A Modern Dance with Death: Percy Delf Smith and the Aesthetic of Direct Experience
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In 1919, immediately following the First World War, the English artist Percy Smith produced a series of seven etchings entitled Dance of Death 1914-1918. Contemporaries responded enthusiastically to his inventive treatment of the subject. This paper reinterprets the series in its historical and social context to better understand its original emotional impact. During the war, censorship created a chasm between the home front and the Western Front. Towards the end of the conflict, soldiers began producing writings and visual art that presented an unfiltered image of the war, which an uneasy public began to crave. These frontline accounts brought the daily perils of the Tommies home, and contained what historian Samuel Hynes called the “aesthetic of direct experience.” This quality of authenticity became a prized ingredient in the public’s eye. Smith illustrated his own military experience through the reimagining of a recognized Medieval trope. The series vicariously transports viewers to the front line, following Death as he meanders through the war zone, pausing here and there to either spare or collect a soldier. By conflating the factual with the macabre, Smith expanded the aesthetic of direct experience to expose not only the war’s physical trauma but its psychological toll. Despite the War’s centennial and reinvigoration of scholarship on its art, Smith’s contributions have remained largely unstudied. My research draws heavily on unpublished archival material housed in the Percy Smith Foundation in Cheshunt, England, and early published sources.