French artists explore WWI illustrations in a Special Collections exhibition

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The University of Chicago Library

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.

Read the full interview here: http://news.lib.uchicago.edu/blog/2014/11/03/french-illustrators-at-war/...