Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 17, 2018
David M. Lubin Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 384 pp.; 149 ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780190218614)

Published to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the US entry into World War I in 1917, David Lubin’s Grand Illusions: American Art and World War I offers its reader much more than the book’s straightforward title suggests. Lubin’s foreign, filmic, postwar touchstone, Jean Renoir’s 1937 film La grande illusion, signals an unconventional history of American art of the period regarding media, chronological scope, and well-worn definitions of “American” art. In fact, the subtitle’s narrow national emphasis quite dramatically belies Lubin’s cross-media and international concerns, encompassing painting and photography in addition to film and popular visual culture. The book’s Anglo-American dialectic is signaled by the appearance on the volume’s dust jacket of John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, a monumental painting, made on commission for Great Britain’s Ministry of Information, showing the aftermath of a mustard gas attack on the Western Front in August 1918. The international character of Lubin’s scholarly enterprise is particularly evident in the chapter devoted to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, which ambitiously interprets the iconoclastic found-object sculpture as an intentional antiwar intervention. “It is the anti-Uncle Sam,” Lubin concludes somewhat strenuously, that “howled at the flushing of millions of lives and countless dreams down the collective toilet” (135, 137).

Notably, Lubin takes this occasion to consider bodies of work produced by different artistic generations. That Sargent and Marsden Hartley produced major works in response to the war is only one instance of this rich cross-generational coincidence in which Beaux Arts–era artists associated with the previous century drank metaphorically from the same well as younger modernists. To his credit, Lubin betrays no clear bias in favor of the more avant-garde artists like Hartley or Duchamp. His egalitarian approach levels the proverbial playing field in a way that is refreshingly noncanonical.

In fact, the author’s sympathies seem to lie with the less cutting edge and, thus, more historically neglected practitioners during the war—the late-career Sargent, the sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and little-known artists who were also servicemen, such as Harvey Dunn and Claggett Wilson. His discussion of Whitney’s 1926 commission for a war monument at Saint-Nazaire harbor in Brittany, its destruction by German forces in 1940, and its subsequent reconstruction in 2004 leaves the reader cheering. Otherwise, commemorative sculpture is surprisingly absent from Lubin’s study, perhaps because it has been the focus of other recent scholarship, particularly Jennifer Wingate’s Sculpting Doughboys: Memory, Gender, and Taste in America’s World War I Memorials (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2013).

Whitney is one of a modest roster of formidable women, among them Romaine Brooks, Gertrude Stein, and Anna Coleman Ladd, whose responses to the war Lubin highlights. Lubin’s discussion of Ladd, who sculpted face masks to disguise war wounds and disfigurement in a studio established by the American Red Cross, stands as one of most affecting sections, and he compellingly connects the phenomenon of wartime facial prosthetics to subsequent shifts in public attitudes more open to makeup and plastic surgery. Even so, Grand Illusions would be enhanced by inclusion of more women artists, such as Cecilia Beaux, among the most decorated artists of her generation, who, like Sargent, painted portraits on commission of leading protagonists of the war.

Likewise, Lubin’s study would benefit by greater attention to issues of race and the war. His discussions of James Van Der Zee and Horace Pippin—the latter being one of the most prominent American artists to serve in battle (incurring a permanent arm injury)—seem buried near the book’s end. Another key historical factor omitted is the war’s impact on the national discourse of eugenics, which spiked in the 1920s due to the removal of so much perceived “good stock” from the country’s gene pool.

The chapters that address popular visual culture of the war, particularly war propaganda and enlistment posters, include some of the most engaging images. As the author explains, Fred Spear’s Enlist, H. R. Hopps’s Destroy This Mad Brute, and James Montgomery Flagg’s I Want You (Uncle Sam Wants You) rank with the most iconic images from the period; because of technological advances in color reproduction and mass circulation, they became ubiquitous in American society. In addition, Lubin articulates ways in which enlistment posters interpolated their viewers into nationalist and gendered narratives.

Grand Illusions offers fewer fresh insights into more canonical works from the period, such as Hartley’s Portrait of German Officer (1914). Most notable about Lubin’s reading of Hartley’s abstract elegy to his beloved Karl von Freyburg is the degree to which he perceives it to be hypersexualized. “Given the long-standing association of riding paraphernalia, such as boots, stirrups, spurs, and leather crops, with sexual fetishism,” he explains, “the painting vibrates with an additional wave of encoded meaning, as do Hartley’s other symbolic portraits of von Freyburg” (7, 8). Lubin thus implies that Portrait of a German Officer manifests the artist’s own quasi-masochistic desires, and, moreover, equates queer identity with erotic (and exotic) kink. Indeed, throughout Grand Illusions, the author invokes queer identity consistently in the subversive contexts of masochism, public sex in bathrooms, and bestial attraction (to horses’ rear ends). Perplexingly, Lubin concludes his discussion of Portrait of a German Officer by characterizing Hartley as an “expatriate American artist who failed to grasp the world-upending magnitude of the new war” (9). This is an uncharitable judgment rendered on an artist who lost a loved one in battle and whose life and career were dramatically altered by the conflict.

While Lubin hypersexualizes Hartley’s imagery, he conversely desexualizes Sargent’s responses to the war, thus extending a persisting tendency among scholars to neuter the artist. For example, conspicuously absent from Lubin’s analysis of Sargent is any mention of the artist’s strikingly voyeuristic watercolors of nude British soldiers, such as Tommies Bathing (1918; Metropolitan Museum of Art). Such works are germane to the author’s concerns since the languid, tangled male bodies that populate Gassed are anteceded by these more informal and outwardly eroticized wartime nudes. It would seem fair, desirable even, to consider Sargent’s work within the cultural and analytic framework of encoded desire within socially legitimizing narratives of loss, as with Hartley’s Portrait of a German Officer, because war not only exposed the male body to increased scrutiny and possible admiration but also enabled public expressions of same-sex affection, feelings that would have been potentially transgressive in nearly any other context.

Despite its many strengths, Grand Illusions is occasionally encumbered by rather extraneous historical context. Does situating Duchamp’s Fountain in the historical trajectory of the appearance of public urinals in Paris in 1834 enhance the reader’s understanding of it? Likewise, Lubin’s discussion of the anti-German war propaganda poster Destroy This Mad Brute strays seemingly far afield to the death and funeral of Rudolph Valentino, whose postwar films, Lubin asserts, extend the same kind of titillating eroticism and rape fantasies the poster evidences. Lubin almost loses his more relevant point—that Destroy This Mad Brute extends preexisting and racialized tropes of abduction in American visual culture.

The absence of any discussion of Canadian art of the period is regrettable, given the substantial role that Canada, as a dominion of Great Britain, played in the war. In this regard, Lubin might have taken a cue from Albert Eugene Gallatin, who, in his impressively expansive Art and the Great War (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1919), saw fit to address British and Canadian wartime artistic accomplishments in tandem. Such an integrated consideration of Canadian wartime art would have been appropriate not only in light of the country’s extensive official war art program, which employed nearly 120 artists, but also because it would contribute to larger contemporary scholarly efforts to reconsider “American” art along a north-south geo-national axis.

Lubin concludes Grand Illusions with analyses of popular films of the 1930s, particularly in the horror genre, such as Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1932), as nightmarish allegorized reflections on the Great War. As the author explains, “The horror films of the early 1930s gave mythic form to lingering memories from the war and mourning that was never adequately addressed” (272). Both provocative and attractive as an idea, Lubin’s thesis is in this case based on little more than psychoanalytic conjecture, betraying adherence to subjective poststructuralist interpretive models that were au courant in art-historical writing of the 1990s. After all, as Sarah Burns has reminded us, American moviegoers of the 1930s, in the throes of economic and ecological disasters, did not have to look back in time—even to recent history—to conjure feelings of fear, dread, and despair (“Death, Decay, and Dystopia: Painting the American Wasteland,” in Judith A. Barter, ed., America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, exh. cat., Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2016, 116–43). The more convincing and satisfying culmination of Grand Illusions is found in the book’s epilogue, where Lubin addresses Lewis Hine’s iconic photographs of New York’s burgeoning skyline as evidence of wartime industrial profiteering by General Motors and DuPont. This concluding passage shows the author in his finest form—taking familiar imagery and making it seem new again, even strange, and challenging assumed knowledge by revealing new dimensions of signification that, in retrospect, seem to have been hiding in plain sight all along.

Randall Griffey
Curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art