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‘Lost’ pieces from largest painting on display at Liberty Memorial

British nurse cut from “Panthéon de la Guerre”
British nurse cut from “Panthéon de la Guerre” National World War I Museum and Memorial

It’s not the largest painting in the world anymore, but it’s still pretty darn big.

“Panthéon de la Guerre,” which depicted thousands of participants in World War I, once rolled out at 402 feet long and stood 45 feet tall. It was so big it had to be displayed in the round.

Then a Kansas City man took a pair of scissors to it.

The painting is the subject of an exhibit opening Tuesday at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. The highlights are “lost” pieces of the work that have not been seen in public for 75 years.

“We like to present things that people haven’t seen before,” said museum Curator Doran Cart. “I like using our collection. I think that’s real important. It helps bring people back to see new stuff.”

“Rearranging History: Daniel MacMorris and the Panthéon de la Guerre” is included with admission to the museum and will continue through March 27.

“Panthéon de la Guerre” depicts faces of soldiers, government leaders and civilians from all over the world who were involved in the Great War. The mural was painted on linen during the 1914-18 war by 128 artists under the direction of French artists Pierre Carrier-Belleuse and Auguste Gorguet.

MacMorris, a Kansas City artist, had been awed by the painting as a soldier in France and then studied it closely in the 1920s.

The painting traveled to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933-34 and last was displayed in full in New York in 1940. It was supposed to return to France but never made it. Instead it languished for years outside a warehouse in Baltimore, rolled up but exposed to the elements.

MacMorris learned in 1953 that the painting was in the United States and had the idea of using it — or at least part of it — to decorate the wall of Memory Hall at the Liberty Memorial. The painting belonged at that time to a Baltimore art collector, who agreed in 1956 to donate it to the monument in Kansas City.

“Pantheon de la Guerre” had been damaged. The battlefield scenes were ruined but, luckily, most of the people were inside and protected. MacMorris went to work. He first photographed the painting carefully and then used cutouts of the photos to rearrange the tableau. The American section was made the centerpiece and much of the rest was deemed expendable.

After all, MacMorris had to reduce the painting to about 48 feet by 13 feet to fit the north wall of Memory Hall.

The cutting commenced. MacMorris likened it to whittling down a novel to a Reader’s Digest condensation.

“He took out people he didn’t like,” said Cart. “He added people he did like. He painted over people.”

For example, the Russian Tsar Nicholas II remained but the Bolsheviks were cut out. Harry Truman was added.

MacMorris then stitched sections together and painted over the seams. The work took two years and the new, Americanized “Panthéon” was dedicated on Veterans Day in 1959.

According to the Liberty Memorial, most of what MacMorris did not use got thrown away. He sent several large sections back to the man who had donated the work. Other pieces were given away. Some found their way back to the Liberty Memorial collection.

But they’ve been tucked away in the archives, until now.

Painting subjects that have been pulled out include a few black soldiers from the Belgian Congo, a grouping of French officers, a trio of cocky British Air Service officers and a British nurse with a bright red cape.

Matt Campbell: 816-234-4902, @MattCampbellKC

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