On October 8, 1918, Oscar Knudsen joined fellow Trentonians Spencer Bloor and Frank Kowalski in a select fraternity: soldiers who died in World War I.
Knudson, like hundreds of other young New Jersey men, had heard the song lyrics promising “Just Like Washington Crossed the Delaware, So Will Pershing Cross the Rhine” and went to fight in what many thought would be the “war to end all wars.”
Now the New Jersey State Museum, which overlooks the same river evoked in the song, is commemorating them and the war with two exhibitions. The catalyst is the year: 2018, the centennial of the end of the Great War.
One exhibition — “Embattled Emblems: Posters and Flags of the First World War” — includes photographs, flags, and propaganda posters from the New Jersey State Museum, State Archives, and the State House Flag Collection.
A good place to start is the exhibition space where the photo portraits of 29 men — many actually teenagers — gaze like ghosts from grayish walls.
In addition to those from Trenton, others hail from Camden, Atlantic City, Frenchtown, Newark, and Bayonne. They appear courtesy of the New Jersey State Archives (which has the images online).
If one of the soldiers has a tale to tell, it’s Trenton’s Needham Roberts, a 17-year-old American of African heritage. He lied about his age, joined the Harlem Hellfighters (369th Infantry Regiment), was sent into battle, and became history. After he and fellow Hellfighter Harry Johnson demonstrated fierce bravery while defending French troops from German attack, they became the first Americans ever to receive the French Croix de Guerre.
Now Roberts returns to Trenton as a life-sized photograph seeming to stand guard among his fallen brothers and look beyond the room to a large photograph of young soldiers celebrating their deployment to Europe by waving hats and showing off the sign “Good Bye Camp Dix.” Now known as Fort Dix, the camp was established to train World War I soldiers.
The somber images of the men contrast with the bright colors and silk fabrics of the 16 World War I-era flags and Regimental Colors with Battle Honors on display below them.
And while a flash of fabric can fool the eye, words from the past remind the viewer that “war is hell.” It is something Lt. Grover Hinzmann of Passaic makes clear in a statement he wrote years ago and included next to the 114th U.S. Infantry Regimental Colors: “The dead and dying were strewn all over the field and machine guns were belching death and destruction. I stopped to bandage the wounded and the enemy shot them again, one of the men was lying across my lap when he was shot.”
In addition to the faces, flags, and words, sights and sounds of the era are present via a video monitor showing actual images of battles, soldiers carrying the wounded around fallen comrades, burning cities, and citizens abandoning homes and towns.
Those painful images likewise collide with the sound of upbeat and optimistic songs from the era. They are songs that have become part of our collective memory: “Over There,” “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” and “Just Like Washington Crossed the Delaware.”
Surrounding this small chamber is an exhibition that combines artifacts, including a World War I uniform owned by Trenton soldier Arthur Ashmore — and propaganda posters created to support the war by appealing to an extreme of emotions and demographics.
For young men, there is New England artist Charles Buckler Fall’s poster “E-E-E Yah Yip Go Over with U.S. Marines,” depicting a determined fighter with raised rifle and bayonet. For mothers, there is “Feed the Fighter,” a black-and-white image of a worn soldier in a trench (it was created by artist and World War I army captain Wallace Morgan). Magazine illustrator William Henry Coffin’s image of Joan of Arc was used to entice women to “Save Your Country — Buy War Saving Stamps.” And there is the cloying image of a little girl clutching a bond to her heart and saying, “My daddy bought me a government bond for the Third Liberty Loan. Did Yours?”
Here visitors also come face to face with another Trenton ghost forever tied to the war: President Woodrow Wilson. The presence of the former Governor of New Jersey — who often walked along the park behind the statehouse — appears in the state-commissioned bust by Blanche Nevin, considered one of the nation’s first prominent woman sculptors. The dark figure stands next to the words he uttered to declare war on Germany on April 2, 1917.
The other exhibition is “Shifting Views: Artists Who Experienced World War I.” As museum materials say, the images were not made to support or protest the war cause, but “rather reflect the life’s work of complex human beings who made them.”
The exhibition consists of about three dozen works by 22 artists who served with either the Allies or the Central Powers — with the majority of works by German/Austrian artists donated by the late Dr. Albert Rosenthal and his wife, Princeton resident Carol.
While none of the art represents these artists’ experiences in the war, and text information is slight, the work encourages exploration with some interesting results found in essays and letters elsewhere.
For example, noted British sculptor Henry Moore — known to many in the region for his sculpture “Oval with Points” on the Princeton University campus — served in the war and is represented in the exhibition with one of his elephant skull prints.
While Moore often shrugs off the war by saying he was caught up in a “romantic haze of hoping to be a hero,” he also reveals its effect on his life and art. Here are some examples: “It was only a year or two after being demobilized that the sight of a khaki uniform began to mean everything in life that was wrong, and wasteful, and anti-life, and I still have the same feeling. But in this conflicted state of mind I have so far been able to keep on working, because along with human relationships, with Irina [his wife] and my own family, and some others, it’s what matters most to me. And about the importance of painting, sculpture, poetry, and all the arts, I have clear convictions, and think that the artist, like the poet, makes through his work a basic attack on what is wrong with the running of the world.”
And that one sculpture “evolved from a pebble I found on the seashore . . . which reminded me of the stump of a leg, amputated at the hip.”
Prominent German artist Otto Dix says he painted because he wanted to get the war “out of my system” and to use his experience as a testament. “There were a lot of books circulating in the Weimar Republic, promoting a notion of heroism which, in the trenches, had long since been rejected as an absurdity. People were already beginning to forget the terrible suffering that the war had caused. I simply wanted to summarize objectively, almost like reportage, my own experiences from 1914 to 1918 and to demonstrate that genuine human heroism lies in overcoming senseless death.”
And self-taught American artist Horace Pippen, whose arm had to be retrained to paint after it was wounded in the war, says the war “brought out all the art in me. I can never forget suffering. I came home with all of it in my mind and I paint from it today.” His work includes a sketchbook of naive drawings and comments depicting the battle and are now part of the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives or Art. That Pippen, like Needham Roberts, was of African ancestry adds historic resonance to his experience.
Although while Pippen’s work doesn’t announce itself as connecting the two exhibitions on a deeper level, an image created by Central Power soldier and noted Austrian artist Oscar Kokoschka does. It’s his image of the Statue of Liberty created during his visit to the United States in 1966.
Gaze at it and think of the other exhibition and the faces of the boys from New Jersey who didn’t get a chance to see it again.
Embattled Emblems: Posters and Flags of the First World War and Shifting Views: Artists Who Experienced World War I, State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. To August 19, 2018. Free, donation requested. 609-292-5420 or www.statemuseum.nj.gov.