David M. Lubin. Flags and Faces: The Visual Culture of America's First World War. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015. 124 S. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-28363-3.
Reviewed by Susana Rocha Teixeira
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (September, 2015)
D. Lubin: Flags and Faces
In recent decades, World War I has increasingly been seen by scholars – such as Elizabeth Haiken, Sander L. Gilman or Meredith Jones – as an event which influenced American attitudes toward beautification, appearances and beauty. David M. Lubin’s book “Flags and Faces – The Visual Culture of America’s First World War” follows these works, which are mostly situated in the realms of history or cultural studies, while adding a particular focus on America’s visual culture between circa 1915 and 1929. It contains two interdisciplinary essays, which are based on the Franklin D. Murphy Lectures in Art, Lubin gave at the University of Kansas in 2008. Lubin, who is a professor of art at Wake Forest University, analyzes – using a vast range of visual media in this book – the relationship between American visual culture and World War I, specifically the way in which visual media reflected or influenced attitudes of Americans regarding World War I, beautification and appearances.
In the first chapter, “Art for War’s Sake”, Lubin analyzes paintings, posters, photographs, cartoons, sheet music covers, and flags in order to explore in what way visual media were used to create support for the war or reflected Americans’ support of or opposition to the war. According to Lubin, flags and gender anxiety (p. x) play a central role in this context. By gender anxiety, Lubin means posters and paintings made by interventionists which invoked particular concepts of masculinity, based on old-fashioned chivalric codes which “defined manhood as a state of readiness to safeguard women from intruders” (p. x). These posters and paintings also invoked particular notions of femininity, namely those embodied by WASP-women, which were used as an allegory for the United States (p. 17), both of which had to be protected by heroic American men. Whereas patriotic posters such as Ellisworth Young’s 1918 “Remember Belgium – Buy Bonds – Fourth Liberty Loan” used the “melodramatic motif of the violated virgin” (p. 15), Childe Hassam’s (1859–1935) impressionist paintings from his flag-series were more subtle. For example, in “Early Morning on the Avenue in May 1917” (which Lubin discusses in detail), Allied flags are lofting protectively over the depicted womenfolk (p. 14). Similar holds true for the American flag, which due to the “flag mania” at that time, was omnipresent in American visual culture – as for example in Howard Chandler Christy’s poster “Fight or Buy Bonds – Third Liberty Loan” from 1917 – and “became an expression of one’s viewpoint about the country as governed” (p. 19). In patriotic posters the flag was a “means of associating threats to American virginity with the defilement of national purity” (p. 16). There were also paintings, drawings or photographs, such as George Bellows’ painting “Cliff Dwellers” from 1913 or his drawing “Blessed are the Peacemakers” from 1917, which voiced dissent or portrayed another America. However, due to government censorship amongst other reasons, these works, did not dominate the American visual culture.
The second chapter, “Fixing Faces,” centers on plastic surgery, prosthetic sculpture, medical illustrations, atrocity photography, modern art, beauty makeup, and star acting. In this chapter, Lubin tries to trace the ways World War I and its effects – in particular the disfigured soldiers’ faces – were depicted in visual media, as well as the ways they were responsible for the paradigm shift regarding beautification in the United States after World War I. Additionally, Lubin is interested in the modernists’ attraction to masks. The injured soldiers and, in particular, “les gueules cassées“ (the broken faces) caused by trench warfare play a central role in this chapter. In order not to have a demoralizing effect on their fellow soldiers once they returned to war, and in order to be able to work, be part of their families and society again once they got home, plastic surgery or masks were used to rebuild the soldier’s faces, which no longer resembled those of the male heroes portrayed by the interventionists’ posters and paintings. The disfigurements and injuries were so severe that they were used in visual media, especially by the countries, which didn’t win the war – to show the atrocities of war and cruelty of mankind. Examples of this can be seen in Ernst Friedrich’s book “War against War!” (1924) or in artists’ works such Otto Dix’ drawing “Wounded Soldier” from 1916 or Georg Grosz’ drawing “The Hero” from 1932. However, surgeons such as Harold Delf Gillies (via surgery) and artists such as Anna Coleman Ladd (via tin and copper masks) managed “to make a man’s face as near as possible to what it looked like before he was wounded” (p. 66), which made masking (such as plastic surgery or cosmetics) more and more acceptable and accelerated a paradigm shift in the United States regarding beautification. For Lubin, Greta Garbo, whom he discusses in detail, is also a face of war. He claims that her success is, in part, a result of her face – as exemplified in the iconic photography by Edward Steichen for the “Vanity Fair” magazine in 1928 – which has a godlike exterior (which is a tragic mask) and a pain-ridden interior and thus represents what Americans (consciously or unconsciously) felt after World War I. In the same vein, Lubin argues that Steichen’s photography is “a mourning picture” (p. 44), a “war memorial, a testament to loneliness and alienation, beauty and death, and the inevitable loss of ideals” (p. 44) after World War I.
With regard to beautification, David M. Lubin’s book “Flags and Faces” is an interesting addition to works such as Sander L. Gilman’s “Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery” or Elizabeth Haiken’s “Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery” Sander L. Gilman, Making the Body Beautiful. A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery, Princeton 2000; Elizabeth Haiken, Venus Envy. A History of Cosmetic Surgery, Baltimore 1997. , insofar as it focuses on and adds the visual media-perspective. However, Lubin’s book would have benefitted from fewer examples (and a more convincing explanation for the choice of some of his examples such as Wall Street) and more in-depth analyses. Furthermore, it would have been desirable to have gender anxiety, which according to Lubin is the common theme in both chapters, carved out more clearly – especially in the second chapter. Additionally, some of Lubin’s analyses can be seen as too speculative, for example, when he claims that “Steichen’s photograph seems to show it blazing in her eyes” (p. 62) that Garbo never surrendered the “hard, gimlet-eyed realism” (p. 62) she encountered while working in Germany. The same holds true for the mask-issue, which Lubin addresses in the second chapter. However, “Flags and Faces” can be seen as an interesting and brief introduction to America’s visual culture in the context of World War I. It certainly creates interesting connections while leaving room for future research in this field of study.
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Susana Rocha Teixeira. Review of Lubin, David M., Flags and Faces: The Visual Culture of America's First World War.
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