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Art of Devastation: A Web-based Catalogue of First World War Medallic Art

August 28, 2014 – As part of its commemoration of the centennial of the First World War, the American Numismatic Society announces the launch of Art of Devastation an important new web-based research catalogue of the thousands of art medals, commemorative medals and tokens produced in response to this major conflict.

Directed by Dr. Peter van Alfen, with assistance from Sylvia Karges, Art of Devastation aims to be the first comprehensive catalogue of this abundant and varied material, one that takes full advantage of the web environment and linked open data. Intended to help identify medals and tokens in users’ hands, Art of Devastation offers unique catalogue numbers for types and variants for future referencing, and illustrates, where possible, multiple examples for comparison. Mapping tools allow users to locate where the item was created, and where the events associated with it took place. Links to other websites, such as Wikipedia, take users to entries discussing the artist who created the item, as well as the people, events, and things, like the weapons or symbols depicted on it. In addition to serving as an identification and learning resource, Art of Devastation provides easy access for non-numismatists to an important, yet often overlooked body of primary evidence from the Great War.

German Empire. 1914. Artist: Josef Gangl. Nude male figure standing to r. with back to viewer, holding two swords in raised arms; in front of battle scene.German Empire. 1914. Artist: Josef Gangl. Nude male figure standing to r. with back to viewer, holding two swords in raised arms; in front of battle scene.

German Empire. 1914. Artist: Josef Gangl. Nude male figure standing to r. with back to viewer, holding two swords in raised arms; in front of battle scene.

Before the War began, medals and tokens had served for centuries as a significant means of communication where easy and durable forms of mass communication did not exist. Whether issued by states, organizations, or individuals, their commemorative and propagandistic function was already well known and understood. Increasingly, by the turn of the century, the medal had also become an important medium of more reflective and private artistic expression. Art medals could be distinguished from traditional types of medals by their frequent lack of words, non-elite representation, greater emotional intimacy, experimental shapes, and cast production rather than striking. During the War, these various public and private functions continued, converged, and were greatly intensified by the enormity of the conflict. Thousands of different types of medals and tokens were produced on both sides, consuming scarce metallic resources. This outlay underscores the fundamental role that these items played in feting heroes, marshaling support, directing public opinion, and, more poignantly, expressing grief and disgust.

French Third Republic. 1918. Artist: René Baudichon. View of the Lusitania sinking, above a child drowning.French Third Republic. 1918. Artist: René Baudichon. View of the Lusitania sinking, above a child drowning.

French Third Republic. 1918. Artist: René Baudichon. View of the Lusitania sinking, above a child drowning.

Art of Devastation enables users to explore the range of artistic responses to the War and particular events within it. The sinking of the Cunard passenger liner RMS Lusitania by the German submarine SM U-20 on May 7th 1915, for example, attracted considerable artistic output on both sides of the conflict. René Baudichon, a French artist, responded with a medal with themes paralleling those of Allied atrocity propaganda, depicting a drowning child avenged by Ultrix America, the Statue of Liberty with a sword.

German Empire. 1916. Artist: Walther Eberbach. Death standing over sinking ship Lusitania.German Empire. 1916. Artist: Walther Eberbach. Death standing over sinking ship Lusitania.

German Empire. 1916. Artist: Walther Eberbach. Death standing over sinking ship Lusitania.

On the German side, the emotions were more complicated. The artists Karl Goetz and Walther Eberbach derided Allied hypocrisy on purported bans on armament shipments on passenger liners with their satirical takes on the sinking …

German Empire. 1915. Artist: Ludwig Gies. Forepart of Lusitania with passengers trying to get into life boats being lowered onto water.

German Empire. 1915. Artist: Ludwig Gies. Forepart of Lusitania with passengers trying to get into life boats being lowered onto water.

… while Ludwig Gies cast enmities aside to focus solely on the human tragedy of the event.

The creation of this new web tool is the work of ANS database developer Ethan Gruber. At launch, Art of Devastation incorporates the roughly 1,400 relevant items in the ANS’s collection. In collaboration with other institutions, such as the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Royal Library of Belgium, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the catalogue will continue to expand.

Here you can access and search the database.

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