In a reminder that the more things change the more they stay the same, the story behind Scottish artist James McBey's etching "The Sussex" is all too familiar: A French passenger ferry crossing the English Channel was torpedoed by a German U-boat, killing and injuring innocent civilians.
"It's not that different from the Malaysian plane shot down over Ukraine," notes Mitchell Merling, curator of "The Great War: Printmakers of World War I," showing at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Because of wartime restrictions prohibiting sketching in public for security reasons, McBey had to be covert about documenting the wreckage. Going back several times, the artist used a scrap of paper secreted in the palm of his hand and in his pants pocket to capture the heavily damaged boat against a clear sky.
One of these little sketches, "Study for the Wreck of the Sussex," hangs in the exhibit, a testament to the artist's persistence at capturing what was happening for the world.
The exhibit has a little something for everyone: History buffs will be in their element. Fans of street art will relate to the importance of art in mass communication. Students of warfare can study weaponry. And fans of printmakers can appreciate the work of a generation of highly skilled figurative artists whose names were all but forgotten during the subsequent 20th-century artistic shift to expressionism and other forms of modern art.
All the prints come from the Frank Raysor Collection, a promised gift of 10,000 prints to the museum. Merling helped develop the exhibition in consultation with Raysor, both of them considering it an opportunity to not only commemorate a calamitous event but also to show art's role in bringing people together during a war effort — not solely at the front, but at home and through tributes afterward.
This isn't a formal history lesson, but rather a glimpse into how art functions as part of the fabric of society. Instead of being arranged chronologically, the exhibition focuses on how a group of European and American printmakers conveyed the moods, daily routines and transformative experiences particular to the global conflict — soldiers hired to make art about the war who never had to fire a weapon. The official war artists convey the weariness of a soldier's life, retreating under cover of darkness, pulling artillery up a hill, advancing on the enemy at dawn.
Never far from the surface is the sense that these prints are propaganda tools for the governments of their countries. At first glance, McBey's somber "The Carpenter at Hesdin" reveals a carpenter cutting planks of wood with which to fashion cross-shaped grave markers. Sad, indeed, but look closer and you'll see that the print bears the signature of an official propaganda censor, required before an image could be published. This one passed because McBey represented the Allied cause poignantly but without controversy.
Those who are fans of American impressionist Childe Hassam will recognize the scene in the print "Avenue of the Allies" as part of his ebullient flag series depicting Fifth Avenue in Manhattan during outdoor fundraising campaigns for Liberty Bonds during the war. And while the lithograph is black and white, for those who like tangents, a short trip to the museum's American gallery reveals Hassam's colorful oil painting, "The Flag, Fifth Avenue" of a similar scene.
"We're hoping to find new audiences with this exhibition," Merling says of the show, which ends with images of Richmond's Word War I memorial, the Carillon. The museum is one of only two museums commemorating the war's anniversary, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts being the other. As part of the Blue Star Museum program, the Virginia museum offers free admission to special exhibitions for all active duty, National Guard and reserve military personnel, as well as their immediate families, as many as five people. "We hope to bring that audience to the show too," Merling says.
But given the intensity of the images depicting a time unlike any that came before, it shouldn't be only military members who see this extraordinary collection of prints. As the opening panel in the gallery states, "This exhibition is dedicated to all who have been affected by war." In some way or another, isn't that all of us? S
"The Great War: Printmakers of World War I" at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, through Nov. 9. For information call 340-1400 or visit vmfa.museum.