Joshua Smith

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What topic are you working on for your masters degree or doctorate?

My dissertation explores how Franco-Prussian War memory informed and was made manifest in various domains of French culture, especially the visual sphere, from the beginning of the twentieth century to the postwar period (1900-1925). Multiple groups —veterans of both wars, the French state, historians, art critics, and artists alike—shared an interest in preserving and transforming this collective memory, though often for different and at times contradictory ends. Scholars have long noted, without fully illuminating, the importance of the Franco-Prussian War and its most belligerent form of remembrance, revanche, as motivations for the war effort. But revanche, I argue, did not simply advocate for a geopolitical conflict; it constituted a means to grapple with ideas of glory, history, and masculinity. Through a close study of texts and visual sources, notably military paintings, war posters, and monuments, I stress the contested status of Franco-Prussian War memory and its changing ideological emphases throughout the First World War.
Why did you decide to work on the First World War?

In 2014, I participated in an illuminating seminar on art and the First World War that probed three compelling issues: art as both a forum for and an object of contestation during periods of conflict; the relationship between art and experience; and art’s capacity to convey, inform, and resist the ideologies that motivate conflict. The course coincided with a series of campus-wide events at the University of North Carolina intended to reconsider the legacy of the First World War on its centenary. Those events and the course made visible materials that have long been objects of study but that have yet to receive the attention they deserve, namely illustrated war posters. Serendipitously, I was also engaged in discussions about the theories, methods, and history of memory studies, which helped guide my initial research on representations of resurrection, the politics of revanche, and war posters in the First World War. Together those courses demonstrated the complexity of the war and the possibilities for further research.
Which is your favourite book on the First World War and why?

Kenneth E. Silver’s Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925 (1989) provides a compelling account of how, in the midst of war and afterward, French avant-gardists largely abandoned their most radical aesthetics as they and others embraced conservative visions of French culture. In describing what he sees as a “rappel à l’ordre,” Silver ably maneuvres between popular imagery and fine art, as well as French politics and artists’ biographies. Silver thus reveals the cultural politics that underlay the avant-garde’s multiple responses to the war and, in doing so, offers a model study of art, politics, and history.

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