Art and Artifacts

The Pestana Collection in Graphic Matters: George Bellows and World War I

The Colby College Museum of Art and Colby College Special Collections have a rich history of partnering, collaborating, and sharing collections with each other for exhibits, teaching, and public programming. Both the Museum and Special Collections have active and robust teaching programs with similar missions—to bring our resources into the curriculum, to promote the value of object-centered teaching and learning, to collaborate closely with faculty to bring students into our respective spaces, and to create a learning environment in which students will have meaningful encounters with our collections. So it is no surprise that the Museum and Special Collections recently cooperated in bringing together materials from our different collections for the current exhibition Graphic Matters: George Bellows and World War I, now on display in the Gourley Gallery through September 3. In this post, Erin Rhodes, Archives Education Librarian at Colby Special Collections, discusses the Special Collection loans on view in this exhibition. 

Installation photograph of Graphic Matters: George Bellows and World War I with the loans from Colby Museum Special Collections in the center case. 

The four texts selected from Special Collections for this exhibition are all part of the Pestana Collection of World War I materials. Large and wonderfully varied, this was the generous gift of Dr. Harold Pestana, Colby’s professor of geology, emeritus, and is a rich resource for the study of the 1914–1918 time period, reflecting Dr. Pestana’s long interest in World War I history and material culture.

The Pestana Collection contains a diversity of formats, and comprises over four thousand books, magazines, audio and visual recordings, stereographs, photographs, sheet music and songs, postcards, posters, and handwritten letters. British, American, and some German materials are represented in the collection, which primarily documents the experience of the Western Front.

“The Stars and Stripes in the Service of Humanity” from Louis Raemaeker’s America in the War

The four texts in the Graphic Matters exhibition—Louis Raemaekers, America in the War ; Labert St. Clair, The Story of the Liberty Loans; Ernst Friedrich, War against War; and Newell Dwight Hillis, German Atrocitiesall represent some of the major thematic strands in the Pestana Collection and provide context to the Bellows lithographs on display. Political cartoons and caricatures, such as those of Raemaekers, are well represented in the collection, which also includes cartoons by Bruce Bairnsfeather, William Heath Robinson, Henn Zislin, and Punch magazine artists. St. Clair’s work on Liberty Loans (Liberty Bonds) echoes powerful visual messages found in many of the posters in the Pestana Collection that admonish the public to support the war effort by purchasing Liberty Loans and War Saving Stamps and reducing food waste. Friedrich’s and Hillis’s works counter the war propaganda and romanticized images found in the posters, stereographs, photographs, and postcards in the collection—and the provocative Bellow lithographs in the Museum exhibition—exposing evidence of the extreme horror, brutality, and destruction of war.

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Dr. Pestana also collected historical artifacts, including rifles, helmets, and hood gas masks, which tend to be the perennial favorites of students who interact with this collection. Holding a bayonet and wearing one of the helmets brings alive the heaviness of these objects and the reality of their intended use. The collection is still growing, thanks to Dr. Pestana. A recent addition includes Great War–related miniatures: toy soldiers, model tanks, and planes. (Along with being an avid collector of WWI materials, Dr. Pestana is known as a craftsman of detailed sets of toy soldiers, prized for their accuracy and imaginative presentation.)

Special Collections has made extensive use of the Pestana Collection in our Teaching with Primary Sources program. In Raffael Scheck’s World War I course, students study messages of propaganda and the visual impact of the WWI posters in the collection, and have done deep research into the holdings on topics such as the history of gas masks and the participation of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps Divisions (ANZAC) in the Great War. In Anindyo Roy’s Modern British Fiction class, students work with materials on Wyndham Lewis and Blast, the short-lived literary magazine of the Vorticist movement, which situated Vorticism alongside other contemporary literary and artistic movements, such as Futurism. For this class, Special Collections has also worked with the Museum to bring in two ink drawings by Lewis so that students can study aspects of his artistic and literary influences and the ways in which words and images combine to build a narrative of the time.

Because we are interested in connections across collections in our teaching program, the Pestana Collection finds itself in good company with other materials in Special Collections that serve to enrich each other. World War I poetry in the Pestana Collection is complemented by the wonderful War Poets books in our Wormser Collection; the college archives contain correspondence and photos about Colby students who served in the Great War, as well as life back home on campus during wartime. A collection of correspondence between Louis and Jeannette Cons documents a relationship lived through letters between the front lines and Paris. All of these collections have been used alongside each other in classes researching the WWI era.

Special Collections looks forward to future collaborations and opportunities with the Museum to bring our wonderful collections together for teaching, learning, and public exhibitions.

If you are interested in learning more about the Pestana Collection in Special Collections, or are curious about any of our collections, please stop by Miller Library and visit us, or contact us.