Mason Professor Commemorates Great War with Rare Postcard Exhibit

By Jamie Rogers

Marion Deshmukh. Creative Services photo

Marion Deshmukh. Creative Services photo

History buffs and the curious minded will have the opportunity to gaze into the past, thanks to a George Mason University professor’s upcoming exhibit.

Marion Deshmukh, Robert T. Hawkes Professor of History, is co-curator of “Postcards from the Trenches: Germans and Americans Visualize the Great War.The exhibit will feature about 50 hand-painted watercolor postcards crafted in the trenches by Otto Schubert, a German soldier who fought in World War I.

Professor Irene Guenther of the University of Houston, the exhibit’s other co-curator, inherited the collection from her late father, an art history professor. He had acquired the postcards from his father, a noted art critic and friend of the artist during the 1920s.

“They were found in a box and are in perfect condition … they had never been exhibited before,” Deshmukh says. “Professor Guenther and I saw the immediate value of exhibiting these postcards because of both their historical value and aesthetic beauty.”

German World War I solider Otto Shubert crafted this painting in the field and sent it as a postcard.

German World War I solider Otto Shubert crafted this painting in the field and sent it as a postcard.

Soldiers such as Schubert were given blank field postcards with which to write home. Rather than writing extensive notes to his fiancée, Schubert painted varied scenes of military life on the western front instead. His short messages were written around the edges of the postcard and served as “frames” for these extraordinary visual documents of war on the western front.

Because of government censorship, paintings and drawings were a good way soldiers could describe to their families what was happening in the war zone, Deshmukh says. At the same time, postcards worked well for censor officials because they didn’t have to go through the trouble of opening envelopes.

“They didn’t want to write anything too political because it would never make it to their destination,” she says. “But some soldiers wrote about being in the trenches with water and rats, describing the hardships of military service.”

The exhibit will also feature postcards and graphic works from American soldiers who were commissioned by the American Expeditionary Forces and entered the war in 1917 and 1918. Additional exhibited items will include sheet music, graphic works, helmets and other artifacts.

World War I, Deshmukh says, continues to shape the world’s political scene a hundred years after the last bullet of conflict was fired.

“It’s a war that most people don’t think about,” she says, even though it “had profound repercussions for the rest of the century. The postwar instabilities in Europe, the collapse of empires, and the redrawing of national and imperial boundaries led to World War II and had global impacts lasting to this day.”

A World War I solider drew this illustration of a war plane and sent it as a postcard.

A World War I solider drew this illustration of a war plane and sent it as a postcard.

The World War I postcard exhibit will open on Aug. 19, in time for the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. The exhibit will be held at the Pepco-Edison Place Gallery on 8th and G Streets, NW, near the Verizon Center and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

Pepco makes the gallery available to nonprofits, and Deshmukh says she was able to secure the venue for the exhibition and auxiliary events through her affiliation with George Mason.

The exhibit is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 12 to 4 p.m. for five weeks. It will be open one Saturday only, the last day of the exhibit, on Sept. 27.

Deshmukh will also introduce three World War I films at the Goethe-Institut in Washington, D.C. The films will show at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 18, Aug. 25 and Sept. 15. She will present a talk at the opening on Aug. 19, followed by remarks from the German Ambassador to the United States, the Hon. Peter Witting.

Professor Peter Paret from Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study, will give a keynote address on Sept. 9. There will be poetry readings on war by University of Maryland professor Peter Beicken and Georgetown University professor David Gewanter on Sept. 23. All these events will be held at the Pepco-Edison Place Gallery at 6 p.m.