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Sunday, August 3, 2014

La. exhibit captures the poster art of World War I

A century after it started, World War I, the Great War, and for a generation the “War to end all wars” will be commemorated with an exhibit at Shreveport’s R.W. Norton Art Gallery.

“Enlist! Art Goes to War (1914-1918)” will continue for more than four years, through Nov. 11, 2018, the centennial of the moment the guns stopped firing and the world began the 21-year countdown to World War II. ...

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A century after it started, World War I, the Great War, and for a generation the “War to end all wars” will be commemorated with an exhibit at Shreveport’s R.W. Norton Art Gallery.

“Enlist! Art Goes to War (1914-1918)” will continue for more than four years, through Nov. 11, 2018, the centennial of the moment the guns stopped firing and the world began the 21-year countdown to World War II.

“I don’t know why I’m fascinated with World War I,” said Lewis Norton, whose maternal grandfather, Maxwell Lewis, fought in the conflict but rarely spoke of it. That, plus what Norton was able to learn as an inquisitive child, only made the war all the more intriguing and, as he learned more of it, soul-shattering.

“It just seems so damned sad. A whole generation lost in Europe, the British Empire broken. All this over some family squabble, and then the whole thing just sets up for World War II. Are you kidding me? It just seems so pointless.”

Starting with an initial showing of 25-30 items, the exhibit will show, through spectacularly colorful and striking posters – the main visual medium in an age before radio, television and the Internet – the propaganda that set the minds of the citizens and soldiers on both sides. The posters, as well as uniforms and weapons used by combatants, will change each year of the exhibit to mark the progress of the conflict.

Norton acquired the posters over the past 12-14 months, and many are one of a kind, or close to it.

One in particular – “Enlist!” – was found in the possession of a private owner who had two. Norton convinced the collector to part with one, which now can be seen by the public for the first time.

Today, the subject of the poster would not shock people. It shows the rather peaceful looking, but still clearly drowned and dead bodies of a mother and child, presumably in the interior of a torpedoed ocean liner, such as the RMS Lusitania. The sinking of the British liner in 1915, which killed 128 Americans – including a mother and daughter from New Orleans – almost drew the United States into the war. It wasn’t until April 1917 that the country finally jumped into the fray.

But in an era when posters and even ads in newspapers showed German atrocities such as babies impaled on bayonets, the image of the mother and child rankled the censors who rigidly controlled what the public saw.

“The poster was withdrawn,” Norton said.

The display also includes several German war posters, many patriotic or sentimental but from the point of view of the enemy, meant to stir patriotism or raise money for war loans. Visitors also will be able to view trench art that soldiers, called “doughboys” or “Sammies” after Uncle Sam, crafted from what was at hand.

In addition to the posters and display items from the Norton’s gun and uniform collections, the show will feature facsimiles of newspapers and documents showing wartime life in Shreveport and northwest Louisiana, sharing the stories of area men who gave their lives in the trenches of France.

In addition, research, including searches through The Times’ archives and the government’s National Personnel Records Center, produced stories and documents about Shreveport’s first announced casualty, a young black man named Herbert Sylvester.

The research turned up history that Norton researcher Gary Ford and the gallery wish could be more fully explored. At the National Personnel Records Center, Ford learned a local woman went on a 1930s pilgrimage to war graves in Europe.

“The mother of Henry C. Dalrymple went on a trip to visit her son’s grave,” Ford said. “On stationery titled ‘War Department Pilgrimage War Mothers and Widows, 225 West 34th St. New York, NY,’ this effort took gold star mothers and widows to visit the graves of their sons.

“The name of the program was American Pilgrimage. Likely, during that hard time, it was a public-private effort,” Ford said. “This sounds similar to the Eagle flights getting the World War II veterans up to the memorial in Washington. I really want to look into this more.”

Dalrymple, a private first class in Company H, 9th Infantry, was interred in Aisne Marne American Cemetery in France.

Although almost 175,000 Americans died in the conflict, little comprehensive information is available about many of these, unlike the people lost in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and more recent wars.

“World War I fascinated me because it changed the human race,” Norton said. “Do you know that before World War I, policemen in Paris still carried swords? The world was different.”

The exhibit will enter its second phase May 7, 2015, the centennial of the Lusitania sinking. Special programs throughout the four-year observance will highlight children’s educational programs, music, fashion and other facets of life before 1920. George Theofiles, owner of Miscellaneous Man of New Freedom, Pennsylvania, and the world’s leading expert on poster art of the 19th and early 20th centuries, also will come to speak.

Broadcaster Tom Brokaw coined the term “Greatest Generation” to cover those who grew up during the Great Depression then fought World War II.

But for Norton, the term better describes “the World War I guys who, as boys, sat on their porches and listened to the old men talk of Shiloh, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg, Indians and gunfighters in the Old West – hard lives lived in hard times – and then, as young men, went over to die by the tens of thousands in the trenches of Europe.

“Afterward, they came home, made a life then had to fight the same damn war all over again in the same place in World War II with even greater casualties,” Norton said. “Also, many of the men we have interviewed in the museum’s oral history project talked of the Great Depression and how difficult those years were.

“But, again, they were mainly just boys in the 1930s. It was up to their World War I veteran fathers to find and work a job to keep their families alive. Furthermore, I can only imagine what these men thought witnessing the birth of military aviation as they were chasing Pancho Villa down in Mexico in 1916 to watching Lindbergh cross the Atlantic, Hiroshima and the moon landing in 1969. And everything in between. What a ride their lives must have been,” he said.