During the First World War, dogs attached to the Medical Corps and the Red Cross lived up to the title “Man’s Best Friend” by helping to rescue soldiers.
Medical Corps dogs were trained to enter No Man’s Land (an unoccupied zone between the trench systems of the Allied and Central Powers) at night and locate fallen soldiers. These dogs could recognize the scent of blood, check for a man’s breath, and–if the soldier were alive–deliver his hat to a Medical Corps officer. (The hat’s insignia was an important identification method for the officer.) Stretcher-bearers were then dispatched to rescue the soldier at daybreak.
Indeed, dogs have participated in warfare for thousands of years. According to some Egyptian murals, dogs were unleashed against enemies in Egypt as far back as 4000 B.C.E. Dogs make excellent companions in modern war because of their superior auditory sense, which allows them to hear artillery fire before humans. They also have superior night vision, making them valued message-bearers.
The Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918 features a panoramic group portrait of the 103rd Aero Squadron (Lafayette Escadrille), the first U.S. aviation pursuit squadron in combat in France during World War I.
The photograph was sent to the Ransom Center’s conservation lab because it was tightly rolled, making it brittle and fragile. Previous attempts to unroll the paper had left one corner almost detached. The only clue as to its contents was a handwritten inscription on the roll’s outermost edge. Learn more about how photo conservators Barbara Brown and Diana Diaz worked to safely unroll the photograph to preserve it and display it in the exhibition.
Image: Eugene O. Goldbeck. Panoramic portrait of the 103rd Aero Squadron (Lafayette Escadrille). ca. 1919.
Food was in high demand during the First World War, especially in Russia. The food shortages were so constant that they were ultimately one of the factors that helped to incite the revolutions of 1917. Although seemingly minor compared to the famine Eastern Europe would later experience under Stalin, food shortages were instrumental in harvesting a deep resentment toward the tsar and general war weariness.
For everyday citizens, getting food in cities was a full-time job. It required spending long hours in line only to be rewarded with slim rations—and sometimes nothing at all. It would make sense to assume that all the food was going to soldiers at the front. However, by 1915, only a year into the war, the Russian Army was also suffering from the food shortage.
The Russian economy simply wasn’t equipped both to fight a war and feed its citizens. Young men left the countryside in droves after being conscripted into the army, severely cutting the available labor force and slowing agricultural production. Inflation as a result of the war then made it impossible for the remaining farmers to make a profit on their goods. No one could afford to grow food, and few could afford to buy enough of it. Food then became a prominent subject in Russian propaganda.
The Harry Ransom Center is home to the diverse collection of Kuharet’s Russian World War I posters. A surprising number of these prints pertain to food: specifically food that has been personified as evil. Even the act of eating food is portrayed as unpleasant—something that would likely have been incomprehensible to the starving nation.
Staples such as onions and potatoes morph into crude caricatures of Franz Josef, Wilhelm, and his sons, insisting that the evil of the Germans could only have grown in the garden of the devil himself. Another poster titled “Wilhelm’s Menu” replaces the expected food on the menu with violent actions against Wilhelm: showing him drowning, beaten, and left broken and alone. Posters such as these served to create negative connotations between food and eating.
Food was also strangely tied to nationalism, specifically in a series of posters titled “European Cuisine.” In this set, countries involved in the war are all personified as food: Germany and Austro-Hungary are both portrayed as conniving sausages, while Russia is equated to a hearty bowl of kasha (the Russian equivalent of porridge). While the sausages try in vain to consume the other “countries,” the kasha spills forth to overtake them. This poster is on view in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918. The Russian kasha is made up of figures of soldiers—the only human characters on the poster. Even in posters real Russian food was lacking.
Food and the experience of eating were both portrayed as dangerous, violent, and unpleasant in a futile effort to make the starving Russian population forget the normalcy associated with these actions.
The Ransom Center’s collection of World War I-era propaganda posters have been digitized as part of the digital collections.
Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
In the spring of 1915, John McCrae, a young Canadian surgeon, conducted a burial service for a friend, killed by German artillery during the Second Battle of Ypres, in the First World War. Inspired by the friend’s death, McCrae composed a poem, which he discarded, believing it to be no good. An officer retrieved it and convinced McCrae to keep working on it. The poem was published in December of that year.
The poem, “In Flanders Fields,” is an important work in the literature surrounding the First World War. Written in 1915, it did not describe the horrors and brutality of the conflict in the way authors such as Erich Maria Remarque would after the war ended. Rather, “In Flanders Fields” invokes a Romantic vision of the Great War, with its images of soaring larks and blowing poppies. These poppies have become emblematic of those who died during the war.
In the Harry Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914-1918, a 1918 propaganda poster by Frank Nicolet Lucien features a Canadian soldier mourning the dead amid a field of the iconic poppies. One of the poster’s aims is to coerce civilians into buying war bonds. It entreats the viewer, “If ye break faith—we shall not sleep,” a reference to the last stanza of McCrae’s poem.
In the poem, the line is delivered by dead soldiers who ask that the living continue the fight so that the sacrifices of the fallen will not be in vain.
The World at War, 1914-1918 is on view through August 3.
Image: Frank Nicolet Lucien “In Flanders Fields” poster, 1918.
World War I played a crucial part in the transformation of gender roles. As men left for the battlefields, women took on traditionally male occupations at home. Buoyed by this experience and a new sense of confidence, these women started demanding more rights and independence.
These shifting roles were mirrored by new fashions, such as the flapper attire, which was ushered in by the rebellion of the post-war Jazz Age. Style magazines like Vanity Fair captured these trends on its covers.
Gordon Conway, a Texas-born fashion designer and illustrator, was famous for her drawings of these sophisticated and independent “New Women.” Conway launched her career at Vogue and Vanity Fair, and she was so talented that she was soon working for other publications, as well as a host of different advertising clients. Throughout her career, she did costume design, magazine art, and poster art for film, cabaret, and theater, working in New York, London, and Paris. She was remarkable not only for her artistic talent, but also for her ability to influence women’s desires for more cultural, sexual, and legal freedoms.
A Conway cover illustration for Vanity Fair is currently on display in the Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914-1918. The illustration features a stylish, svelte nurse with an Afghan hound. Although the illustration was rejected for publication, it was later used by the Red Cross as a recruitment poster.
The Ransom Center’s Conway collection includes original art; photographs of family, friends and productions; and diaries, costumes, personal effects, datebooks, and numerous scrapbooks.
The World at War, 1914-1918 runs through August 3, 2014.
Image: Gordon Conway “Red Cross Girl” illustration for Vanity Fair, 1918.
In 1943, the Allies of World War II established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program—an organization tasked with recovering, restoring, and returning stolen or lost cultural artifacts. The members of the MFAA, known as the Monuments Men, included over 300 artists, architects, educators, directors, and scholars. Together, they made an unprecedented effort toward cultural conservation.
Lincoln Kirstein—art critic, writer, and co-founder of the New York City Ballet—served the Monuments Men in France and Germany from 1944 to 1945. While abroad, he maintained a close correspondence with Russian artist Pavel Tchelitchew, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center.
Through his letters, Kirstein expresses a deep reverence for his responsibilities and appreciation for the artwork itself. His solemnity is, however, shrouded by a veil of casual quips. On March 10, 1945, Kirstein candidly opens his letter to Tchelitchew by writing, “As you know, my work is to help prop up what war has knocked down, and to try to pick up the pieces if there are any left, to try to keep people from scratching names on carved stone and if an armoire is broken it need not be used for kindling.” Yet, to be sure, Kirstein does not ignore the severity of the situation. He closes the same letter by writing, “Do not believe that the war will either be over early or easily. I don’t read the newspapers, but I don’t have to.”
By May, Kirstein’s “work” was more exciting. He writes to Tchelitchew on German stationary—which he claims belonged to Nazi leader Hermann Göring—of a recent near-disaster.
“This is my lovely new note-paper. It used to belong to Göring. He had 50 Cranachs, and some fine German medieval sculpture, he also had a lot of expensive Gobelins and some christ awful modern things. Hitler did much better. Picture little Lincoln in a salt mine, facing the van Eyck Transfiguration of the Lamb, the Czernin Vermeer and most wonderful, the Bruges Madonna and Child of Michaelangelo, and the Dirk Bouts Louvain altar. Criminal bandits and murderers, they had planned to destroy the mine by bombs in each chamber and then flooding with salt water. The nice (and heroic) austrian museum guards and miners saved the mine by taking out the bombs, and blowing up the entrances to save the things. Marvelous Polish, french, belgian, and italian things. As you can imagine it was very funny and saugrenu. The “Peace” was even more comic, and I saw a lot of German army surrender in a most unbeaten way.”
By July, however, this excitement again waned. Kirstein complains to Tchelitchew of “nothing but tedious work and horrible Germans,” laments that there is “absolutely no one to talk to,” and describes himself as a “gloomy intellectual misfit.”
Perhaps partially instigated by boredom, Kirstein then shifts his rhetoric from that of dismay to that of veneration. He writes:
“Yesterday I had a very exciting day, as I was left alone and went down to Hitler’s house which is our art-collection depot, and spent the whole day looking at really amazing pictures. They are stacked up like books against the wall, and the frames are often heavy, but the glories are undiminished. Painting is so wonderful. Few people but you know the secrets of the renaissance attitude, the absolute devotion to the métier, the rewards of glorious workmanship and heavenly color.”
He continues by praising Titian and Raphael, Watteau and Vermeer, while also adding a bit of personal, poetic color:
“Also a lot of other unimportant pictures, a picture I guess you would not like but which is so wonderful, a lot of cowy cows and very tawny horsy horses, in a wild later summers landscape with all the leaves madly tossing against wild clouds, and the horses sniffy and neighing with pleasure, in the midst of which a very heavy healthy pink sexy goaty old man is flirting with Mercury who wears a sort of orange satin Turkish towel, Rubens, on an oak panel, fresh as a daisy and absolutely the packed-up glory of sensuality.”
These accounts of his service constitute a small part of Kirstein’s letters, usually claiming only a paragraph here and there. He preferred, it seems, to write to Tchelitchew about what was to him most familiar and precious: art, artists, friends, and ballet. Between insults directed at the Germans, he playfully teases the likes of Pablo Picasso and Ezra Pound. While writing of recovered Rembrandts, he begs to be sent copies of contemporary magazines. Thus, through his letters, Lincoln Kirstein displays a fundamental characteristic of the Monuments Men: he was one of many artists working in the service of art.
The film The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney and starring Clooney, Matt Damon, and Bill Murray is in theaters now. The film is based on Robert Edsel’s book of the same title.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
Today the galleries open for the Ransom Center’s spring exhibition, The World at War, 1914–1918. Join us for “Love & War,” the opening celebration for the exhibition from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday, February 14.
Drawing on the Ransom Center’s extensive collections, this exhibition illuminates the experience of the war from the point of view of its participants and observers, preserved through letters, drafts, and diaries; memoirs and novels; and photographs and propaganda posters.
Ransom Center members receive complimentary entry and valet parking at this celebration. If you are not yet a member, you may order tickets to the opening for $20 through Thursday, February 13 by calling (512)232-3669 (valet parking is not included for non-members). Tickets will also be available for purchase at the door.
The Ransom Center is giving away a pair of tickets to “Love & War.” Email email@example.com with “Love & War Giveaway” in the subject line by midnight CST on Tuesday, February 11 to be entered in a drawing for complimentary admission for two. The winner will be notified by email.
Back in November the exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath opened at its fourth and final venue, the Brooklyn Museum. This exhibition, which I curated with Anne Tucker and Will Michels in my former role in the photography department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, featured over 400 photographic objects dating from 1848 to 2012, including a number of photographs from the Harry Ransom Center’s collections. Our curatorial mission was neither to tell a history of war illustrated by photography nor to present a series on singular photographers. Instead, we hoped to bring together a selection of objects that highlighted the intersections between war and photography.
Photographs from the Ransom Center collections were included throughout the exhibition, enriching the thematic sections that explored daily routine, shell shock, and dissemination, as well as battlefield burial and death. The Gernsheim collection yielded a chilling 1871 print of communards in coffins, an image likely used to discourage further unrest in the streets of Paris, as well as Roger Fenton’s iconic and controversial 1855 photographThe Valley of the Shadow of Death from the Crimean War.
A Ransom Center fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment enabled curator Anne Tucker to spend weeks going through box after box of the Ransom Center’s prints, lantern slides, and stereographs. While in the reading room, she could compare the croppings of multiple photographs of Captain Ike Fenton and the U.S. Marines during the Korean War by David Douglas Duncan and share her findings. She also surveyed the collection of prints made at the height of the civil war in El Salvador by 30 international photographers, including Donna DeCesare and Harry Mattison.
The New York Journal- American photo morgue provided one of my favorite photographs in the exhibition. It is a small print from 1918 of a carrier pigeon being released from a tank on the Western Front. The image itself references one of the means of communication (pigeon transport) that is often associated with World War I, but it is also important as a photographic object because it carries the marks and highlights of an editor’s pencil, readying the print for reproduction and the image for dissemination.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.
Docent-led gallery tours occur on Tuesdays at noon, Thursdays at 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. (There will be no public tour on Thursday, November 28.) The public tours meet in the lobby, and no reservations are required.
Admission is free. Your donation supports the Ransom Center’s exhibitions and public programs. Parking information and a map are available online.
The Cultural Compass blog will be on hiatus during the University’s winter break and will return the week of January 6.
The grant will support a range of activities including facilitating long-range planning, creating teacher training workshops related to future exhibitions, fostering collaboration with other institutions, and supporting print and online publications related to the Center’s exhibitions.
The Ransom Center has four years to match NEH’s $500,000 challenge grant with $1.5 million in private contributions to create a dedicated $2 million exhibition endowment.
“This NEH award is validation of the strong work the Ransom Center does in interpreting its collections for wide and diverse audiences,” said Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss. “It will enable us to build on that past success and sustain this vital program for years to come.”
Image: Tour of Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century. Courtesy TxDOT/Stan A. Williams.