Illustrations: Reality or Wartime Fantasy?
One key element among all of the Collier volumes is their inclusion of “sketches, drawings, and paintings made by artists at the front” alongside photographs and captions, often used to display images of combat which were banned in photographic mediums. However, we must be wary of how these artist interpretations capture events of the war: in what ways are they real, and in what ways are they manufactured? How many of these events could artists have really seen, and how many were simply commissioned? How does symbolism manifest in these paintings that influence the way we view the event or subject? Questioning what each piece of art included in the Collier volumes is attempting to achieve and relay is crucial for understanding the role of illustration in wartime propaganda.
Traditional ways of visualizing war, such as the grandiose war paintings of the Napoleonic period, became incompatible with the modern warfare evolving during WWI; however, this style of artistically representing war continued nevertheless. Contemporaries had a clear sense that this war was separated from the previous wars of the past—as the Collier volumes state themselves, “Gone forever is the ‘gay panoply of war’ with cheering hosts in scarlet coats to bugle notes… The very romance of war is gone and in its place remains a cold, practical, mathematical war game worked out with as much sentiment and bubbling enthusiasm as is exhibited in games of chess or in solving problems of higher mathematics.“ However, this is not the sense relayed by the art included in these volumes; there was a clear shift in how people thought about war and mobilization that this art does not reflect. Even further, the dramatic action of the art often clashes with the content of the paired photography. Although the Collier volumes claim that artists are at the front, there are representations done by artists that clearly could not have been at the scene they are illustrating—for example, shipwrecks.
A Case Study
As one specific case study, take this piece included in the 1915, 1917, and 1919 volumes by American artist Henry Reuterdahl depicting a German U-boat sinking three British cruisers. Reuterdahl was a self-taught artist and a lieutenant, working with the Navy during WWI as it’s official artist and head of recruitment poster design. He had worked with Collier publishing in the past, which showcased some of his naval artwork in their magazine in 1908.
The struggle of the two boats is highlighted in the chaotic scene, as men cascade down the bottom-side of an overturned hull in the background. Men on the boats are struggling against the waves to stay afloat and save men in the water
It is extremely likely that Reuterdahl was at the scene as 64% of men aboard the Aboukir, Houge, and Cressy perished in the sinking; past this, the perspective of the painting does not present as a realistic vantage point a viewer would have of the scene. So, if you are commissioned to paint a subject but you have no idea what it looked like, what do you draw inspiration from? Likely, as others would do, he turned to popular media depictions of the subject.
The Shipwreck, J.W. Turner, 1805; cropped to fit the scope of Reuterdahl’s painting.
A reproduction of The Shipwreck by Charles Turner from 1806-7.
An engraving of The Shipwreck by W. Miller published in 1859.
The painting bears a striking resemblance to the painting The Shipwreck (1805) by J.W. Turner, a prominent British maritime painter during the early 19th century. This painting was likely an extremely popular depiction of a shipwreck at the time due to its presence in London’s National Gallery of British Art and the amount of reproductions and studies of the piece done by other artists throughout the 19th century (as a modern parallel, this painting is the featured search result if googling the phrase “shipwreck painting”). Both paintings focus on the struggle of two focal boats with an overturned hull in the background. In addition to this basic similarity, also look at the positioning of the boat to the right—the shape of the wave and the way it positions the boat higher than the boat to the left, almost cradling it, is very similar. Also of note, it is thought that Turner also did not witness this shipwreck (which is likely thought to be inspired by a poem by William Falconer).
What are the implications of recreating a scene of war by using a 100 year old romantic idealization of man versus nature as a model? This piece, like others in Collier volume, romanticizes the destruction of war, taking a tragic scene and making it grandiose and awe-inspiring. There is glory to be found in war, it tells us; as Turner’s original painting depicted man versus nature, Reuterdahl’s illustration relays through parallel that man versus man may be just as noble and natural. As Reuterdahl was also the American Navy’s head of recruitment poster design, perhaps this framing was not accidental.
Through illustrations, artists have the ability to insert symbolism and meaning into scenes that perhaps a camera cannot. As a prime example, take this top illustration from page 32 of the 1915 Collier volume. This piece does not include a caption; however, the other pieces on the page are entitled “The Hela sunk by a British submarine” and “When an ocean liner strikes a mine.” Very clearly, the smoke coming from the ship on the left is formed into the shape of an aggressive lion, pawing out at the ship to the right. Based on the context of the page, a viewer is left to wonder: is this a symbol of Allied power (an attack of a British submarine?) or is it a symbol of German aggression (an attack on a British sea liner)? The meaning is left unspecified, but the symbol remains for the viewer to project on themselves—in this way, imagination shapes the viewer’s perception. Does this illustration capture a reality, or is it rather beckoning the viewer to create their own fantasy? You may find symbolism in other Collier illustrations that serve a similar purpose.
Analysis of symbolism in illustrations in the Collier volumes is also included on the Women in War page, which discusses the use of women as symbols of innocence.
The use of appropriating the language of popular visual media for war propaganda is not a tool of the past; it is a tool that is alive and well in the United States. In the same way that these illustrations within the Collier volumes mimic traditional paintings of war to depict combat as noble and glorious, the same could be said about the way current American military advertisements mimic the visual language of popular film and TV. For example, take this advertisement for the US Marine Corps from 2018 entitled “A Nation’s Call.”
While during WWI young men may have wanted to be like the heroes glorified and immortalized in war paintings, young people today are drawn towards roles similar to the brash protagonists in the media they digest. It is no secret that the US military has financial sway in Hollywood, where money goes to push themes in films that support the military and romanticize service—propaganda. To quote Tanner Mirrlees, a professor at Ontario Tech University, “no country in the world churns out as many images of itself as the military hero… like the United States does. That is a unique cultural phenomenon.”
As the American military recruitment process continually targets and preys upon marginalized people within our society, we must continually ask ourselves: is what being portrayed a reality, or is this simply a wartime fantasy?
Also see the analysis page for American Propaganda & Exceptionalism.
Explore all of the illustrations in the Collier volumes in the Illustration Gallery.
“A Shipwreck, Charles Turner, after Joseph Mallord William Turner.” Tate, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-a-shipwreck-p79356.
“Biography.” Henry Reuterdahl, www.henryreuterdahl.com/biography.html.
“Henry Reuyerdahl, Artist.” The Great White Fleet, greatwhitefleet.us/henry_reuterdahl/.
Shaban, Hamza. “Playing War: How the Military Uses Video Games.” The Atlantic, 10 October 2013, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/10/playing-war-how-the-military-uses-video-games/280486/.
“The Shipwreck.” Google Arts & Culture, artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-shipwreck/LwFch0SXuzBAIw?hl=en.
“The Shipwreck, engraved by W. Miller, after Joseph Mallord William Turner.” Tate, www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-the-shipwreck-engraved-by-w-miller-t06307.
“U.S. Marine Corps Commercial: A Nation’s Call (Extended Cut).” YouTube, uploaded by Marine Corps Recruiting, 2 February 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMqmP5C5WHI.
Weikle, Brandie. “How Hollywood became the unofficial propaganda arm of the U.S. military.” CBC Radio, 11 May 2020, www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/how-hollywood-became-the-unofficial-propaganda-arm-of-the-u-s-military-1.5560575.