From Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class (SW/AW) Lindsay A. Preston, Naval History and Heritage Command
To commemorate the centennial of the end of World War I, curators of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy art collections collaborated in a joint exhibition, “A World at War: The Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy in World War I” at the National Museum of the Marine Corps (NMMC).
This collection of artwork depicts the experiences of Marines, Sailors, and civilians during “the war to end all wars.”
“I was really glad we were able to do this exhibition together,” said Joan Thomas, the Art Curator for NMMC. “We were lucky to have these collections and display them. This exhibit lets people interact with something in their own history. Within the services we have been using fine art to tell that story for a very long time.”
Collections of artwork from 92 pieces by 42 artists were selected from NMMC, the National Museum of the U.S. Army, and the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC). The artwork was created by service members, some of America’s leading illustrators, and even some unknown artists. They created these pieces based on their own experiences or from historical perspectives.
“It has been an interesting journey to not only look at how the Navy and Marine Corps have used art to interpret and tell the story but, also being able look at the people behind the work.”
While the U.S. Army sent eight combat artists to France to document the activities of the American Expeditionary Forces, the Navy and Marine Corps did not have official art programs at the time. Instead, they utilized professional artists both in and out of uniform to document the everyday activities of Marines, the grisly battlefields of France, and the U.S. Navy’s battles against German U-boats and the stormy waters of the North Atlantic.
“With paintings, there is more freedom compared to a camera and it is up to the artist to organize the elements and provide a unique perspective,” said Gale Munro, Head Curator of the Navy Art Collection at NHHC. “We are able to preserve our military culture by elevating wartime experiences through artwork.”
Illustrations from James Montgomery Flagg and Adolph Treidler, artists whose works influenced Americans to join the war effort in uniform and at home, are also included in the exhibit.
“Artists record military activities in way that a camera and the written word cannot,” said Munro. “Unlike a camera lens that records a single instant, an artist can capture multiple actions and fuse them together to create a scene.”
American naval artist, Burnell Poole, painted a variety of canvases with scenes of ships in action, several of which are included in the exhibit. One of his paintings, “A Fast Convoy”, depicts a destroyer, USS Allen (DD 66), escorting the troop transport ship, USS Leviathon, on a typical day in the North Atlantic in rough weather.
Another painting, “A Critical Situation” by Poole, depicts the USS Stockton II (DD 73) averting a collision with a large troopship it was escorting during thick weather conditions in 1918.
In addition to the artwork, the exhibit includes common battlefield objects from WWI. These include Marine unit patches of the 4th Brigade and items carried by Marines that have been transformed into works of art. Among these objects are painted helmets, etched mess kits and engraved artillery shells.
“I ask my colleagues if they would be interested in allowing us to use some objects because I thought it would give it a contextual feel,” said Thomas. “They were selected for their aesthetic quality and they also tell really good stories. I think this exhibit came out better than we anticipated and it’s always great to be able to bring our collections together in a collaborative effort to highlight the moments captured by artists.”
The exhibit will be open until April 2019 at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, VA.
The Naval History and Heritage Command, located at the Washington Navy Yard, is responsible for the preservation, analysis, and dissemination of U.S. naval history and heritage. It provides the knowledge foundation for the Navy by maintaining historically relevant resources and products that reflect the Navy's unique and enduring contributions through our nation's history, and supports the fleet by assisting with and delivering professional research, analysis, and interpretive services. NHHC is composed of many activities including the Navy Department Library, the Navy Operational Archives, the Navy art and artifact collections, underwater archeology, Navy histories, nine museums, USS Constitution repair facility and the historic ship Nautilus.
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