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The art of World War I comes to life at the Getty Research Institute

You probably heard it a dozen times in high school: World War I was the first industrial war. Armies used planes, tanks, mines, and chemical weapons in unprecedented numbers. The casualties were catastrophic.

But World War I was also one of the first that modern art had to reckon with. This week, the Getty Research Institute debuted World War 1: War of Images, Images of War. The exhibit takes original propaganda posters and journal articles from the war and shows them alongside how artists from the age interpreted it — the result is fascinating, strange and sometimes chilling.

Off-Ramp Producer Kevin Ferguson went to the Getty Research Institute and talked with the Getty's Nancy Perloff and Philipp Blom.

The exhibit features art used for state-sponsored propaganda, but also art produced as a reaction to World War 1. With propaganda, the objective was clear: news journals in places like France and Germany would draw covers with caricatures of their enemy's culture: drawings of Kaiser Wilhelm II executing children, or the French Gallic Rooster looking sick, weak and forlorn.  

When artists looked at the war, the perspective was very different. Philipp Blom, a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute, points to the work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, an artist who served briefly in the German military before suffering a nervous breakdown and being committed. "He drew pictures of the apocalypse," said Blom.  "And he drew them on the back of cigarette packs, because he had no other paper available. So they're very small, and there's this cycle of drawings that shows you different stages of the apocalypse."

Nancy Perloff — a curator with the Institute — said she hopes visitors will walk away from the exhibit with a sense of the power of images to wage war. "Look at how differently each country responded," she said. "France, the object of its propaganda was largely Germany. Germany, not entirely, but largely against the United Kingdom. And you'll see that through and through."

Philip Blom said he agreed, and added that the exhibit also shows visitors the disparity between how nations depict war through art versus independent artists. "You hardly see any specific uniforms," said Blom. "You hardly see any national attributes. You see people suffering. So the propaganda shows you all the nationalist attributions, all the negative stereotyping. And when it them comes to the real experience, you see pure and naked human suffering."

World War I: War of Images, Images of War is on display at the Getty Research Institute now through April 19. Head to the Getty's website for visiting information.