Aleksandr Zhitomirsky

During the Second World War, when it still seemed like the Germans might capture Moscow, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote a list of Soviet propagandists who were to be killed upon capture. Number one was the writer Ilya Ehrenburg. Number two was chief Radio Moscow announcer Iurii Levitan. Number three was Aleksandr Zhitomirsky, the designer and artist of one of the Red Army’s chief illustrated propaganda magazines.

That, at least, was the story, one which is mentioned – with appropriate skepticism – by Erika Wolf in the catalogue to a major exhibit of artist Aleksandr Zhitomirsky’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago. A talented designer and illustrator whose most striking works were the satirical, even grotesque, photomontages that he created in the early years of the Cold War, Zhitomirsky’s work pilloried capitalism and the United States, often with allusions to the Nazi threat against which Zhitomirsky had cut his teeth propagandizing. While his main employment from 1953 to 1991 was as chief artist for Soviet Union (Sovietskii Soiuz), a glossy magazine aimed at readers in Eastern Europe and Asia, his illustrations appeared in the Literary Newspaper (Literaturnaia gazeta), official organ of the Union of Soviet Writers; Red Fleet (Krasnyi flot); Rising Generation (Smena); the satirical magazine Krokodil (Crocodile), and even occasionally in more exalted venues such as Truth (Pravda), the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and News (Izvestiia), official paper of the Soviet government. Those works attracted attention not just at home, where he was part of a major photomontage exhibit in East Berlin in 1961/2 and had his own retrospective in Moscow, but even in the US, where some of his photomontages from the Literary Gazette drew comment in the New York Times.

On balance it’s the postwar art, not just the illustrations mentioned above but also the book covers and occasional poster, that is the focus of Wolf’s Aleksandr Zhitomirsky: Photomontage as a Weapon of World War II and the Cold War (Yale University Press, 2016). For me, though, it’s Zhitomirsky’s wartime work on Front Illustrated (Frontovaia illiustratsiia) and its complementary German-language edition aimed at enemy soldiers (Front Illustrated for German Soldiers / Front-Illustrierte für den deutschen Soldaten) that’s more captivating. The postwar designs are hardly subtle. How often can one look at a monkey-like Goebbels ventriloquizing through some American symbol?

Aleksandr Zhitomirsky CoverFront Illustrated for German Soldiers, which existed to sow unease and dissension in the German ranks, had to be more indirect. For his cover designs and leaflets, Zhitomirsky mixed captured German photographs and new photography (often with himself as the model) with images borrowed for his vast trove of reference photos, often airbrushed together to the point that they became impossible to distinguish. With one leaflet, Choose! Like This or Like That!, Wolf shows how what appears to be a single photograph of dead Germans lying on the ground was actually a composite of seven different photographs, layered together, photographed, then retouched to create a seamless image. With others, she shows how Zhitomirsky mixed background photography with physical objects (like reproduced letters and snapshots) in trompe-l’œil arrangements. Taking advantage of Zhitomirsky’s personal archive, Wolf can demonstrates just how impressive his work was.

Canada’s First World War Memorials

For Canada, the golden age of the war memorial was brief. Before the start of the twentieth century there were few wars the British colonial state was interested in memorializing. After the First World War, which planted memorials in so many Canadian communities, it was easy enough to chisel new names and battles into existing monuments. There are exceptions, of course, that prove the rule – like the monument to veterans of the Battle of York sculpted by Walter Allward and completed in 1907 – but the First World War begat the lion’s share of Canadian memorials.

Remembered in Bronze and Stone is Alan Livingstone MacLeod’s love letter to those monuments. A lyrical catalog of as many of the two-hundred-odd First World War memorials with statues of soldiers as MacLeod could visit, Remembered in Bronze and Stone describes the great and the prosaic statues alike. Who knew, for example, that about a hundred Canadian communities chose to commission statues in Cararra marble to be carved, assembly-line style, by sculptors in Italy who had never even seen a Canadian soldier? Or that Emanuel Hahn’s bronze for Westville, Nova Scotia, was reproduced nine times (once in bronze, eight times in granite) by Hahn’s employer, the Thomson Monument Company, and copied nine times by the anonymous carvers from Cararra.

Hahn himself is an interesting figure. Born in Germany, he emigrated to Canada in 1888 at age seven. After an education in Germany, he was Allward’s assistant for a time before becoming chief designer for the Thomson Monument Company in 1919. He lost the commission for the City of Winnipeg war memorial because of his German birth. His sculptures show a range of emotions, from sombre (the Westville bronze, Tommy in Greatcoat in Lindsay, ON and Moncton, NB) to determined (Summerside, PEI and Saint-Lambert, QC) allegorical-heroic (Oil Springs, ON and Malvern Collegiate, Toronto).

I think it’s fair to say that many of the local memorials are not aesthetic triumphs, though MacLeod certainly documents plenty of fine work. But it’s interesting to see just how widely soldier sculptures varied from those carved by Allward for Vimy Ridge and cast by Vernon March for the national cenotaph in Ottawa.

A Different Kind of War Art

The most famous art from the First World War comes from the avant-garde styles of the era: expressionists like George Grosz, Vorticists like C.R.W. Nevinson and Wyndham Lewis, or surrealists like Paul Nash. But war art reflected pretty much every art tradition out there, including some stemming from far away from the battlefields of Europe.

The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta has a teepee door from the Kainai (or Blood) tribe on display in which triangular figures are seen running amidst what are clearly shell explosion. Some of them clearly wear the German spiked pickelhaube helmet, others stand behind a cannon. Though the artist is unknown, the door bears the date 1917.

As it happens, Glenbow Museum AF 3649-B (viewable here) is only one of many pieces of war art painted after the First World War by men from the Blackfoot confederacy, a First Nation that inhabits present-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana. L. James Dempsey’s extensive catalog of Blackfoot pictographs, Blackfoot War Art: Pictographs of the Reservation Period, 1880–2000, has numerous examples of the art form being used to depict wartime experiences.

The First World War works that Dempsey catalogs come in a variety of forms. They include a calfskin robe with the exploits of Mike Mountain Horse in the 191st Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the anonymous tent door at the Glenbow, Nick King’s capture of four pickelhaubed Germans – painted on Eagle Ribs’ war lodge after the Second World War, and George Strangling Wolf’s capture of three enemy guns – on a canvas teepee liner now at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Second World War veterans similarly depicted their exploits when they returned home. Clarence McHugh, or Black Bull, counted coup for surviving heavy bombing raids in England and dangerous patrols in France; Mark Wolf Leg, whose exploits included the capture of four Germans, depicted them both on the Three Suns war lodge and a miniature shield.

Blackhawk pictographs from of the World War are, Dempsey explains, only one example of how the tradition of pictographic war art, continued after the decline of warfare on the plains in the late nineteenth century, changed to accommodate more recent experiences. My favorite example, and one that’s quintessentially Canadian, has to be the use of National Film Board logos to mark participation in documentary films on a robe painted by Pete Standing Alone.

The Invention of the Jewish Cap in Medieval Europe

I know that I haven’t been posting much here lately, and my only excuse is that there’s been a steady flow of books across my desk (or, to be more precise, across the living room floor) that’s been keeping me busy enough as is. Some of those were supposed to become the basis for blog posts that just haven’t happened yet. Jennet Conant’s A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS has some tantalizing comments on Paul’s work as a graphic/industrial designer during the Second World War, but it’s been hard to track down easy references to the work. (Though I did find out that architect Eero Saarinen apparently designed a wartime war room for the White House.)

In the meantime, here’s an intriguing blog post at the New York Review of Books on how and where stereotypical antisemitic imagery first appeared in medieval Europe. Sara Lipton’s talks about how distinctive clothing and then physiognomy, the “Jewish nose,” only shows up in medieval imagery beginning in the twelfth century.

The pointed “Jewish cap” began as a symbol, not of religion, but of antiquity.

Hebrew prophets wearing distinctive-looking pointed caps began appearing in the pages of richly illuminated Bibles and on the carved facades of the Romanesque churches that were then rising across western Christendom. The prophets’ headgear had nothing to do with actual Jewish clothing (there is no evidence that Jews at the time wore such hats, or any hats at all, for that matter—religious Jews did not regularly cover their heads until the sixteenth century). The “Jewish pointed cap” is based on the miters of ancient Persian priests and symbolized religious authority. The same hat had long appeared in manuscripts, frescoes, mosaics, and ivory carvings on the heads of the Three Magi, those “wise men of the East” who brought gifts to the infant Jesus.

But, once it began appearing in art, it rapidly lost its original connotations and became – retroactively – a Jewish symbol. The hat was no longer used solely on Old Testament figures who needed to be identified as ancient, but became a general symbol for Jews in Christian art. According to Lipton, in a bizarre case of life imitating art Church leaders eventually even made wearing the hat one of the ways that Jews were required to distinguish themselves from the Christian majority.


Feudal cover April2013

My newest book, It’s a Feudal, Feudal World: A Different Medieval History (Amazon ⁄ Annick) is now available. We’ve also been nominated for the 2015 Forest of Reading Silver Birch prize!

Atomic Postcards

Atomic PostcardsThe images in John O’Brian and Jeremy Borsus’ Atomic Postcards (Intellect, 2011) fall into three categories: There are the military-patriotic images of missiles, aircraft, and submarines; the pictures of ‘technological sublime,’ with factories and reactors; and the truly surreal: a man having his cigarette lit by a remote control arm, atomic blasts over Las Vegas, or the Farmington, New Mexico Chamber of Commerce’s “Bustin’-Out Like an Atomic Bomb,” complete with a real sample of uranium ore. The postcards aren’t exclusively from the US, though they predominate. There are examples from the UK, Soviet Union, China, Israel, and Japan.

In his introduction, O’Brian interprets the cards as examples of the “fearful domestication” of the Bomb – in which nuclear apocalypse is a surreal combination of horror and cheerful nostalgia: a sort of “wish you were here, under the Sword of Damocles.” It’s hard to imagine how else to interpret a postcard of post-disaster Three Mile Island.

It’s unfair, though, to look back on the cards solely with the benefit of hindsight. Coming from the 1950s and early 1960s, many are about a perfectly (perhaps blithely) unfearful domestication. They feature power plants and industrial projects rather than weapons of war. (The only image from the 1980s is straight up fearmongering about Soviet weapons.) They reflect a brief moment when the world looked as likely to be on the verge of a bright atomic age as a nuclear catastrophe, and the fact we know better shouldn’t demand that we sneer at them.

Counting Poppies

There’s an apocryphal saying of Josef Stalin’s that a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. Its a pithy way of putting the difficulty of memorializing vast tragedies, when the number of dead and the enormity of the event makes it hard to even conceptualize the loss. I’ve gone on from time to time on this blog about abstraction in memorialization, leaning on James E. Young (read The Texture of Memory, if you haven’t) and Vincent Scully. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I was struck by what looks to be a beautiful and powerful installation planned for the Tower of London this year.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (a good summary at the BBC, but io9 seems to have the best photograph) will plant 888,246 ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower, one for each British or imperial military fatality during the war. (It’s a little unclear exactly the basis for the count; some sites say the deaths run through to 1921). As a visual reflection of the enormity of loss, it looks pretty effective, joining a long tradition of enumerations of loss (like Vietnam Veterans Memorial) and, presumably before long, a long tradition of ambiguities about who’s in and who’s out in those reflections.

The beauty of mute enumerations is that they show, rather than tell. With Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the presence will demand interpretation, not provide it (though I’m sure there will be plenty of helpful contextualization on hand). But, by amping up the installation with a number of such precision, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red will also invite some awkward questions about who sacrificed. We can assume from the description that civilian casualties won’t be included, either from the home front (whether killed by enemy action or war-related accidents) or from voluntary agencies like the Red Cross in France. Nor will it necessarily include non-Commonwealth contributors to the British imperial war effort, like the Chinese Labour Corps (1,900 of whom died and are commemorated at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetary at Noyelles-sur-Mer). I desperately hope that the number does include the dead of the South African Native Labour Contingent, considering the circumstances under which they fought their war.

Probably the most pointed commentary on the boundaries of loss is sort-of a war memorial itself. Chris Burden’s The Other War Memorial (1991) features copper plates engraved with 3 million names, representing the approximate number of Vietnamese war dead during the Vietnam War (rather than an accurate list, Burden computer-mixed-and-matched personal names and surnames from Vietnamese telephone books – as I said, it’s only sort-of a memorial).

Burden’s Other War Memorial was only the latest in a series of war-related
installations involving enumeration. In 1979, he matched up 50,000 nickels and 50,000 matchsticks to represent the Soviet tank arsenal in The Reason for the Neutron Bomb. In 1987, he hung 625 miniature submarines from a gallery ceiling for All the Submarines of the United States of America. Neither artwork stated what they were about – mute enumerations show, rather than tell – but their enumerations were emotionally and argumentatively charged.

I’m impressed by the first looks I’ve seen of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, but I do wish they hadn’t done such a specific count, and just filled the moat instead. Then it could have articulated that loss often seems immeasurable, no matter the precise numbers.

The Met and the Getty Put Medieval Resources Online

Two major art institutions have made a lot of digital content a lot more available in the last few months. Last month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has opened up use of the images of public domain art in its digital catalogue for scholarly use (including publication in scholarly books) under an “Open Access for Scholarly Content” (OASC) program. The museum has also put a batch of 396 backlist publications online, for free, through the MetPublications section of its website. That includes a number of titles on medieval art, ranging from Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages to The Art of Chivalry: European Arms and Armor from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Meanwhile, over at the J. Paul Getty Trust, their Open Content Program has expanded to over 87,000 images of public domain art, all available without any usage restrictions. The most recent additions, released in April, include 5,000 images from their tapestry reference collection. Earlier this year, the Getty also opened up a Virtual Library with more than 250 titles freely available for download. Again, there’s a variety of medieval titles, particularly covering the Getty’s many illustrated manuscripts.

Between the two museums, it’s a pretty impressive haul of medieval art history resources.