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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Military Art

The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, 1807, Jacques-Louis David
Napoleon in his Study, 1812,
Jacques-Louis David
Art has always been a tool for the powers that be. This fact is one of the constants of  history. Sometimes this use has been as simple and benign as a glorious art collection adding beauty and prestige to the royal palace. In other cases, it's more sinister, as in Jacques-Louis David's elegant and eloquent propaganda paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte, such as  The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, of 1807, or Napoleon in His Study, painted in 1812, in which David worked from his imagination or used other portraits of Napoleon as source material. And perhaps the ultimate misuse of art by the state has been in the glorification of war. Some of the French artists of the Romantic era were quite masterful in masking the fact that, "War is HELL."

In this country, even thought he propaganda purposes themselves were masked, the U.S. Army, in WW I for instance, had a core of eight commissioned captains assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers who did nothing but follow the war and report back on canvas. After the war, their work went to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. With the advent of WW II, the Corps of Engineers established a War Art Unit in 1942 governed by the War Art Advisory Committee which selected military and civilian artists to serve in the unit. Not unlike the WPA artists programs during the Depression, by early 1943, there were 42 artists at work, 23 from the active military and 19 civilians. Most worked in the Pacific Theater. However, when Congress heard about this modest undertaking, they self-righteously cut the funding for such "foolishness" in such a dire time of war.

WW II artists, 1942, Fort Belvoir, Virginia
The Army reassigned the military artist to other units and fired the civilians. Seventeen of the nineteen civilians joined Life magazine as war correspondents while Abbot Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company involved in the war effort, in coordination with the Army's Surgeon General's office, hired twelve artists to document the work of the Army Medical Corps. In the end, a collection of paintings in a wide variety of styles resulted, not so much in the glorification of war, but in the creation of a sort of visual history of the war not unlike that generated by war correspondents in photographs. By the end of the war, the Army had acquired over 2,000 pieces of art. Today, the Army's Historical Properties Section maintains and exhibits a collection of over 12,000 works with a program of working artists which continues to contribute to the documentation of the military way of life.

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