As with the previously dedicated Civil War memorials, these soldier sculptures were intended to represent universal notions of manhood, and in the 1920s in the United States, that still meant white manhood. It had been very important for African American enlisted men to fight rather than serve exclusively in labor battalions. However, only those regiments who fought with the French escaped the worst discrimination during their service. There were efforts to erect memorials to honor African American soldiers, but most were never realized. Chicago and Philadelphia dedicated two notable exceptions. The history of the Bronzeville memorial in Chicago is interesting because the memorial did not feature a fighting soldier at first, but three bronze reliefs depicting an African American warrior standing with shield and sword and personifications of Motherhood and Columbia. Later, the artist added a freestanding sculpture of a fighting soldier in response to community dissatisfaction with the original design, which was perceived as too “passive.”
Sculptors often subscribed to pseudoscientific beliefs that equated physical type with race, class, and national character. Examples abound of sculptors striving to achieve the postwar ideal of “100% Americanism” by portraying “American” type soldiers and of critics lauding memorial designs for capturing the authentic “American” man.
In what ways were sculptors, specifically those that were inclined to produce anti-war or pacifist art, constrained in their work?
Sculptors who did not want to celebrate war and militarism in their memorial designs had a bit more flexibility starting around 1921, but even then any pacifist sentiment that they expressed had to be open-ended and subtle. Public art is an art of consensus, and the politics of the interwar period were too complicated to allow for stridently pacifist commemorative statements. There are exceptions, but for the most part, sculptors who were unwilling to compromise their anti-war statements, did not succeed in realizing public memorials. Interestingly, some of the most striking exceptions were women sculptors, who were already working at a disadvantage in the field of public military sculpture. Anna Coleman Ladd, who had worked in France during the war making tin masks for disfigured veterans, dedicated an unusually gruesome memorial featuring a skeleton hanging from the barbed wire of no-man’s-land. The memorial was dedicated in a cemetery, and so did not have the visibility of a more public memorial located in a town square or park. The American Legion Post that commissioned it specifically requested a memorial that represented “the truth about war.”
The collaboration between the Governor of Maine, Percival Baxter, and the sculptor, Bashka Paeff, proved even more fortuitous. Like Ladd, Paeff felt very strongly that memorials should not glorify war. Baxter, who chose Paeff’s design for the state of Maine, agreed that memorials should teach the lessons of war’s violence. Paeff’s bronze relief features a female allegory of Civilization shielding her baby from the destruction of war. Exceedingly rare for a U.S. war memorial, it also depicts the bodies of two dead soldiers. By the time the memorial was complete, the new governor (Baxter’s successor) objected to the relief’s pacifism, and according to one journalist, the pacifist ideas “current among women.” Notions of “patriotic motherhood” were promoted in the visual culture of the war, and women who did not willingly give their sons to the nation could be accused of radicalism.
You primarily used the Smithsonian Institution Inventory of American Sculpture database and files and artists’ papers in the Archives of American Art. Can you tell us some of the challenges you faced in doing this kind of archival research? Do you have any recommendations for other researchers wishing to use these archives?
The Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) database is a good place to start, and it is continuously updated, but it’s important to try to go to local sources as well, like regional historical societies, and to artists’ papers, which typically include project files and correspondence with the memorial committee. The Smithsonian Inventory of American Sculpture also has files on public memorials throughout the country that were inventoried during a “Save Outdoor Sculpture!” survey in the 1990s. They contain photos, miscellaneous clippings, and related information. I was very lucky to have a fellowship at the Smithsonian, which gave me regular access to those files and photographs in DC. Also, many of the Smithsonian’s photographs are being digitized now, so it’s easier, teamed with online resources like Flickr, to actually see what these memorials look like. Even so, pretty much every source is incomplete. To put the story of a single memorial commission together, I usually needed to consult multiple sources. The Library of Congress has the papers of sculptor Daniel Chester French, for example, but the National Archives has the papers of the Fine Arts Commission, which was heavily involved with French’s projects and proposals for the capital as well as with those of sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (whose papers are at the Archives of American Art).
Because many of the sculptors who made WWI memorials are lesser known than French and Whitney, I had to use a lot of papers that were never microfilmed (or digitized). In the case of the Boston-based artist Bashka Paeff, I tracked down her papers at the home of one of her nephews (with the help of a fellow art historian). The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art recently acquired some of those papers, but when collections are broken up, challenges are raised for future researchers. Now Paeff’s papers presumably are well organized and more accessible, but some pertinent items are located at other repositories, like the Massachusetts College of Art and Design library in Boston. Projects like this require a lot of persistence and detective work. My advice would be, even in an era of increasing digitization, not to rely on databases, and to exhaust all possible sources. Even though regional newspapers can be searched in excellent databases at the Library of Congress, there’s still obviously a lot of value in browsing and reading papers on microfilm. Another helpful source for me was the monument trade journal, The Monumental News. I used to read it at the Science, Industry, and Business branch of the New York Public Library, but now those volumes are located off-site and recently one volume that I was looking for was missing. Hopefully, before too many more go missing, they can be digitized for online access!
What projects are you currently working on? Can we expect more work from you on other war memorials?
I think my work on memorials may be complete for the time being, though I remain committed to public art and to art that’s used, enjoyed, and viewed outside museums and galleries. Though I’m a museum junkie and I appreciate “art for art’s sake,” the “high/low” distinction has always been a thorn in my side. When I was l growing up, Norman Rockwell was my favorite artist, but the art establishment has only relatively recently accepted his work as embodying legitimate artistic concerns. I’ve been thinking a lot about “social practice” art for a class I’m teaching, Art of Social Change. What interests me about this art is that it raises so many questions about the definition of art and how one evaluates art that deals more with ethics than aesthetics. There’s something irritating about these conversations and that’s always the sign of a good new project.