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News | Published: Wed 21 May 2014

ImageWorld War 1 centenary exhibition opens

The exhibition of prints from the series La Grande Guerre is the first in a series of displays at the Fitzwilliam from 2014 to 2018 commemorating the centenary of World War 1.

Scenes of action in the form of battles, sieges and airstrikes are punctuated by moments of relative repose, including commemorations, award ceremonies and depictions of the Allied forces, such as the English and Scottish taking five o'clock tea and Indian soldiers at prayer.

Published in Paris, the series took inspiration from popular genres of prints, such as the inexpensive folklore inspired images d'Épinal, produced in Épinal in the northeast of France. Many prints issued at the outbreak of war in 1914 embraced this style, as they could glorify the nation's role in the conflict in an inherently French way. It was a natural meeting of technique and content, appealing to the nationalistic spirit of an audience increasingly antipathetic to Germany. The stylised imagery helped maintain distance from the brutal reality of transpiring events.

The individual trials and triumphs of the soldiers are highlighted through a descriptive caption below each image in La Grande Guerre, creating a sense of visual reportage. Although told from the French perspective, the series is particularly noteworthy for its aim to be accurate and fair in the recounting of each event, without drifting into mockery or caricature in its portrayal of the Central Powers forces. The prints are not official propaganda material, but are nevertheless deeply patriotic and the numbered series format encouraged the public, who were eager to commemorate the war, to continue collecting the set.

The prints are be shown in chronological order, so that visitors to the gallery can experience a retelling of events from the perspective of France, from the taking of the first flag during the Battle of Saint-Blaise La Roche (14 Aug 1914) to the Fall of Przemyśl (22 March 1915). The prints are also available to view with further information in an online version of the exhibition.

La Grande Guerre is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge to 28 September 2014. Admission is free.

Image: Unknown artist, Pendant la bataille de l'Aisne , 1914 (detail). Colour lithograph, no. 10 in the series La Grande Guerre. All reasonable effort has been made to identify and contact the image copyright holder. If you hold or administer rights for the image published here, please contact us.