the ordinary French soldier— who was a key figure in every history of the war.
Is there a particular example of a satiric or subtle illustration that stands out for you?
HARRIS: One is by Lucien Laforge, a socialist, an anarchist, who worked for left-wing journals. He did a broadside called Conte de fées that tells a story of the war as a fairytale. The German ogre is beheaded by three little girls playing in a garden. Figuring out what he meant by this is difficult. Was it an implied critique of what the French referred to as the bourrage de crâne, the war fever that overtook people’s minds? Is it satirical? Is Laforge poking fun at the reductionist character of the war? Or is he, in fact, endorsing the war? It’s hard to say.
Are there aspects of the exhibition that you expect to particularly surprise your audience?
EDELSTEIN: I think people will find it unexpected and riveting to see the extent to which the subject of World War I appears in fashion illustration. The reason for this is threefold. One, fashion was a very important French industry. Two, fashion was an area where the French felt they could nationalistically distinguish themselves from their enemies. They felt that French fashion was at a great remove from German so-called fashion. Three, the illustrators employed by fashion were, by and large, out of work for the duration of the war, so they turned their attention to finding jobs elsewhere. Many issues of La baïonnette feature satirical cartoons that hinge on the notion of French fashion. We also have individual prints on patriotic themes connected to the war that were done by fashion illustrators.
Some of the items on display in En Guerre and included in the associated catalogue have long been a part of the Library’s collections, but a great many are part of your personal collections or were collected by you and subsequently donated to the Library. How did you become interested in collecting World War I illustrations, and how did the Library help in developing the exhibition?
HARRIS: We didn’t really start with the war. I had been collecting French illustrated books since the 1970s. At a certain point, we realized that the centenary of World War I was approaching and we had more than enough for an exhibition. And the Library has a number of things that have been very important, most significantly La baïonnette, a quite amazing illustrated magazine done during the War. We hope that when people come to the show they will observe that these things survive only because there’s a library that takes care of them.
EDELSTEIN: The Library and the staff of Special Collections have been endlessly supportive. We’re delighted with our work with the Library.
Visit the associated web exhibit at lib.uchicago.edu/e/webexhibits/enguerre