This companion book to the excellent 2015 Getty Center exhibition of WWI art gathers 14 essays about 14 artists by 14 art historians. Their commentaries are uniformly excellent in their balancing biography, culture, and brief analyses of or observations about individual works. The book demonstrates that artists respond in many ways to catastrophe, especially one they personally experience, so it serves to counter simplistic notions of WWI and art.
And it acknowledges that not all artists experienced a lasting, transformative trauma during WWI. I especially appreciate the sub-current theme of how the past (conventions, styles, and aesthetic ideas) is not abandoned when artists under psychic duress explore new forms and styles, that in fact the exuberant, anti-tradition chaos of pre-war European artists was not accelerated, but paused and reworked because of the war.
The British soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon exemplifies for me the way in which some war poets and other artists use formalism, specifically forms considered by many at the time to be passe. For Sassoon and some others, making sense of whatever chaos they are experiencing can only be accomplished — and tolerated — by the reassurance of what has come before.
This is perhaps the artistic parallel to soldiers’ responses when suddenly in fear for their lives: some might go modern with a loud Holy shit! while others quietly recite the 23rd psalm. Whatever gets you through the night bombardment.
Sassoon’s anguish leaks through his metered and rhymed poems, and his rage leaks through his satiric irony. But I have the sense that without tradition, his war experience would have been intolerable, and his poems perhaps less moving and powerful.
But artists are individuals, and respond to war in various wars, as is well proven by Nothing But the Clouds Unchanged: Artists in World War I (Getty Publications 2015)
Author: Stephen Sossaman
Stephen Sossaman is Professor Emeritus of English at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. He now lives in California. He was an artillery fire direction computer in Viet Nam, serving in the Mekong Delta (1/84th artillery, 9th Infantry Division).