By Maddie Orton
In times of war, artists are documentarians. They’re also propaganda-creators. And memorial-designers. Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum delves into its collection to show the many sides of art and conflict with Picturing War.
“World War I anniversaries are going on right now, between 1914 and 1918,” says Christine Giviskos, associate curator of European Art at the museum. “And I just found that we had all of these World War I works that had almost never been out.”
The exhibition covers conflicts from the Civil War through World War II.
“It’s in the Civil War that newspapers start hiring artists to go to battle sites because people were so hungry for news,” says Giviskos.
Artists acting as documentarians is a theme in the show. One prominently-featured artist is photographer Edward Steichen.
“He served in World War I taking aerial photographs for the Army and France,” says Giviskos.
After the war, Steichen made a name for himself in New York as Chief Photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair. He was said to be the best-known (and highest paid) photographer in the world. And then came World War II. He was 62 and he wanted to reenlist.
“But the Army would not let him officially reenlist,” Giviskos explains. “So the Navy approached him and they said…in not so many words, they said, ‘Will you create an advertising campaign?’” The Naval Aviation Photographic Unit was born.
Giviskos says, “Steichen told his photographers to ‘Focus on the men. We’ll always have the machines, we won’t always have the men.’”
Another theme is life on the home front and the roles women played.
“We have images of them working in munitions plants, plowing the field, working as railroad engineers,” says Giviskos, “and looking very confident and able.”
It’s the atrocities and sorrows of war, though, that are most reflected in the exhibition. Showing the faces of those affected—across conflicts, nations and decades can give an emotional layer to history book facts. And in Giviskos’s eyes, that’s a cross-curricular benefit for university students.
“Just as we talk about the impersonalized aspects of war now,” she says, “I think there was that same mindset for artists and photographers working in World War I and World War II, that if we don’t capture this, who’s going to know?”
Giviskos says the show is a little grim in nature, but she thinks that’s good in a way. It’s a reminder, she says, of how war is life-changing, and its affects lasting. Picturing War is open to the public, and runs through July 5.