In the decade before his death, the American artist George Bellows (1882–1925) embraced lithography, a printmaking technique in which the artist draws directly onto a stone or plate with an oil-based medium. Of the more than 170 lithographs that Bellows produced, twenty belong to his “War Series,” which was immediately controversial when published in 1918.
As an illustrator for left-wing periodicals such as the Masses, Bellows was accustomed to addressing social issues pointedly, but he condemned “obvious, heavy propaganda.” Nevertheless, in 1918, with the United States at war, the former pacifist completed a series of prints, drawings, and monumental paintings that was mobilized as just that. Drawing on press and government accounts—Bellows enlisted in the United States army but did not fight overseas—and owing a debt to the themes in Spanish artist Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War, he represented extreme brutality in a highly classicized formal language. His depictions of reported German atrocities on the Western front were used by media outlets and the federal government to stoke anti-German sentiment. Bellows’s “War Series” highlights the complex and porous relationship between art and propaganda. The artist’s attempt to balance narrative strategies adopted from history painting with contemporary reportage, while ambitious, created an unresolvable tension that accounts, in part, for the series’ mixed reviews and limited endurance.
Graphic Matters reflects on the centennial of American entry into World War I by reexamining Bellows’s prints for the timely questions they raise about representation, aestheticized and institutionalized violence, nationalism, and masculinity.