En Guerre: French Illustrators and World War I

Exhibition Location: Special Collections Research Center Exhibition Gallery, 1100 East 57th Street, Chicago, IL
Dates: October 14, 2014 – January 2, 2015
Hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m; and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. while classes are in session.  Consult hours.lib.uchicago.edu for Special Collections Research Center holiday hours.
Price: Free and open to the public

Curators: Professor Neil Harris and Dr. Teri J. Edelstein

André Hellé, Alphabet de la Grande Guerre 1914–1916
André Hellé. “Batterie/Charge.” Alphabet de la Grande Guerre 1914–1916. Paris: Berger-Levrault, [1916]. On loan from a private collection.

Description: On the centenary of the Great War’s commencement, En Guerre: French Illustrators and World War I explores the conflict through French graphic illustration of the period. The exhibition presents themes essential to a deeper understanding of the war in France: patriotism, propaganda, the soldier’s experience, as well as the mobilization of the home front as seen through fashion, humor, and children’s literature.

Like no other conflict before it, the Great War was a war of images.  Its scale, duration, and intensity were brought home to the public by media and technologies that, in some cases, were well established, but in others seemed novel and even startling.  Films, photographs, lithographic posters, illustrated books, prints, postcards, many in huge quantities, were part of an international propaganda effort that had few parallels before or since.  It offered special opportunities to artists with established reputations and rich possibilities for those just beginning their careers.

French artists, young and old, responded to patriotic appeals with ardor.  Many served at the front, were wounded, taken prisoner, or died as a result of battle.  The totalizing impact of World War I meant, however, that civilian loyalty had to be nurtured continuously during the conflict, and dramatic appeals made to every segment of society.  The identification and cultivation of specialized markets for illustrated books, magazines, and print portfolios—the subjects of this exhibition—encouraged artists and publishers to develop wartime projects of some consequence. Purchasers displayed their loyalty to the cause by buying and, in some cases, displaying the art.

Robert Bonfils. “Sur mer.” La manière française. Paris: Librairie Lutetia, [1916]. On loan from a private collection.
Odette Champion, “Modes de printemps: Berlin-Vienne-Constantinople.”
Odette Champion, “Modes de printemps: Berlin-Vienne-Constantinople.” Fantasio. Paris: Félix Juven, [1915]. Gift of Neil Harris and Teri J. Edelstein, The University of Chicago Library.

En Guerre concentrates upon a group of illustrators who became intimately involved with wartime themes. Building upon market transformations and economies of scale, they proceeded in many cases to recast their own art, and prepare the way for the new schools of illustration that would develop in the 1920s and 30s. These in turn carried the French illustrated book to new heights. Three points of origin merit special attention. First is the burgeoning world of illustrated magazines, often polemical, satiric, and sexually graphic in their comprehensive coverage. Some, like La vie parisienne (1863), had been founded many decades earlier, but others, like Le rire (1895), L’assiette au beurre (1900), and Fantasio (1906), were of more recent vintage. The war itself would generate still more journals of this kind, notably La baïonnette (1915). 

This flowering of illustrated journalism served as nursery, laboratory, and gymnasium for a whole generation of illustrators and caricaturists–Andre Hellé, Jacques Touchet, Joseph Hemard, Gus Bofa, Gerda Wegener, Georges Delaw, among many others. Simultaneously acerbic, mordant, irreverent, sentimental, cynical, the magazine illustrators were well suited to the task of wartime commentary. Some of them would inspire the work of comic strip artists in later decades, and many would be active creators of limited edition French illustrated books in the the future.

Schaller, En Guerre
Charlotte Schaller. En guerre! Paris: Berger-Levrault, [1914]. On loan from a private collection.

The second spawning ground for wartime visual culture was the French fashion industry. Two notable portfolios, Les robes de Paul Poiret (1908) by Paul Iribe, and Les choses de Paul Poiret (1911) by Georges Lepape, have become seminal moments in the development of Art Deco graphics. Preceded by a host of fashion-oriented magazines and portfolios, they were followed shortly by new illustrated journals and portfolios, which did much to reestablish French primacy in the world of grande luxe, facing as it did some newly aggressive competition from Germany and Austria-Hungary. Lucien Vogel’s creation of Gazette du bon ton in 1912 was probably the most notable of these, alongside Modes et manières d’aujourd’hui, also appearing the same year. These exquisitely printed, limited edition productions featured the pochoir designs of Georges Lepape, Charles Martin, A. E. Marty, George Barbier, Robert Bonfils, Guy Arnoux, and many other artists who would become active producers of wartime illustration and notable creators of postwar illustrated books. The mobilization of high-style illustrators on behalf of the national effort constitutes one of the more dramatic episodes in the history of French fashion design, and the exhibition will highlight ways in which costume, dress, and the “high life” were exploited in the interests of distinguishing French taste from that of the enemy. La baïonnette, Fantasio, and other periodicals were filled with their work.

Lefevre, Sur le pont
Louis Lefèvre. “Sur le pont.” Rondes glorieuses. [S.l.: s.n., n.d.]. 1ière série. On loan from a private collection.

The third arena, which En Guerre will examine in some detail, involves the French children’s book. Here there was a long and rich history to draw on, especially in the 19th century: Gustave Doré, Job, and Boutet de Monvel, were prominent. World War I saw some extraordinary productions, meant to inform, proselytize, and instruct children about the great conflict. Scholars in France and the United States have recently been examining this literature. Its size and variety are impressive. In some ways the wartime harvest appears eclectic. Established artists like Hansi and Joseph Pinchon (creator of Becassine) coexisted with newcomers like Charlotte Schaller, André Hellé, Henrietta Damart, and Val-Rau. Some would go on to considerable fame, while others languish in obscurity. What is most arresting here is the mobilization of children in this total war, using books (and toys) to involve them in the military effort, stimulate their patriotism, and socialize them to the loss of family and loved ones.

While these three areas will receive special attention, the exhibition will also note the work of artist-illustrators like Raoul Dufy, J. E. Laboureur, Fernand Léger, and André Lhote. Many of them served at the front and presented the story of the poilu, the French soldier, or focused on the dress and behavior of allied soldiers–American and British particularly. Their creations highlight the contribution of artists to the war effort.

Organized by Professor Neil Harris and Dr. Teri J. Edelstein for the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Chicago Library, the exhibition features more than one hundred and thirty examples of the colorful work of French illustrators, En Guerre reaffirms the persuasive role that art can play in servicing or challenging political and military power.

Harris & Edelstein, En Guerre
Neil Harris and Teri J. Edelstein, En Guerre: French Illustrators and World War I, Chicago: The University of Chicago Library, 2014.


Associated Catalogue

Neil Harris and Teri J. Edelstein, En Guerre: French Illustrators and World War I.   The University of Chicago Library.  156 pp. with more than 100 full color illustrations. Distributed by The University of Chicago Press.

About the Curators

Neil Harris is the Preston and Sterling Morton Professor of History and Art History Emeritus at the University of Chicago. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience, published by the University of Chicago Press. Teri J. Edelstein is an art historian and museum professional. Her scholarly work has focused on the intersection of high art and popular culture. Most recently, she was editor of and contributor to Art for All: British Posters for Transport, Yale University Press. Together, they have written The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age, published by The University of Chicago Press.

Use of Images and Media Contacts

Images from the exhibition included on this page are available for members of the media, and are reserved for editorial use in connection with University of Chicago Library exhibitions, programs, or related news. 

Download high-resolution images. (This will take several minutes.)

For more information, contact Rachel Rosenberg at ra-rosenberg@uchicago.edu or 773-834-1519, or Susie Allen at sjallen1@uchicago.edu or 773-702-4009.