As Empires Clashed During World War I, a Global Media Industry Brought the Conflict’s Horrors to the Public

Published: 18 January 2024

By Anne Wallentine
via the Smithsonian Magazine web site

Verdun, Félix Edouard Vallotton

Verdun, Félix Edouard Vallotton, 1917 © Musée de l’Armée, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

An exhibition at LACMA traces the roots of modern media to the Great War, when propaganda mobilized the masses, and questions whether the brutal truths of the battlefield can ever really be communicated

More than a century after World War I, all is not quiet on the Western Front. The aftershocks of the Great War continue to resonate, in part due to the revolutionary ways the conflict was depicted in art and media. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), an exhibition titled “Imagined Fronts: The Great War and Global Media” explores the influence of wartime visual storytelling and propaganda, which brought the conflict home to citizens in ways that still shape how people envision combat today.

Between 2014 and 2018, a flurry of global exhibitions marked World War I’s centenary. LACMA’s show arrived almost a decade later, opening at the end of 2023 to mark the centenary of the Treaty of Lausanne, the last of the resolutions to the fighting that continued after the “official” armistice on November 11, 1918. Curator Timothy O. Benson timed the exhibition to illuminate the blurred historiographic boundaries of when wars start and end, as well as the lingering legacy of trauma and healing.

Visualizing the incomprehensible

The immersive exhibition is organized into four sections featuring some 200 objects. At the beginning, viewers examine the influence of propaganda posters that were used to mobilize the masses. They then move through a wide range of battlefield imagery, artifacts illuminating global perspectives on the war and reactions in its aftermath.

Installation view of “Imagined Fronts: The Great War and Global Media” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Museum Associates / LACMA

Benson says his aim was to illuminate the “role of imagination in war.” He quotes Surrealist Johannes Baader’s 1920 comment as inspiration: “The World War is a newspaper war. In reality, it never existed.” To Benson, this statement raises the question of “to what degree … people derive their knowledge of wars from the press.”

Media can reproduce statistics, photographs, footage—but each of these requires the audience’s imagination and analysis of their perspective. Jay Winter, a historian at Yale University who was not involved with the exhibition, argues, “The most powerful effect of the media was to create an illusion, an illusion that still exists—which is that war can be represented in the media.” This illusion is “a very dangerous one,” he adds.

“The true horrors of conflict appear to be documented through film, photography, posters, visual arts and so on,” Winter says, “and that led not only artists but propagandists and foreign policy agents to use the media to tell the people what war was ‘really like.’ The truth is they could never do so. The battlefields were always worse than their most horrific representation.”

Read the entire article on the Smithsonian Magazine web site.
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