Visual Arts

Blockbuster show at Wolfsonian-FIU explores how WWI was depicted in mediums of the time

‘Work for America!’ by Dean Cornwell, 1918.
‘Work for America!’ by Dean Cornwell, 1918.

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, one of the most devastating events in human history, with millions of casualties on several continents. To mark the occasion, the Wolfsonian-FIU has staged a blockbuster exhibition that examines how the war was depicted through the visual mediums of the time in what is arguably its most ambitious show in recent memory.

World War I was a clash between the Allies (the United Kingdom, the Russian Empire and France and eventually the United States, Japan and Italy) and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary and eventually Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire). It was among the most significant conflicts after the Industrial Revolution. Technological advancement had a significant effect on warfare; mechanization of war and mass production of weaponry helped to create one of the deadliest wars ever.

But perhaps what made the war unique was that it was undoubtedly the most visible war to date. While mass media was not nearly as pervasive as today, innovations in printing, photography and film brought the war into people’s lives like never before.

The show, one of the largest in the Wolfsonian-FIU’s history, was more than two years in the making and features nearly 300 works. The museum sourced heavily from its own extensive archive of materials on WWI and acquired many works specifically for the show with the help of museum founder Mitchell Wolfson Jr.

Titled “Myth and Machine: World War I in Visual Culture,” the exhibition does not intend to chronicle the war but rather shows how artists, designers, filmmakers and others depicted the events in this tumultuous period. This allows visitors to see the differences, as well as the surprising similarities, between how each side portrayed the war to share their stories and promote their agendas.

Never before were machines used so prevalently as in World War I, and these tools of warfare were often the subject of the art and propaganda created during the conflict. One of the core elements of the show highlights the myriad ways artists used weapons to convey authority, power and patriotism.

The flashy war machines of the day — airplanes, battleships, tanks — were often found on propaganda posters. They were shown in a dominant way, showcased for their technical prowess and used to excite a fascinated public. They were even used as recruitment materials as shown in British and American posters to prospective soldiers who might relish the opportunity to man one of the powerful tanks of the era.

Warplanes in particular captured the public’s fascination; they became a popular subject in visual media, and artists used them with significant license. Artist John Taylor Adams drew planes flying between spotlights and compared them to wasps, while Life magazine illustrated a burning, crashing plane while calling it a shooting star.

Also depicted in visual media was the massive industry that produced the instruments of war. Works like Rudolph Ihlee’s monochrome lithographs showed orderly assembly lines where the instruments of war were made. Often times, these factory workers were depicted as patriotic figures working for their country on the home front rather than in the war zone. Dean Cornwell’s brawny, masculine depiction of a metal worker sought to demonstrate the might of that industry, while A.S. Hatrick’s illustrations of women laborers sought to legitimize the labor of disenfranchised groups who nevertheless helped their country’s efforts.

The show’s title refers to the use of myth, fables, folklore and religion to help translate the events of the war into grander narratives that helped spread national pride by attaching it to familiar stories and grander, relatable messages.

On the Central Powers side, German artist Karl Schmoll von Eisenwerth created a painting of Michael the Archangel, who in Christianity represents a triumph of good over evil when he defeats Satan in the war in heaven; his narrative was used by the artist as a way to depict Germany as a winner in future military campaigns. Another German artist, Ludwig Heissheimer, also used Christian narratives as a way to detach his story from worldly events and portray it in metaphysical terms.

On the Allied members side, American artist Eugene Savage created a series of murals that depicted the Christian story of the Sermon on the Mount as a way to compare its values to the United States’ participation in World War I. In Loudovico Pogliahi’s Visions of War, the artist portrays Italian soldiers climbing the Alps with the goddess Italia, who is the personification of Italy.

Rarely did these images depict the catastrophic destruction of communities or the countless lives lost during the period. When tragedy graced these images, their depictions tended to focus on individuals rather than the millions lost. Despite the singular focus, the works can stir emotions.

Artist Charles Barclay de Tholey created stark, solemn black-and-white woodblocks that showed men often dying alone; he occasionally splashed the image with a spot of red to indicate blood for a small yet bold contrast. To promote a lottery benefiting wounded French warriors, designer Jean Carlu created a poster with a jarring image of a heavily disfigured face of a war veteran blown up to a size that dwarfs most people, forcing viewers to confront the image’s blunt force head on.

Perhaps what is most surprising from the show is how similar the messages from countries on both sides of the conflict were. The images often employ elements specific to each country, but the works grapple with the same themes in similar ways and even borrow from the same sources (such as the prominent use of Christianity).

The show’s strength is its unwillingness to act as a encyclopedic account of World War I and instead probe into the narratives of the war from all parties. Myth + Machine curator Jon Mogul says that the war narratives created during the period were in some ways an attempt to avoid directly confronting the horrors of war by creating subjective, relatable messages.

“It’s almost impossible to derive a completely neutral recording of something like a war. Every work about war is, in some ways, a very subjective thing. ... One of the points of the shows is that we often rely on certain kinds of narratives to turn the war into something we can understand and accept.”

If you go

What: ‘Myth and Machine: The First World War in Visual Culture’

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Tuesday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday-Friday; noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Closed Wednesday. Through April 5.

Where: The Wolfsonian-FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.

Cost: Adults $7, seniors, students with ID and children 6-12, $5, children under 6 and members free. Free to all 6 to 9 p.m. Fridays.

Info: 305-531-1001 or