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Arts: Nation’s schism on display in D.C.
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
WASHINGTON- IF YOU’RE AN artist, how should you respond to the confusion and horror of war?
That’s the profound question posed by a sensitive and sweeping exhibition now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The scope of “The Civil War and American Art” is plain in its title. And there seems little question this is the defining art exhibit for the sesquicentennial of the nation’s defining moment.
It packs many punches. The show—with 57 paintings and 18 vintage photographs—brings home the conflict’s human slaughter and economic devastation, connects the dots between the Civil War and civil rights, and conveys the wonder and uncertainty of those who lived through it as to how events would bear out.
Yet for all its power and pathos, the exhibit is restrained, not trying to be comprehensive, but rather to clearly communicate its chosen themes.
And so it works. Even if you can spend only an hour or so in its splendor, a visitor will probably leave understanding how the war:
–Transformed American landscape painting, which artists adapted to signal the public’s changing moods about what was happening on the battlefields and the society at large.
–Proved photography’s power to shred prior notions of war’s glory and heroism.
–Induced the bravest and best painters of genre scenes to tackle difficult, politically charged subjects, aiming to change hearts and minds for the sake of a better future.
For more literal-minded visitors (count me in), there are also terrific scenes from the front—whether it is camp life by Winslow Homer, Charleston and its forts by Confederate artists Conrad Wise Chapman and John Gadsby Chapman, or the haunting prints of lensmen Alexander Gardner and George Barnard.
But if one only stops and thinks about it for a minute, there’s little mystery that most wartime painters didn’t depict battles’ grim and gruesome gore.
First, there was the question of timely access, which even the photographers and newspaper correspondents struggled with. And then there was the question of public appetite.
“There was no market for pictures of American killing each other,” says senior curator Eleanor Jones Harvey, a Virginia native.
Also, Americans had never developed a taste for painting in the European grand manner. Huge canvases depicting victorious generals (save for George Washington) weren’t our thing.
Our public preferred great landscapes, which spoke to our continent-spanning ambitions and pride of place, and folksy scenes of domestic life.
Yet even before war was declared, artists incorporated current events into such works, though more subtly than we’re now used to.
Frederick Douglass, in a June 1861 address, described race slavery as North America’s moral volcano, due to erupt explosively. Abraham Lincoln supposedly said of the looming cataclysm, “I see a storm coming.”
So, not surprisingly, portents of change in the form of storm clouds, crimson skies, burned trees and smoking volcanoes swiftly populated landscape paintings. Viewers understood the metaphors.
Before Fort Sumter, there were even horizontal fireballs evoked by Walt Whitman’s poem “Year of Meteors” and Hudson River artist Frederic Edwin Church’s eery “Meteor of 1860.”
Church also produced 1861’s startling “Our Banner in the Sky,” his homage to friend and writer Theodore Winthrop, a contributor to The Atlantic magazine killed at Big Bethel—the war’s first land battle—near Fort Monroe in Hampton.
Even stranger and wilder are five mammoth landscapes—with icebergs, a giant volcano, the aurora borealis, a double rainbow and the golden light of Yosemite Valley—grouped near the end. Each is an otherworldly masterwork that rewards time studying their myriad details.
Equally affecting are paired paintings by Conrad Chapman and Union soldier Sanford Robinson Gifford; Homer’s iconic moments in Petersburg’s trenches and the woods of The Wilderness; George Barnard’s chilling photos as he moved with William Tecumseh Sherman’s army; Eastman Johnson’s humane insights into African–American life; and a narrow gallery of Gardner’s photos of the dead at Antietam juxtaposed with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
From the United Kingdom, The Independent calls this show “an exhibition that anyone interested in the soul of the United States should visit.”
Agreed. With an exclamation point.
WANT TO GO:
What: “The Civil War and American Art”
Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW, Washington, D.C.
When: Through April 28. 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily
Note: With a remarkable Civil War history all its own, the museum is near Verizon Center and Ford’s Theatre in a district frequented by Clara Barton, Walt Whitman and Mathew Brady. Across the street from Metro’s Gallery Place/Chinatown station. Good restaurants abound.
Info: 202 633-1000; bit.ly/cwaamega
Teacher’s guide: bit.ly/cwaateach
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029