Dirty work and high society don't always go hand in hand, but for the 350 American women who lent a hand to Anne Morgan in post-WWI France, getting their hands dirty was a necessary – and courageous – step towards women's liberation. "Anne Morgan's War: American Women Rebuilding France," now on view at the Coral Gables Art Museum, features modern print vintage photographs and rare silent film footage documenting the seven-year crusade of the American socialites that ditched their silk frocks for petticoats and rebuilt a war-torn France. The traveling exhibition is on loan from the American Friends of Blérancourt, which supports the Franco-American Museum, established by the late Anne Morgan at the Chateau de Blérancourt in Picardie, France.
The daughter of banking magnate John Pierpoint Morgan, Anne Morgan enjoyed frequent travels across Europe but struck a chord with French culture and countryside. On a visit shortly after the ceasefire of World War I, Morgan was distraught to discover that the country had been torn to pieces – its stunning architecture toppled, families left homeless and scattered, forced to live under quarries or in makeshift shelters in abandoned barns and cellars. Utilizing her unlimited means and social prowess – Morgan was as well known for being wealthy as she was for being dedicated to her various causes — she waged a campaign to recruit women of means to join her in establishing humanitarian aid to French citizens affected by the devastation.
Morgan wisely enlisted the aid of various commissioned photographers in order to document the plight of the French people and the work she was doing on their behalf. Among the photographers, was Harry B. Lachmann, an American photographer who spent the majority of his career living and working in the south of France and whose works are on display at the exhibit. But the photographs also served as a sort of ingenious marketing ploy: by disseminating the photos among her wealthy circles, Morgan was able to enlist funds and further opportunities for aid.
Morgan's photographers captured the devastation while lending a serene quality to the black-and-white images; a post-war survey documenting the physical and emotional struggle of rebuilding, and the beauty that arises when we band together. The photos also showcased women in a light that hadn't been seen much before: standing by a car wearing fatigues, taking the heartbeat of a young child, removing rubble from battlegrounds with their bare hands. It served as a means of introducing the notion that women were capable of far more than previously imagined.
Powerful images include "Dr. Margaret Fraser at the dispensary," which shows an aged doctor taking a stethoscope to a young blond girl in a sulfur-toned silver print photo. Dr. Fraser, who at the time was barred from officer status in the military medical corps, had joined Morgan's movement. Equally lovely, "Physical Education," shows a team of women exercising in the day's garb as the ruins of the Coucy-le-Château looms in the background.
Morgan famously told the New York Times that she expected an "earnest commitment" from her volunteers, admonishing "girls who are unhappy at home and think six months overseas will divert them" from joining her critical movement. Recruits were expected to speak French, hold a driver's license (an unusual circumstance for a society woman at the turn of the century) and have the means to pay their own expenses, which could amount to as much as $1,500 (today that would be about $30,000) for a six-month sojourn to northeastern France.
These haunting images seem a precursor to women's suffrage, taking place at a pivotal moment just three years before women were given the right to vote in 1920. But Anne Morgan's crusade also demonstrates the depth of the alliance between the French and American nation, in a way that's both haunting and gracefully beautiful.
"Anne Morgan's War: American Women Rebuilding France"
On display until November 28 at the Coral Gables Museum, 285 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. Visit coralgablesmuseum.org.
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