“Belligerent Encounters: Graphic Chronicles of War and Revolution, 1500–1945” at the Art Institute of Chicago
Goya, Manet and other artists depict the human experience of war.
Art Institute curators Peter Zegers and Jill Bugajski have been busy. As they organized the massive TASS Studio exhibition “Windows on the War,” they also found time to curate “Belligerent Encounters: Graphic Chronicles of War and Revolution, 1500–1945,” with DePaul University art historian Paul Jaskot.
By revisiting how artists represented war in reproducible media for centuries, “Belligerent Encounters” offers valuable historical context for the larger exhibition’s Soviet World War II propaganda posters. It also testifies to the Department of Prints and Drawings’ strength.
The show’s 160 prints, posters and other works on paper chronicle the human experience of war and its aftermath. Subjects range from propaganda and patriotic appeals to commentaries on the plight of soldiers and the horrors of battle. Many well-known works are on display, including prints from Francisco de Goya’s early-19th-century series “The Disasters of War,” Édouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (1867–68) and Fred Strothman’s Beat Back the Hun (1918).
Some of the most powerful pieces, however, are by obscure artists such as British lithographer Frank Brangwyn. His complex—almost chaotic—compositions of soldiers and civilians during World War I read like stills from epic motion pictures. Brangwyn’s masterful use of lights and darks further enhances the human drama of each scene. Viewed after Brangwyn’s naturalistic renderings, an anonymous Russian artist’s poster War 5 ½% Loan (1915) demonstrates this exhibition’s impressive breadth. An appeal to buy war bonds, the minimalist poster has a bold composition and its contrasting colors are immediately arresting. Unexpected treasures such as this modernist masterpiece make “Belligerent Encounters” an outstanding show.