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In the winter of 1945 into 1946, a World War II infantryman for the United States would be supplied with gear that was to be carried and trekked from location to location, regardless of weather, ailment, or occurrence. This ensemble would include everything from a thin wool blanket and long underwear, heavy, durable boots, and a stainless steel canteen, to meal rations, gas masks, and radio transmitters. All of this gear alone could easily weigh a good 50 to 60 pounds. And that’s all before there were any weapons on hand. Add on a rifle or pistol, bullets and any appropriate add-ons needed to maintain, clean, and restock a weapon, and you are talking a serious load to haul around. To a handful of these men, however, it wasn’t their guns, their helmets, or their first aid kits that were the most significant pieces of equipment that they transported to the battlefield. No-- there was a more specialized tool of utter importance. As one soldier, Edward Reep, noted, quote, “I fought the war more furiously perhaps with my paintbrush than with my weapons.”
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those can be paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. And today, we're discussing a group of dedicated and talented artists who threw themselves in the middle of war in order to capture the experience and create art about it. Welcome to the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
In this second season of the ArtCurious Podcast, I'll be guiding you through a number of episodes in which world war 2 and the art world intersect. In our last episode, number 22, the second in this season, we looked at one of the most well-known failed artists in modern history, and certainly the single person who played the largest role in World War II-- Adolf Hitler. Today, though, we will be looking at a group of individuals who were successful working artists, sacrificing life and limb by entering the war zone-- specifically for the purpose of documenting it. This is the story of the Combat Artists of World War II.
At the beginning of 1943, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy, took time out of his busy schedule to sit down, at his request, with a muralist. By this point, the United States had been embroiled in World War Two for just over a year, ever since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 catapulted the nation into action. From most accounts, it looks like the Assistant Secretary of War had a lot of worries on his hands, but one was of personal significance to him. He had recently learned that the U.S. Navy had been doing particularly well, for the past year, in visually recording their accomplishments for glory and for posterity. Having developed the Navy Combat Art Program in 1941--prior to Pearl Harbor even-- and based off of similar positive experiences in World War 1, the Navy had been sending painters into the field to document the goings on.
This was all well and good. But John McCloy? He was an Army man. And gosh darn it, if the Navy is doing something considerably well, then the Army better catch up-- and do it better, if he could help it.
So that is how George Biddle found himself being asked to serve as the chairman for the War Department Art Advisory Committee. Biddle was a muralist and a lithographer by trade, but he was also a person with important contacts. He counted Franklin Roosevelt among his closest childhood friends, and his brother, Francis Biddle, was an attorney general who helped get his brother a coveted commission to paint murals inside the Department of Justice Building and other federal buildings under the scope of the New Deal. And luckily for John McCloy, he was also an Army man, and was super-enthusiastic about the prospects of developing a trained core of talented artists to work alongside trained officers in the war. Biddle accepted the chairmanship and got to work assembling a panel of advisors who would recommend the best of the best in the art world.
George Biddle assembled a wide range of prominent individuals to come together and select the artists who would eventually form the Army Art Unit. Some of the advisors were artists themselves, like Henry Varnum Poor, who, like Biddle, was a well-connected muralist who originally studied under the British artist Walter Sickert, who coincidentally, was the subject of our podcast’s sixth and seventh episodes. He also requested the aid of curators, museum directors, and gallery owners. Interestingly enough, the writer John Steinbeck was also part of this committee, who once wrote to Biddle, quote, "It seems to me that a total war would require the use not only of all of the material resources of the nation but also the spiritual and psychological participation of the whole people. And the only psychic communication we have is through the arts."
At the end of a fairly short deliberation process, the Advisory Committee ultimately narrowed down their selections to 41 so called “artist correspondents,”-- all male, of course, and with the delegation split between civilian artists and those already in active duty. These men would be responsible for documenting and producing art-- fine art, high art, of excellent quality-- in twelve theaters of war across the globe.
Supported by the hindsight of almost eighty years, it is easy for me to think of this concept-- of the war and combat artist-- as totally insane. These men would have to schlep their gear in the middle of raging battles replete with artillery fire, awful weather conditions, dire illness and lacking any sort of meditative and creative space. And they were expected to ship works back to the United States in somewhat reasonable shape, order, and frequency. But there was a precedent for this type of job-- besides World War 1, when the establishment of official war artists really became the norm, there are examples of war art documentation in America reaching all the way back to the Revolutionary War, with artists such as Winslow Homer, John Trumbull, William Glackens, and John Singer Sargent producing war-related works in the span of the country’s first 150 years. But the intensity and scope of the Second World War was unlike anything ever experienced, and documenting it was a whole new ball game.
George Biddle’s main intention in establishing the Art Unit was to portray what it was really, really like on the war front. In part, Biddle was responding to the traditional types of art and design that proliferated during times of war-- in particular, the highly emotional, fear-based or extra-saccharine propaganda posters filling newspapers, magazines, and city streets. This will be discussed more fully in a future episode this season, but suffice to say that there was no lack of images meant to provoke everyday people into supporting the war effort with war bonds, for example. Either that, or the images of soldiers in battle fell into the time-honored tradition of hero worship, which stretched back in art all the way to ancient times, as we discussed in the first episode of this season. But Biddle new better. He was in the army during the first World War, and he knew very well that war wasn’t what it appeared to the outside. With that, he provided marching orders to the artists in his command, allowing them their artistic freedom but also demanding that they present a full picture of their experiences. As he wrote to them in March 1943, Quote, “...Any subject is in order, if as artists you feel that it is part of War; battle scenes and the front line battle landscapes; the dying and the dead; prisoners of war; field hospitals and base hospitals; wrecked habitations and bombing scenes; character sketches of our own troops, of prisoners, of the natives of the countries you visit; the tactical implements of war; embarkation and debarkation scenes; the nobility, courage, cowardice, cruelty, boredom of war; all this should form part of a well-rounded picture. Try to omit nothing; duplicate to your heart's content. Express if you can, realistically or symbolically, the essence and spirit of war. You may be guided by Blake's mysticism, by Goya's cynicism and savagery, by Delacroix's romanticism, by Daumier's humanity and tenderness; or better still follow your own inevitable star. We believe that our Army Command is giving you an opportunity to bring back a record of great value to our country. Our committee wants to assist you to that end.” That end began only months later, with the first artists landing in parts of the South Pacific and North Africa by May of 1943. And believe it or not, George Biddle so believed in his own mission that he enlisted as a combat artist himself, heading to Tunisia and essentially upping the corp’s numbers to 42 artist correspondents.
Regardless, resistance to the Army Art Unit stateside was surprisingly substantial, especially in two aspects. The first, naturally, was monetary. Only months after the Army’s art Unit was established and while many of its correspondents were out in the literal line of fire, the House of Representatives moved to cut the program from the Army’s already massive budget for the fiscal year of 1943 to 1944. As reported by the book They Drew Fire: Combat Artists in World War Two, one devastated artist quipped, quote, "One of us might conceivably have had his head shot off, and at the same time Congress is giving us this kick in the pants." Thankfully, though, Congress changed their minds the following year and reinstated the program. Concurrently, there was initial backlash against the idea of combat artists specifically being requested to produce quality, finished paintings as the endgame for these military projects. Why bother to do so, when a photograph could capture the scene just as well, and with an immediacy that a painting just couldn’t provide? To its supporters, though, combat artists in each wing of the military could provide a sense of humanity that would otherwise be lacking in a quickfire photo. As Representative A. Willis Robertson of Virginia said to this effect, quote, "we can take photographs of what happens in Europe, but... it takes the vision and artistic skill of the artist to bring us the inspiration which only an artist can put down on canvas." Brigadier General Robert L. Denig, the Director of Public Relations for the United States Marine Corps, concurred with Robertson’s assessment, but even took it one step further, writing, quote, “The combat photographer must snap his picture of an action as it happens. If he is busy taking part in the action, as he so often is; if it happens so fast he is unable to adjust his camera in time; if conditions are not good, the action is never recorded- and the picture is never made. The artist, on the other hand, with his photographic eye, can take part in the action, and then paint any moment of it from memory at his leisure. The painter can provide his own lighting; he can give a picture any degree of intensity he desires. He can reconstruct a scene from whatever angle he considers most dramatic, centering attention wherever he wishes.” And this part was very true. For the vast majority of combat artists, their work was done after the fact. And though specific people, locations, and events could be referenced or recalled, the MAJORITY of their paintings were amalgams of these elements-- combined and remixed in retrospect, in order to provide the most effective response from the viewer back home: sadness; horror; pride; sympathy. Horror, though-- that one was the most prominent. That’s coming up next, after this break.
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Welcome back to ArtCurious. The Combat Artists of World War Two created thousands of artworks-- paintings, mostly-- from each of the branches of the U.S Military. The Army alone received more than two thousand paintings from their artist-correspondents all around the world, and quickly put together a traveling exhibition titled “Army at War,” featuring over 200 paintings meant to bridge the gap between soldiers and civilians in knowledge and experience of the realities of war. As George Biddle strongly hoped and as author Christopher Hansen writes in a 2008 article from the Archives of American Art Journal, quote, “The Army at War exhibition would correct the naive homefront-impression, fostered by Hollywood, that combat was an exciting adventure, rather than a living nightmare.” Strangely enough, this goal was not communicated clearly to those tasked with marketing the exhibition, who used tactics from the movie industry to promote the exhibition, replete with phrases like “Thrill-Packed, spectacular scenes!” and “Immortal Heroism”-- all with capital letters and lots of exclamation points-- to play up to potential exhibition-goers throughout the country.
Though the “Army at War” exhibition was popular and well-attended as it traversed the nation, there was another and far more effective method of presenting these works of art to a captive audience. The ever-popular LIFE Magazine began offering “artist-correspondents” their own contracts for reproducing artwork produced in battle- which meant that, suddenly, these images were everywhere, exposed to the everyday U.S. Citizen at an astounding rate. And the immediate reactions… were not good. First and foremost, readers were shocked because war was right there, in their faces, and in full color. Most people had experienced the war only through photographs and newsreels-- and the black-and-white nature of these media allowed a certain amount of detachment. But not so with painting, wherein an artist could add as much blood red as he deemed fit. One artist, Tom Lea, created some of the most iconic and memorable of these paintings. And to this day, there is one work of art that is deemed the most controversial-- The Price, a painting from 1944, created in the aftermath of the Battle of Peleliu, it in itself one of the most controversial U.S. battles. Tom Lea fought as an artist for the Marines in this epic battle with the Japanese, and The Price, as Lea later told LIFE Magazine, was based on his actual memories of Peleliu. Of the battle, he wrote, quote, “I got up… ran a few steps, and fell into a small hole as another mortar burst threw dirt on me. Lying there in terror looking longingly up the slope for better cover, I saw a wounded man near me, staggering in the direction of the LVTs. His face was half bloody pulp and the mangled shreds of what was left of an arm hung down like a stick, as he bent over in his stumbling, shock-crazy walk. The half of his face that was still human had the most terrifying look of abject patience I have ever seen. He fell behind me, in a red puddle on the white sand.” The vivid painted version, created after Lea’s return to the States, proved to be too much for many LIFE readers. The magazine received hundreds of complaints, with one simply reading, quote, “God, how could you? Why such a picture?” and another snarkily jeered, quote, “Congratulations. We can’t have too much stark reality.” Because this is, in effect, one of the starkest of all of the combat paintings of World War Two. Lea faithfully illustrates his memory so that viewers have no choice but to stare at the face, literally, of gore: the soldier is transformed into a half-person, whose left side, from the head down through the torso to his dangling hand, is shredded flesh, dripping with blood. Even for 21st century viewers who might be accustomed to violence in TV and movies, this painting is hard to handle. And even I had some internal debates with myself about whether or not to post it to the ArtCurious website-- spoiler alert, I did, so be forewarned. But as Lea maintained, there was no need to enhance the terror or drama of this scene. As he remembered in 1982, quote “I want to make it clear that I did not report hearsay; I did not imagine, or fake, or improvise; I did not cuddle up with personal emotion, moral notion, or political opinion about War with a capital W. I reported in pictures what I saw with my own two eyes, wide open.”
A far less gory, but equally powerful work of art that Tom Lea completed after his time at Peleliu is The Two-Thousand Yard Stare, which may have had the original title of Marines Call It That 2,000 Yard Stare. Life Magazine published this image, along with an article about Lea’s experiences in 1945-- and ever since that moment, the phrase “thousand yard stare” has entered both military and popular vernacular. It has found its way into iconic films such as Full Metal Jacket-- though where and when the “two thousand yard” transformed into just “a thousand yard” is beyond me. Lea’s painting shows a helmeted man whose face takes up a full two-thirds of the canvas. And though there is a lot of action going on behind him-- smoke billowing towards the sky, tanks and soldiers at the ready, and planes soaring overhead-- it’s the man and his deadened, horrified expression that grips us as viewers. His eyes bulge out in shock and are red-rimmed. His mouth gapes slightly open. His gaze looks almost at us, but is actually focused far beyond us-- out into nothingness.
Tom Lea noted that he based The Two Thousand Yard Stare on an actual person. In his book, also titled The Two Thousand Yard Stare, he wrote, quote, “I noticed a tattered marine…staring stiffly at nothing. His mind had crumbled in battle…his eyes were like two black empty holes in his head…Last evening he came down out of the hills. Told to get some sleep, he found a shell crater and slumped into it…First light has given his gray gray face eerie color. He left the States 31 months ago. He was wounded in his first campaign… Two thirds of his company has been killed or wounded…How much can a human being endure?” Interestingly, some have countered Lea’s own recollection of this anonymous soldier and have theorized that The Two Thousand Yard Stare might actually be Lea’s self portrait. Larry Decuers, an exhibition curator at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, said quote, “If you look at photos of Tom Lea at the time, it almost looks like him.” Whether or not it is a self-portrait doesn’t matter, essentially. This detached, impaired person-- and this painting-- is PTSD writ large, a visual symbol for the destruction and devastation of World War Two.
For something so invested in and extolled as a concept, the thousands of works of art made by the combat artists of World War Two slipped away and into relative obscurity after the end of the War in 1945. Even though they had entered the consciousness of millions of Americans via traveling exhibitions and especially via LIFE Magazine, once VJ day rolled around, Americans were tired. They no longer wanted to see, nor did they have a use for these wartime images of death and terror. Tragedy had touched their lives enough, and they were ready to move on, and to bask in the victorious outcome for the Allies. So, these combat paintings were shuffled away into military archives and scant private and public collections around the country, with most off of view for decades. Thankfully, today there are some fantastic books and documentaries out there that profile the incredible work of these one-of-a-kind artist-correspondents. And you can still see some of these original artworks today, at the U.S. Army Center for Military History, the Navy Art Gallery, and the Marine Corps Museum, all three in Washington, D.C.,-- which means that making a special trip to see combat art is made much easier by virtue of geography. But much more work needs to be done--and should be done-- to bring more of these artworks to light. Because when people think of visual art pertaining to World War Two, they are far more likely to think about icons of Rosie the Riveter or Uncle Sam over any image created by the Army Art Unit. And that’s coming up next time on the ArtCurious Podcast.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal. Research assistance is provided by the wonderful Stephanie Pryor. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com.
The ArtCurious Podcast is sponsored primarily by Anchorlight. Anchorlight is an interdisciplinary creative space, founded with the intent of fostering artists, designers, and craftspeople at varying stages of their development. Home to artist studios, residency opportunities, and exhibition space Anchorlight encourages mentorship and the cross-pollination of skills among creatives in the Triangle. To find more about what they do, please visit anchorlightraleigh.com.
A vast majority of this episode is indebted to the excellent book and documentary mentioned in this episode-- called They Drew Fire, all about combat artists during World War II. I highly suggest that if you found this episode interesting that you buy this DVD and the accompanying book. The ArtCurious Podcast is fiscally sponsored by VAE Raleigh, a 501c3 nonprofit creativity incubator. This means that you can donate to the show and it is fully tax-deductible! You can enter the amount you’d like to donate-- as little or as much as you want-- and you can have the satisfaction of knowing that you are directly supporting our show, while getting a little kickback during tax time. Please see our website for further details-- and you can also go there for images, information and links to our previous episodes. That site is artcuriouspodcast.com. And you can contact us via the website, email us at email@example.com, or find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod. Finally, please tell anyone about the show in any way that you want--and remember to subscribe and review us on iTunes. Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in art history.