How did you celebrate Veteran's Day? Did you share a picture of the American flag on your social media network? Did you call and thank a relative or loved one who has served? Did you donate to a veteran rehabilitation charity?
These things are important, but our soldiers and veterans do not serve or relive their wartime experiences simply one day a year. We, too, should not observe their sacrifice but once every 365 days.
The Wolfsonian at FIU doesn't. The museum is dedicated to veterans of all wars and in fact celebrated it's 18-year anniversary Tuesday night by unveiling a new two-floor exhibit titled "Myth and Machine: The First World War in Visual Culture," just in time to honor the centennial of the pivotal struggle which irrevocably shaped society, our mindset, and our way of life today.
"It's sort of in the DNA of the institution to have a focus on this moment in history because it was so pivotal, and so much of what's in our collection grows out [it]," says the show's curator Jon Mogul. "It's a conflict that is very close to the heart of the Wolfsonian. I became aware over time that we had quite a lot of interesting material. Because the centennial of the start of the war was coming up, it just seemed natural to do an exhibition now. There would be interest in this subject and it would be a great opportunity to tackle a subject in which I'm personally, intensely interested, and which I felt we could do really well."
"Myth and Machine" is not a historical exhibit meant to teach you the particulars of WWI. That's what school is for. What it does instead is offer an first-hand look at the social reverberations from both sides of the trenches through artistic renditions, propaganda, film, and photography.
Have you ever thought about how soldiers celebrated their birthday? How would an idealistic Parisian artist portray the bombing of his own romantic town? How did the Central and Allied governments sell the war effort to those at home without admitting the horrifying detail of mechanized warfare? The answers to these questions are intriguing, often beautiful to behold, and surprisingly universal. The exhibit is a wealth of knowledge and historical context and sheds light on many aspects of the war that may not be so well understood.
It exemplifies the importance of women in the war effort, an underlying movement which eventually lead to the success of the Suffragettes. In paintings and drawings of industrial factories, womanly figures are everywhere.
"Because so many men were off at the front, in order to keep the factories running and actually to increase production many fold, women and also young people and elderly people were recruited," Mogul explains. "Even though it wasn't such a new thing for women to work in factories, what was new is that it was so high profile. Rather than being seen as an unfortunate thing, they were being celebrated as people that were contributing to the defense of their country."
"Myth and Machine" also highlights the lesser-known contributions of African Americans to the war effort. Mogul says more than 200,000 African American men fought for the U.S. in France, although a racist assumption persisted that black citizens were less patriotic than their white neighbors. On display on the second floor is a small poster depicting a man going off to battle, hugging his sweetheart goodbye that reads "the colored man is no slacker."
"I think it's a very interesting piece to show," Mogul says. "Rather than being something that would be posted in a factory or a post office or on the street, these were sold door to door in Chicago, and I think most-likely sold to black households that wanted to acknowledge their neighbor or their son that was off at the front and affirm the fact that they were patriotic Americans just as much, and as involved in sacrificing as much (as whites)."
Much of the exhibit explores this machination of the war effort. It was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and not only were young soldiers handling weapons and great machinery as aircraft, tanks, and automatic weaponry, but they themselves were being turned into "unknowns." Men were becoming like killing machines, and that does not fit with the usual idea of war. Herein lies the mythological aspect in Myth and Machines.
"It didn't really match the idea of military valor, manly honor," Mogul says. "In part, because of that, a lot of the more propagandistic images of the war depart from very realistic depictions of soldiers in combat and instead rely on a mythologization ... [It was] meant to symbolize the war effort as this fight between absolute good and absolute evil rather than as this messy conflict between a bunch of kids who didn't know what they were doing."
Many of the images on the exhibit's second floor show soldiers as saintly beings, with the image of St. George or St. Michael often appearing on a horse or in battle. As well, mythical figures from the goddess Nike to Winged Victory are shown to stand guard over the arenas of war. In 1914, it was the start of something new, but we still see much of this aggrandizement today.
"There's this big division between civilian life and military life and the people that serve in the military. What they're doing is very often not very well known to civilians," Mogul says. "It becomes very important in movies and television news to convey information, sometimes very gritty and realistic, sometimes pretty glamorized or idealized about what takes place in battle and what takes place among soldiers. There's this need to bridge that gap which was very much true in the first World War."
As well, we continue to struggle with the soldiers who return home. The exhibit meaningfully places two posters against one another, one which shows a young French soldier looking fierce above a dead German soldier he has just killed with a bayonette, another showing a Frenchman returning home, clean-cut and smiling, to his family.
"I think there is almost an argument there that we can send these guys over to France and train them to kill. Then they'll come back, they'll be physically and mentally intact and they can transition into civilian life into family life without any problem," Mogul says. "That idea masked a lot of anxiety about how these guys would be able to come back whether they would be healthy, whether they would be suffering from shell shock or known now as PTSD, and whether after all of this killing they could really become civilians again. That's one of the things I think you can see a little bit in this show which is still very much with us."
Yes, the images on display at "Myth and Machine" are beautiful, compelling, and often humanizing of the soldiers themselves, but the fact remains that war is a very heavy and complex subject. It's something we strive to come to terms with today, and the Wolfsonian hopes to address these issues in a way that is illuminating, entertaining, and responsible.
After all, 100 years after it changed forever, modern warfare is as important and far-reaching a subject as it is close to home.
"It's war," Mogul says. "The exhibition is meant to provoke you and maybe move you, but it ain't meant to be a happy story."
"Myth and Machine: The First World War in Visual Culture" will be on display through April 5, 2015, at the Wolfsonian-FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The Wolfsonian-FIU is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm, and Sunday from noon until 6 pm. Admission varies. Visit wolfsonian.org.
Follow Kat Bein on Twitter @KatSaysKill.
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