History on Display: Windows on the War

There are plenty of good reasons to visit the Art Institute of Chicago:  the Impressionist collection, the Chagall window, the under-appreciated collection of South Asia art, the gift shop.  But the Art Institute usually isn’t my first choice for a history lesson.  In fact, it doesn’t generally take much to set me off on the inadequacy of their labels.  I want context, dang it all.  Not just size, date, and medium.

Last Thursday, I took it all back. The exhibit Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945 is an amazing combination of art, intellectual history, military history and curatorial chutzpah.

On June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.  Stalin’s government girded its loins for war.  So did the Soviet Union’s artists.  On June 23, three Russian artists asked for permission to create window propaganda posters as part of the war effort. With government approval, a dozen artists set up the TASS Window Poster Studio.  Unlike the war posters that most Americans are familiar with, the TASS posters weren’t printed.  They were hand-painted using a stencil method that allowed the studio to mass-produce intricate images.  At the beginning of the war, the studio was producing several hundred copies of each design.  As more artists joined the studio, outputs rose.  At its height, TASS could produce 1400 copies of a design.  Between 1941 and 1945, the studio produced a poster for almost every day of the war.

The artists came from many backgrounds: political cartoonists, fine artists, even a children’s book illustrator.  The diversity of the posters reflects the diversity of their backgrounds.  Some were comic book style, telling a story in a series of panels.  Some were gorgeous.  Some were flat out funny.  Many were–disturbing. As the war went on, the level of violence and gore in the posters grew.  (I must admit, I stopped looking at the posters related to the Battle of Stalingrad.) As My Own True Love put it, the posters gave a new meaning to the phrase “graphic art”.

Windows on the War is on display through October 23. (Sorry to give you such short notice, but I wasn’t expecting history.)  If you’re in or near Chicago, be sure you take the opportunity to see it.  If you’re actively interested in war posters or the eastern front in WWII, it’s worth a special trip.  If Chicago isn’t in your plans, the exhibition’s website will give you a taste.  The Art Institute has also set up a tumblir * , where a new poster is added daily.

*Don’t ask me to explain it.  Just trust me and click.

Who made the map of the modern Middle East?

The simple answer is:  Great Britain.  You want the long version?

In The Makers of the Modern Middle East   historians T.G. Fraser, Andrew Mango, and Robert McNamara tell the story of how today’s Middle East was created from the remains of the Ottoman Empire during the peace negotiations at the end of the First World War.

The Allies weren’t the only powers that had an interest in the future of the region. Prince Feisal, who led the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire with British aid, hoped to build an Arab kingdom based on Syria and Palestine. Dr. Chaim Weizmann had laid the political groundwork for British support of a Jewish National Home in Palestine.  Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, created the modern, secular Turkish republic in the teeth of Allied opposition.

Fraser and his co-authors weave the details of competing territorial claims, conflicting political agreements, ignored reports, and colorful characters into a narrative as intricate as an Oriental rug, with a warp of Allied imperial ambitions and a weft of the emerging claims of Arab nationalism, Turkish nationalism and Zionism.

*   *   *

The bottom line?  If you promise the same piece of land to France, the Zionists and an Arab king, someone’s going to be unhappy when the war is over

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Déjà Vu All Over Again?: Attack on the British Garrison in Kabul, 1879

As I believe I’ve mentioned before, the British government in India was always paranoid about the possibility of Russian influence on the northern border of Afghanistan.  (Some of the most paranoid even thought the Russians were behind the Indian Mutiny of 1857. *) In 1878, the amir of Afghanistan pushed British buttons when he accepted a Russian mission to Kabul, but turned a British envoy away at the Khyber Pass. As predictable as Pavlov’s dog, the British invaded.


Khyber Pass. Encyclopedia Britannica

With the signing of the Treaty of Gandamak on May 26, 1879, the Second Anglo-Afghan War appeared to be over.  Britain came out of the war with the right to install a British Resident in Kabul:  a British official who would direct Afghan foreign policy in exchange for British support and military aid. Like other Indian princes before him, the Afghani amir retained the appearance of independence but had a golden collar around his neck.  It looked like British worries about Russian were over.

The new British resident, Major Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari**, arrived in Kabul in July.  On September 3rd, the Afghan army, preferring independence to British aid, mutinied against the amir who had sold them out, attacked the British Residence, and killed Cavagnari and his staff.

The army of invasion had been dismantled, but a small British force under the command of then Major Frederick Roberts had remained in the field to police Britain’s newest imperial acquisition, the Kurram Valley.*** Roberts marched the Kabul Field Force into central Afghanistan, defeated the Afghan army at Char Asiab, and took possession of Kabul in early October.

The ease with which the British occupied Kabul  was deceptive.  By December, Afghan troops had taken to the field once more.  Roberts was besieged briefly in his camp at north of Kabul.  One British brigade was nearly annihilated at Maiwand.  And a garrison of 4,000 was besieged at Kandahar.  Roberts’ march from Kabul to Kandahar to raise the siege was followed with intense interest and made him a hero with the British public.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War ended for the second time September 1, 1880.  By many standards, the British won.  The Afghanis won, too:  the British withdrew and made no further efforts to maintain a British Resident in Kabul.


*  This line of thinking seemed to go:  “Hmmm.  Surely the Indians wouldn’t have rebelled against us on their own.  They’re too [fill in the blank with offensive adjective of your choice].  Some European power must have influenced them.  Oh yes, of course, the Russians.”

** You’re right. Cavagnari was Italian by birth.  He became a British citizen in 1857.

*** Best known today as a hotbed of Taliban activity.