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Monday, December 17, 2018

The Panthéon de la Guerre

A small portion of the original Pantheon de la Guerre (temple of war) by Pierre Carrier-Belleuse and Auguste Gorguet.
Don't let anyone tell you "Size doesn't matter." I'm not sure that's necessarily true in all circumstances, but I know it applies to art, especially painting. In a museum setting, a painting which would look find hanging over your couch simply gets lost in the crowd of gigantic works painted by artist both now and then (in the past). In terms of square feet of surface covered by the artist, let me ask, what might you guess was largest painting ever rendered by an artist? If you guessed Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling you'd be wrong. At a mere 5,382 sq. ft. you'd not even be close. It's said that Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware, which hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (also in the U.S. Capitol), is the world's largest framed painting. I don't know if that's still true, but I've seen it in person and it is "large." However, at a miniscule 263 square feet, it's not even in the same ballpark with the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, which in turn is not in the ballpark with The 1918 painting, Pantheon de la Guerre (top).
Pierre Carrier-Belleuse
My original premise is something of "trick question." The key word is "was." That is to say, the massive French mural commemorating the heroes of WW I no longer exists in its original form. At 18,090 sq. feet, the original painting was 402 feet long (that's longer than an American football field, folks) and 45 feet high, making it one of the largest murals in the world. It was completed in Paris in 1918 by around 140 artists working under the guidance of the French artists, Pierre Carrier-Belleuse (right) and Auguste Gorguet. In an octagonal museum built specifically to house the painting, artists pieced together an enormous circular cyclo-rama canvas, which contained over 5,000 life-size portraits of war heroes, royalty, and government officials from the Allies of World War I, with France dominating the stage. The Panthéon de la Guerre was unveiled, to great fanfare, 100 years ago on Oct. 19, 1918. In the century that followed, it was chopped up, auctioned off, hidden away and even stored outdoors in a crate for a decade before finding its place on the walls of the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, 4,500 miles away from the start of its unlikely journey. Today, its "chopped down" version, it's a modest 520 sq. ft., to fit a wall some seventy feet long.

A few of the nearly 6,000 life-size
portraits from the painting.
Work on the painting had begun, with astonishing foresight, just a few months into the war, in the winter of 1914. Carrier-Belleuse and Auguste François-Marie Gorguet together conceived the idea and established the theme, basically a glor-ification of war...the "great war," the "war to end all wars." Together, the two artists enlisted an array of painters--mostly elderly ones, since many of the younger ones were on the front line. They obtained financial and political support, which was essential due to the scale of the project and the materials required. Among the latter were 18,000 square feet of Belgian linen for the canvas, tons of steel armature to support it and enormous amounts of paint, all of which were scarce and quite costly in wartime. Although their intent was patriotic, there was also a commercial element involve from the start. Panoramic paintings were money-making ventures, sort of the Hollywood blockbusters of the day. But it was really a 19th-century phenomenon, and this was sort of its last gasp.

The Belgian section of the Pantheon de la Guerre with King Albert and a Cardinal.
The painting was hung in a complete, uninterrupted circle; visitors descended into a tunnel to emerge right in the middle of it. The custom-built, octagonal building housing it was enviably located in Rue de l'Université, just a few steps from Les Invalides and only two or three blocks from the Louvre. Less than a month before the end of the war the massive canvas mural was inaugurated by French President Raymond Poincaré, who was, himself, immortalized in the painting. Although a circular painting has, technically no center, the main focus of the Panthéon de la Guerre was a temple and staircase, representing the French section that spanned about 122 feet. This segment contained most of the 5,000 figures portrayed in the painting, with the rest split between other Allied nations including Britain, Italy, Russia and the United States, each given a space of around 32 feet or less. The background was meant to represent the battlefields of France and Belgium.

A detail of the original painting depicts a British nursing sister.
It was no simple task searching for figures worthy of appearing in the artwork. Assistants sifted through the press and read the citations of the day, to see who was killed and find out who was most deserving of being put in this sort of encyclopedia of the French war effort. The artists obtained photographs of people who had been killed and made sketches from those, while others, such as government officials, were sketched in person. The spectacular art showpiece remained in its Paris home for nine years and was seen by three million people. It was as much for tourists as it was for the French, and was particularly popular with American soldiers.

However, as paintings go, even the largest painting in the world (at the time) had a somewhat limited "shelf life." By 1927, interest had started to wane. The French sold it to three American businessmen who wanted to take it on a U.S. tour. They paid something on the order of $250,000, which was a princely sum at the time. Together with the French they arranged a high-profile sendoff. The creators of the painting were opposed to the sale, fearing they would never see it again, although the buyers promised to eventually return it. The "sail-away" party involved ambassadors and bands playing national anthems, in the hope that the Panthéon de la Guerre would cement Franco-American relations. A few modifications were made for the American tour, most notably the inclusion of more women and African-Americans.

A portion of the painting (as edited) at the Kansas City World War I Memorial.
The first stop was New York's Madison Square Garden, where it attracted one million visitors in eight weeks. The organizers had an appropriately gargantuan opening night with 25,000 people and lots of notables attending, but the show ended up closing two months ahead of schedule, so the intrepid entrepreneurs were apparently not making as much money as they'd hoped. The painting, like the war itself, was perceived very differently in the U.S. than in France. The French had suffered about 1.7 million deaths in the conflict, whereas America, which entered the war in 1917, lost around 117,000. Americans had a faint, mostly celebratory memory of the war; the French a rather vivid, bloody one.

 A program cover from the 1933 World Fair featuring the Panthéon de la Guerre.
Promotion as the painting was hardly as solemn as before in France. Instead, they blew horns and even fired machine guns in Chicago for the 1933 World Fair. It was little short of a carnival attraction, far from the original spirit of the painting, which was rather quiet for all its grandiosity. The last stop on the painting's U.S. tour was San Francisco in 1940. By that time, the artwork was falling out of fashion. It was sent to a storage facility in Baltimore, where it laid abandoned for twelve years in a tomb-like, 55-foot crate originally built for it in Paris. Being too big to keep indoors, it was left outside. Moreover, once the owners stopped paying the storage fee due to yet another war in Europe, it was auctioned off. The auction took place in July of 1952 and included both the painting and the apparatus required to exhibit it, all of which weighed in at an astounding ten tons. Although the auction records listed it as "an art object of unusual value," few art connoisseurs showed up. The Panthéon de la Guerre went for a paltry $3,400 (around $32,000 in today's money) to William H. Haussner, a local restaurant owner who was also an art collector and, ironically, a German World War I veteran.

The Panthéon de la Guerre being uncrated.
Haussner owned a restaurant in Baltimore that was well known for having good art and bad art (mostly the latter) on its walls. Haussner didn't want to see such an important work go to scrap metal collectors who were only interested in the armature of the painting. Opening the giant crate was a massive operation requiring 22 workers and a 48-foot tractor-trailer. Life magazine sent reporters to document it. Yet even with a new owner, the painting's future looked bleak. Haussner tried to find a museum that was willing to take it. He called on the Smithsonian. He was willing to donate it; but nobody wanted such a massive "white elephant." The cost to repair it and then create a building for it were prohibitive. Even the French didn't want it back. It wasn't considered 'high' art."

Daniel MacMorris reconfiguring the painting.
Fortunately, there was one person who wanted it, a Daniel MacMorris of Kansas City, Kansas. He was an American WW I veteran who had seen the painting in Paris during the war. He had even gone on to study with Gorguet, one of the two original creators. After the war he became a professional artist. Awestruck by the Life magazine article, MacMorris started lobbying Haussner to donate the painting to the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, the nation's largest World War I museum, where he worked. Haussner eventually agreed, giving The Panthéon de la Guerre a second life.

MacMorris and two assistants "edit" the painting.
However the painting needed to be adapted for its new home, so MacMorris took on the task. From the beginning, he knew that he was not going to be able to save the entire painting. MacMorris had a finite amount of wall space to work with and, wanted to pay homage to Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations. But his "rearranging," as he called it, is best known for being US-centric. Few Russian or Eastern European figures made the cut. In fact, he kept very little of the original canvas. In terms of square footage, that amounted to only about seven-percent of the original, which also made it into a regular painting that's totally flat against the wall. He ended up repainting a lot of the figures. Despite the rather radical "editing," the "new" painting is quite impressive for only having taken a couple of years.

The "Americanized" central section of the Panthéon de la Guerre today.
The new, Americanized version of the painting, which now included Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt, among others, was unveiled in Kansas City on Nov. 11, 1959. MacMorris centered it on the U. S. involvement in the war. He put Woodrow Wilson and all the American political and military leaders in the center, with the Allies on either side. The whole "panthéon" theme with all the French soldiers was totally removed. The result was quite a different work of art with America dominating the scene and seeming the most responsible for the victory. What happened to the rest of the original painting? A large portion of the original French section now hangs in another hall at the museum, which also keeps dozens of smaller fragments in its archives and exhibits the most significant ones. MacMorris threw away large portions of the canvas, but he also doled out pieces to friends and acquaintances. Some have ended up in flea markets and online going for at little as $99.

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