World War Which? An art historian brings the Great War back to Montana 

Except to the most passionate history buffs, the objects of World War I have naturally become distant from contemporary American life. An army jacket, a wooden propeller, a hero's medal—all serve as symbols of a broad story we've already read in history books. For the past six years—in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the war's end—University of Montana art history professor H. Rafael Chacon has been thinking about how to present the "Great War" in a way that would highlight its personal stories and reignite public interest.

"This war is so huge and so important that getting a good angle on it was going to be crucial," Chacon says. "We have to reintroduce the American public to it because it's been 100 years and there are no living vets."

This week, the Montana Museum of Art and Culture presents Over There! Montanans in the Great War, which focuses on five people connected to Montana who experienced WWI. They include: Glasgow-born William Belzer, a celebrated aviator and among America's first flying aces; Josephine Hale, who left Great Falls to serve as a Red Cross nurse and eventually became a notable painter in France; doughboys Philip W. Prevost and Sidney F. Smith, both survivors and heroes of the infamous "Lost Battalion"; and James Watson Gerard, husband to Mary Daly of Hamilton and the U.S. ambassador to Berlin prior to the U.S. declaration of war.

Hale's section is especially interesting because it shows one of the few roles women were able to play on the war's frontlines. On display are Hale's Abercrombie & Fitch business attire and her nurse's uniform, plus sketchbooks she kept during the war. Red Cross posters in particular show how much the organization functioned as a propaganda machine, with images of nurses caring for wounded soldiers under the motto "The greatest mother in the world."

Beyond the practical tools of war, the exhibit features some less usual objects, including art pieces created by soldiers in the trenches. There are vases made of melted shell casings, carefully etched with images of the battlefield (and one adorned with naked women); lamps decorated with rifle bullets and painted landscapes; even a mandolin with a body made from a soldier's helmet. The fact that non-artist soldiers built these crudely beautiful objects, while under fire, speaks to the ways that art can alleviate troubled minds. Even more heart-wrenching is that the Allies weren't alone in their endeavor to find beauty in the middle of battle.

"There's a reference in one of the journals I read that the American soldiers could hear the enemy doing the same thing in their trenches," Chacon says, "pounding away at metal to make art."

When Chacon first decided to do this exhibit with the museum, he wasn't sure he'd be able to find enough WWI objects connected to Montana's role in the war. As it turned out, there was plenty of material right in Missoula's backyard. Between the MMAC's permanent collection, the Mansfield Library, the Military History Museum at Fort Missoula and private collectors, Chacon found more than enough high-quality items from which to choose.

click to enlarge Anonymous, Exploded Shell Casing Incised with Imagery from the 368th Infantry, 92nd Division, the celebrated African American Troops called “Buffalo Soldiers,” circa 1918-19, metal, Courtesy Hayes and Amalia Otoupalik Collection.
  • Anonymous, Exploded Shell Casing Incised with Imagery from the 368th Infantry, 92nd Division, the celebrated African American Troops called “Buffalo Soldiers,” circa 1918-19, metal, Courtesy Hayes and Amalia Otoupalik Collection.

Chacon has spent the past five years researching WWI by reading books and studying the art connected to the war. He also had a more immersive experience over the last couple of years, traveling to Italy and other parts of Europe where WWI is much more deeply embedded in the culture.

"Hiking in the Dolomites, I would pass by places where soldiers holed up in caves," he says. "Or the peaks where the Austrians would be stationed lobbing grenades at the battalion on the peak on the other side. Every village has a World War I monument. In Europe they really felt the presence of that war. I think it's important for Americans to acknowledge that this was a huge sacrifice, and it really reshaped our world."

The exhibit's five characters represent just a few of the roles Americans played in the war, but Chacon also wanted to focus on a sixth: the enemy. The final part of the exhibit explores the ways in which Americans united the public against the Germans in propaganda, as opposed to the ways Germany represented itself to its own public—as veterans of war needing public support.

For the most part, Over There feels inextricably linked to a particular time in the past, but there are a few elements that can be read as pointed cautionary tales for the present, too. One poster, for instance, created a few years after the war's end, depicts a German veteran of the Freikorps, the units that would later become Hitler's army in Nazi Germany. The transition of a disgruntled and defeated population into an Aryan supremacist military force is hard to understand solely as a remnant of the past.

There are also echoes of what many Americans are now seeing in regard to immigration and refugee issues. Chacon has taken the idea of the enemy one step further to explore the ways in which America has made enemies of its own people, on one hand welcoming the ethnic diversity of Americans willing to fight for the country, and on the other enacting sedition laws (modeled in particular after Montana's Sedition Act) that unfairly targeted German-Americans, pacifists, labor unionists and other groups.

"The enemy is typically thought of as someone over there, somewhere else, but sometimes we look within our own ranks to find it," Chacon says. "And clearly there were spies, but that became justification for harassment of citizens. This part of the exhibit tells the story of how there were American victims in the war on our own soil, and that included freedom of the press and freedom of assembly."

The Montana Museum of Art and Culture presents Over There: Montanans in the Great War with an opening reception Thu., Sept. 21, from 5 to 7 PM. Visit for a full list of exhibit events.

This story and its headline have been updated to correct an editing error regarding the start and end dates of World War I.
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