Apartment 4 is the first in the Open House Project series, an ongoing Arts Center initiative providing a platform for emerging and underrepresented artists and art forms. Artists and organizations are invited to collaborate and experiment with new ideas and original content in exhibitions that use the galleries in the John Michael Kohler home as a place for artistic inquiry. The home, built in 1883, is a unique setting for the generation of new curatorial explorations of topics ranging from the familiar to the phenomenal.
Florence Hasard, Iris Häussler’s fictional resident of Apartment 4 at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, both conceals and reveals her experiences as a nurse during World War I throughout her home.
In this narrative, Hasard was thirty-two when the war broke out, and she immediately enlisted as a nurse, leaving Paris to return to her childhood home of Nogent-sur-Marne. Working in a makeshift hospital, she saw the horrors of trench warfare. This new style of battle exposed soldiers to catastrophic facial injuries, which in turn required plastic surgery innovations to help men recover from their physical and psychological trauma. Charles Myers introduced the term “shell shock,” an antecedent to post-traumatic stress disorder, that allowed men to discuss the ongoing effects of their service. Yet nurses’ experiences were not included in this concept.
While Florence is a fictional character, she allows us to explore a story that is often omitted in historical narratives: the nurses who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. As visitors travel farther into the interior of Apartment 4, Florence’s mind and her experiences of trauma from the Great War are laid bare.
Upon migrating to Wisconsin in 1927, Florence used the public spaces of her apartment to lead an unassuming life with a modest clothing alteration business. In her efforts to assimilate, she could not display her ghosts of war. At this time in America, the term “shell shock” applied only to men who survived artillery explosions. Despite the fact that nurses like Florence served in hospitals that were often dangerously close to enemy fire, societal perceptions separated these women from battle and the front lines.
Florence’s open display of WWI artifacts, borrowed from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Nursing History and The Chipstone Foundation, instills a normative sense of pride. Amongst foodstuffs, books, and cleaning supplies, an early nineteenth-century nursing cape hangs above the iconic white and crimson Red Cross cap and armband, and a pocket syringe kit with empty medicine vials of codeine. Ceramic figurines transform tanks, warships, and a grenade into playthings alongside books that historicize the Great War. In this space, her service is safely organized behind glass. Only the 1925 book Nursing Mental Illnesses nods to her circumstances, with its double meaning implying the mental illnesses that nurses may themselves incur.
The decision to have Florence inhabit the apartment storage area, a crowded back room manifesting her interior life, instead of the pristine bedroom, took on unexpected resonance in nursing history literature. In Sarah Sand Stevenson’s 1976 memoir of serving as a nurse in WWI, Lamp for a Soldier, she describes traveling across France with fellow nurses after armistice. She writes about one hotel, “Here we had old rose satin coverlets on our beds, rose hangings, great mirrors, and every comfort, but after the first day we felt it was too gay for us. ...Somehow our recent experiences did not fit with this. We therefore decided to find a quieter and more conservative place."
Florence’s quieter and more conservative place was the back of the house, in what could be referred to as her studio, where she was free to create artwork about all that she experienced. Indeed, the French word for home front was “arrière,” which directly translates to “back,” adding a metaphorical layer of safety to her chosen dwelling. Whereas the formal bedroom hearth inscription declares “no evil word shall be spoken here,” Florence explores her grief in the storage area-come-living quarters with nude drawings overpainted with blood, and clothing cut and dyed red to evoke the human body. In a bathroom, white textiles hanging from the ceiling imitate a hospital tent, while metallic clamps covered in white fabric echo limbs wrapped in gauze. Yet even in this safe space, the soundscape alludes to impending conflict. The radio, which intermittently plays news broadcasts, fills the room with increasingly urgent updates to a foreboding World War II.
Florence suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but her status as a woman and immigrant required that she hide that from the world. It was this dual life that we strived to create in Apartment 4 through a material world of extreme and revealing contrasts. Shell shock was defined as a male condition, and there was no discussion about women’s wartime experiences unless it was under the shadow of male suffering. The artwork that Iris created on behalf of Florence, within the space that we constructed for Florence, disputes this, indeed dismantling the erasure of women’s service and pain.
This exhibition is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. Funding was also provided by the Chipstone Foundation, Kohler Trust for the Arts and Education, Kohler Foundation, Inc., and the Frederic Cornell Kohler Charitable Trust. The Arts Center thanks its many members for their support of exhibitions and programs through the year. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center is a 501(c)(3) (nonprofit) organization; donations are tax deductible.