Friday, July 1, 2016

Art from the Front

Copyright © Edward Riojas
Muirhead Bone (Scottish)
1918. (Imperial War Museum

Another Fourth of July. For a lot of people that means carcinogenic tube-steaks on the grill, Chinese pyrotechnics, and complaining about the lack of sleep after a long weekend. It’s so ’Mer’can, isn’t it?

For those citizens with more than half a brain, however, the national holiday is an opportunity to reflect on our freedoms, and the high cost of having and preserving them. Today, I take a look at art from the front lines. No, not the edgy, artsy-fartsy crap that raises the hackles of regular folks – I’m talking about combat art.

Creating “plein air” art is again a trendy thing. Capturing the essence of an outdoor scene without overworking it draws heavily on the gestural and impressionistic side of an artist’s noggin. If that seems like lots of fun, then try it with bullets whizzing by your head, thump-thump-thumping of guns in the distance, and adrenaline pounding in your veins.
“March Macabre”
Kerr Eby (Canadian) c. 1943.
(U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection)

Combat artists have brought the reality of war to life for so long that the tradition of drawing on front lines surpassed photography’s introduction. Initial drawings done on the line are sometimes re-worked into well-developed pieces, but what I admire most about combat art is the gestural feel in much of it. Even when artistic ability is lacking, respect must be paid those who are able record a moment of hellish history which words could not otherwise convey.

The ranks of combat artists, which are long indeed, have included some notable names. John Trumbull, Winslow Homer, Thomas Nast, and John Singer Sargent, among others, gained fame of a different sort after their tours of duty. The artists also come from many nations, including those who were historically our enemies.
“GIs caught in a flare on a snowy road...”
Howard Brodie (American) 1945.

The pieces I’ve included here caught my attention on artistic merit alone – the quality of line; the handling of color; the sensitivity of subject – but it is the subject in combat art that always trumps presentation. The rawness of feeling, the disjointed context of place, and the drain on the human spirit better help us understand the cost of our freedoms and what it has taken – and still takes – to preserve them.

“Landing Zone”
John O. Wehrle (American)1966. (National Museum of the U.S. Army)

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