Something I’ve learned over the years is that art is always shaped by the history happening around it and, today being Armistice Day, it seems a fitting time to talk about the exhibition of World War One prints at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane entitled Efforts and Ideals, Prints of the First World War. The most interesting thing about this particular exhibition, besides being the first organised visual response by artists to the world’s first truly global conflict, is that it is also the very first time they have ever been exhibited in Ireland.
World War One was a new kind of conflict in which government propaganda was used for the first time on both sides to target the general public. The attitude to art changed greatly in the latter years of the war, from one of derision at its superfluousness to the war effort, to a growing awareness of its usefulness in, not only recording the war, but also for its use in propaganda. In 1917 the Ministry for Information at Wellington House in London commissioned several well-known artists to produce a portfolio of 66 lithographic prints, which were to be exhibited in galleries in Britain, France, America and Canada. The intention was that the proceeds of their sale would contribute towards to the war effort. In that same year, Ellen Duncan, who was curator of the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (as The Hugh Lane was known at the time), acquired a set of the prints but they have never been exhibited in Dublin until now. Interestingly, when inquiring about the prints, she was advised to write to the British Foreign Office and say that, “As Ireland fulfills most of the conditions of a neutral country, the loan would be very appropriate”. Make of that what you will.
The collection of prints is divided into two parts, the Efforts and the Ideals. Twelve artists were commissioned to produce a single image to represent The Ideals for which the war was being fought while nine artists produced a series of six images each representing The Efforts of war. It’s worth noting that all of the artists in this collection were men, which is not to say that women artists were not approached, they were, but none of them completed commissions for this particular scheme.
The twelve single Ideals images are interesting in that they are full colour lithographs and as such sit together less cohesively than the Efforts, which are all black and white. The difference in the styles of each artist also makes this group less unified looking but individually there are some beautiful pieces, many of which rely heavily on symbolism and allegory. All of the works show the triumph of good (Britain and its allies) over evil (Germany and its allies) and the symbol of the eagle is present in many of the works signifying various countries, the white eagle of Poland defeating the black eagle of Germany, the personification of Britain and France defending themselves from the crowned black eagle of Germany and the two-headed eagle of the Austro-Hungarian Empire being pushed back by the classically draped winged figure representing Italy.
The Efforts prints, meanwhile, are a little more down-to-earth, figuratively if not literally. This collection prints were intended show the everyday efforts of the people of Britain in preparation for war. The most arresting prints for me are situated in the largest room, images of soldiers, no more than boys really, learning to march and shoot guns, images rendered from the point of view of a fighter plane, and most interesting of all, images of women in factories making ammunition.
The First World War marked a huge shift in the industrial workforce. With men being sent to fight at the front, women came from all over England and Ireland, from underpaid jobs on farms or in domestic service, to work in factories and were happy to receive proper wages. Though they weren’t at the front, the work these women were doing was far from risk-free. Working with munitions put them in contact with gunpowder and explosions were a reality of working life, as were the chemicals used that caused many to contract toxic jaundice, colouring their skin and hair yellow, causing tooth decay and earning them the moniker ‘canary girls’. However from the smiles on their faces in the prints, and despite the dangerous work they were doing, you can see the pleasure they got from contributing to the war effort.
Being a bit of a World War buff (I must get it from my Dad) this series is fascinating, especially in relation to the precedent it set for next great war and the use of propaganda throughout that war to a much more sinister effect. The exhibition continues until the 22nd February 2015 at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.