Combat Art

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[Steve Mumford/Drawn and Quarterly]

Artist Steve Mumford decided to buy a ticket to Iraq and got himself embedded with US troops. He’s spent a total of 11 months in Iraq doing watercolors and pen and ink sketches. He was inspired by Winslow Homer’s coverage of the Civil War for Harper’s. “Winslow Homer was my guiding light.”

He also kept a journal which will be published along side his paintings as a book by Drawn & Quarterly.

Back in Chelsea in NYC, he continues to work on the images he captured in the field, making a series of oil paintings to be shown in galleries.

I didn’t set out to “cover” the story in a journalist’s sense; nor was I interested in being objective. I was interested in the war as a narrative. I wanted to gather enough first hand experience to be able to make art about it, without relying on news stories, or perceived wisdom about the war.

Steve Mumford

Why does the notion of an artist depicting war from firsthand experience seem strange to us, the American public? Combat artist Michael Fay points out that it’s been around for as long as art itself. In his book “Art of War,” Avery Chenoweth defines “combat art” as images made from direct experience of war. We talk with combat artists about the line between documenting and creating a work of art that molded by a subjectivity.

Some questions for our listeners: How is combat art shown in a gallery different from the media coverage we’re used to seeing day to day–between the numerous contexts of the newspaper, television, or magazine? What drives these artists to experience war side by side with soldiers? Painting, Mumford points out, slows down time and the interactions with other people unfold differently than if you were taking a photo. What is the reaction of the marine peering over an artist’s shoulder as he sketches a tank or a raid? What about the civilians of the invaded country? When Sgt. Michael Fay arrived at his first one-man show at the Farnsworth Museum, he found peace protesters outside the museum with flyers with his name all over them, saying his art glorified war. Fay told me, “I consider myself a liberal too. I pulled out my dogtags. They were pretty surprised to see I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I told them,’You may have googled my name but you don’t know me.'” Conservative bloggers then ran with the story pointing out the irony of liberals calling for the censorship of art.

How do we as a country reconcile our conflicting feelings on foreign policy, the duty our soldiers perform, and our own involvement in our government’s process?

The Services are proud of the collections. But if you study the paintings, they do remind you of the grizzly side of war.

Gale Munro, curator at the Navy Art Gallery

At night, with the campfire lit faces, there’s a transcendent moment. The faces are dirty and sweaty in the firelight. I just ask myself ‘Whose faces are these? I live in Fredericksburg, VA, one of the most haunted places in the US, supposedly. There’s a suspension of time and place. For an artist, it’s a pure source.

Michael Fay, combat artist

I had a corpsman tell me I had the same effect as a chaplain.

Michael Fay, combat artist

We marines are kind of nuts. You think of painters as sort of sissy, but it’s not true.

Avery Chenoweth, combat artist

Col. Gish by Neary

[combat artist Donna Neary’s portrait of combat artist Col. Mike Gish at work]

For links related to Combat Art, see our collection of links and our collection of paintings, photos, and sketches in our flickr slideshow.

Right now Navy Art has artwork on loan to:

The Decatur House, Washington DC

Wayne Couty Historical Society, Wooster OH

Oshkosh Public Museum, Oshkosh WI

Air Zoo (Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum), Kalamazoo MI

Opening soon:

The Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Library, Austin TX

Anchorage Museum, Anchorage AK

Col. Avery Chenoweth, combat artist, retired colonel, US marine corps

Author of Art of War: Eyewitness U.S. Combat Art from the Revolution Through the Twentieth Century.

He’ll be joining us via telephone.

Steve Mumford, artist

Steven Mumford

Steve Mumford, in the Open Source studio on 9/27 [Brendan Greeley]

Author of Baghdad Journal. He was a featured blogger on Artnet. throughout his work in Iraq.

Painter living in New York.

Mumford is appearing with Anthony Shadid at the Harvard Book Store’s event at the Brattle Theater on September 28th.

He’ll be joining us in the WGBH studio.

Steve Mumford’s email to Vanessa

About war as a subject matter: it’s always scared and fascinated me since my memories of seeing the Vietnam War reported in Life magazine. I remember going with my Mom to anti-war rallies on Boston Common.

In 2002 I started the large Vietnam painting in my studio; when the iraq War got started I realized that I really wanted to find out what war was like, and to make art about it. Many of my paintings had dramatic and sometimes scary situations in them. I like the idea of situations which are so out of the norm that one experiences reality in a kind of brand new, moment to moment way. I guess it seems a kind of transcendence, in our culture which has become so safe and defined. The situations of encounters between people and animals that I painted before Iraq were always going for this kind of unironic moment.

But I have to emphasize that in over 10 months I only experienced combat a few times; it was usually over fast and if there were any casualties they were usually out of sight. Nevertheless, there is an incredible high to hearing the roar of a 50 cal nearby, or the blast of a grenade – it’s the usually unspoken “glamor” of war that soldiers speak openly about but civilians often pretend doesn’t exist. This, too, is part of what I’d like to get across in my work, and it’s part of what attracted me to the war. When an expected firefight doesn’t happen, there’s usually some unspoken disappointment both among soldiers and correspondents.

Update, 9/26/05, 3:20 pm

In planning for this show we wrote to some of the servicemen who had been guests on our military bloggers show back in June. We got this response from Specialist Ernesto Haibi, a medic in the 23rd Infantry Battalion in Ft. Lewis, Washington, who writes the blog Candle in the Dark.

I had this discussion with some guys in Iraq. I told them about the artists in the trenches of WWI and how soldiers would make small pinholes in old artillery shells in the likeness of their girlfriend, dog, or hometown and place a candle in it. It was a primitive form of folk art but seemed more profound as coming from a more emotional and relevant place in that person than many trained artists.

I never met any artists in Iraq but the idea intrigues me. Somehow the image frozen in time can convey more emotion than hours of video or trite populist narrative. Someday this war going to end (a la Robert Duvall) and when we have all lost our hard drives and flittered away the odd photo here and there, when the Michael Moore’s and Cindy Sheehan’s have no one to be mad at and no alphabet network to pander to, the bland watercolor of a soldier standing in the desert will still have a place near the Bayeux Tapestry and tell just as much just to fewer.

This is not the largest or most glamorous war but history will always have a dark corner for it.

Specialist Ernesto Haibi

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