Blood and mud, not glory: Smith College exhibit showcases horror of WWI


Staff Writer

Published: 10-18-2018 8:57 AM

It began during a warm, beautiful summer, when many still viewed war as a glorious and noble pursuit, a rite of passage for men marked by dressed battle lines, colorful uniforms, dramatic cavalry charges and quick and decisive campaigns.

But when the guns of World War One finally ceased firing in November 1918, as many as 19 million people, including civilians, were dead; towns and cities across parts of Europe were reduced to rubble; and any illusions about the romance of war had been shattered forever.

As the centennial of the end of the “The Great War” draws closer, the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) has noted the occasion with a sobering exhibit of prints by wartime artists from Germany, Great Britain, France and the United States — men (and one woman) whose generally firsthand observation of WWI battlefields offered an unvarnished view of the first industrial-scale war.

“No Man’s Land: Prints From the Front Lines of WWI” includes over 50 works on paper — drypoint prints, etchings, lithographs — that trace the evolution of the fighting on the Western Front, from the high hopes and optimism of summer 1914 to the misery and squalor of trenches, poison gas, machine guns, and fields and forests reduced to lunar landscapes.

Henriette Kets de Vries, the show’s curator and the manager of SCMA’s Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, says the exhibit looks not just at the horror of war but how the experience of viewing it personally affected some of the artists, many of whom took part in combat or served with military forces in other capacities, such as ambulance drivers or medical staff.

“To me, that’s one of the most fascinating questions,” she said. “How were some of the artists transformed, and how they did they process what they’d seen?”  

Most of the exhibit’s prints stem from a larger collection of prints — about 1,400, many by relatively unknown women artists circa 1860-1950 — donated to SCMA in recent years by Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang, acclaimed American sociologists and writers during the second half of the 20th century. The couple had some experience with war themselves, working with the U.S. Army and intelligence services during World War II.

According to exhibit notes, Kurt Lang, who was born in Germany in 1924 — his family immigrated to the United States in 1936 — also saw crippled WWI veterans on the streets of Berlin, where he grew up, and he heard grim stories from his father, who had been a medical officer with the German Army during WWI.

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The overall palette of the works on display is very dark, reflecting not just the brutality of war but also a landscape leached of all color, as the entrenched Allied and German armies fought over shell-torn land stripped of trees and grass. In some cases, the fighting took place in a literal sea of mud, such as at the Battle of Passchendaele in western Belgium in 1917.

Consider the work of Kerr Eby, who served in the U.S. Army as a “camoufleur” — disguising military positions with camouflage. Eby’s 1919 drypoint print “Dawn; The 75s follow up” depicts U.S. soldiers and horse-drawn artillery pieces, under a leaden sky, slogging through mud outside a ruined stone farmhouse.

More ominous is Eby’s “September 13, 1918,” an etching from 1934 dominated by an enormous dark cloud — more like a black hole, really — that dwarfs a long column of faceless American troops filing up a muddy road. A few skeletal tree trunks rise above a dismal, flat landscape of what looks like beaten grass and mud.

Getting past the censors

A good number of the prints did not appear until after the war, as military censors generally forbade the printing or dissemination of images deemed harmful to national morale. In some cases, exhibit notes say, artists risked being charged as spies for trying to record military information that theoretically could be helpful to the enemy.

Kets de Vries notes that some works may have appeared during the war, though the exact provenance remains unclear in many cases. Some artists composed their work in secrecy. James McBey, a Scottish war artist serving with British forces, made an initial sketch of a crippled French passenger ship, torpedoed by a German U-boat, by drawing notes on small scraps of paper and his hands.  

Other work from this era could be more abstract or symbolic. British painter and printmaker Percy John Delf Smith created a series of prints called “The Dance of Death,” in which either a shrouded figure of Death or a skeleton looms near soldiers. In “Death Forbids,” for example, a hooded figure is shown about to grab the wrist of a infantryman who’s trying to crawl past a shattered tree trunk and a coil of barbed wire. 

According to exhibit notes, Smith, who fought in northern France in 1916-17, carved some of his work directly onto copper plates on the battlefield and later turned them into prints. Kets de Vries says he was twice arrested by British officials for trying to smuggle these controversial works into England when going home on leave.

Just as WWI inspired a wave of literature and poetry that spoke to the disillusionment of a generation of men who saw action — the novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Robert Graves’ memoir “Goodbye to All That,” and numerous other works — visual artists captured the lasting horror of the war and its aftermath in ways that also spoke to a post-war current of cynicism and despair.

In his 1934 lithograph “Der Held” (“The Hero”), German artist George Grosz created an ironic but gruesome image of a legless veteran with a ravaged face; he sits on the ground, his teeth bared in a half-smile, half-grimace and his right arm thrust through a crutch, his hand grasping a handful of flowers for sale. Grosz, who served briefly in WWI before being discharged for illness, later became a bitter opponent of German militarism and the Nazis and immigrated to the U.S. in 1933.

Another German artist, Otto Dix, created the stark “Verwundeter, Herbst 1916, Bapaume” (“Wounded soldier, Autumn 1916, Bapaume”), an etching of a maimed soldier whose face is twisted in pain and terror, giving him a grotesque, monster-like look; his limbs are splayed like licorice.

Dix, who enthusiastically joined German forces in 1914 and fought in some of the biggest battles on the Western Front, created “Verwundeter” as part of a post-war series of prints focused on the aftermath of battle, from dead and dying soldiers to ruined landscapes; many of the images were inspired by his recurring nightmares of the fighting.

“No Man’s Land” also features some vintage silent film images made during the war — soldiers on the march, heavily shelled towns just behind the front lines, aerial shots of battlefield action — including German forces filmed by an American news photographer, Wilbur H. Durborough. Durborough had been assigned to cover the war in 1915 for a U.S. news service but used his proximity to the fighting to make a film as well (with the backing of several U.S. investors).

The film makes for a great complement to the prints, and the exhibit as a whole serves as a sad reminder of the tragedy of war — especially given that WWI was dubbed “The war to end all wars.”

“Obviously that never happened,” said Kets de Vries. “It seems we’ve never learned the lessons.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

“No Man’s Land” is on view at the Smith College Museum of Art through February 17, 2019. For additional information on visiting hours, admission prices and other museum exhibits, visit