Last Saturday I attended a VonnegutFest 2013 event at the Herron School of Art and Design. Alongside a terrific panel discussion featuring U.S. war veterans and moderated by Steve Inskeep of NPR fame, there were two art exhibitions: Combat Paper and Convergence: Experience Through Art. But just a few minutes before I headed over to Herron, I lingered a bit in the Indiana State Museum to take in The Fiery Trial: Memorial Prints of the Civil War, which is currently on display. Viewing the two, one after another, was stark and powerful. While both are very different in their work, they share a common theme: War.
In The Fiery Trial: Memorial Prints of the Civil War, Senior Cultural History Curator, Dale Ogden gives us a smartly crafted selection of color chromolithograph prints and text from the State Museum's Lincoln Collection. The prints were created between 1886 and 1893 by noted art publishers, Kurz and Allison and Louis Prang, and depict important battles. You're probably familiar with these images; colorful landscapes, chock-full of soldiers dressed in blue and gray, positioned like opposing teams on a field, meeting in the middle with images of obvious carnage.
These scenes frequently appear in history books, documentaries and military depictions of the era. As the title of the show suggests, they were created to commemorate important Civil War battles for an audience for whom the war was still fresh. The public purchased, framed and displayed these prints to honor military family members or immortalize their recollections of a war that was up close and often personal.
I took this experience with me across the canal to the Herron exhibitions and panel discussion. It put what I was about to see in perspective.
Both the Combat Paper and Convergence exhibits feature works by soldiers who fought in wars--wars that happened more than 100 years after the Civil War ended. Missing are the cleanly and beautifully drawn narratives; images of heroic soldiers marching in formation to an unknown fate. Instead, you have a sense that both of these collections reflect what the characters in those idealized Civil War prints would have experienced in the days and months following their encounters: the psychological scars, physical pain and continual search to make sense of it all.
Combat Paper features original works of art made completely out of recycled military uniforms by the veterans who wore them, with the images and objects telling the personal stories and expressing the opinions of their makers. The images are familiar: the tools of war and remnants of lives from when the tools are properly used. In Convergence, one of the four artists featured, Tom Hubbard, tells the story of his search for a father he knew only through his mother's stories and fragmented images from his childhood, as his father was killed in Vietnam in 1966. Hubbard's adult journey to truly know his father began in 1996, when his father's remains were disinterred and moved from Indianapolis to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, to finally receive a funeral with military honors.
Each of these retrospectives brings a sense of reality to war. You can't help but wonder what it must have been like to be on the Gettysburg Battlefield and marching in the ranks - its human nature. But the difference between the images of the Civil War and those presented at Herron is crystal clear; one to romanticize, the other to come to terms with.
As Ogden eloquently wrote in his opening title panel about the Civil War Memorial Prints, "The works do not pretend to mirror actual events, but appealed to common emotions. Uniforms were typically immaculate and, while death and injury were omnipresent, there was a complete lack of blood and disfigurement." These images present war in a tidy package. Ogden provides a dose of reality in the accompanying wall label for the Battle of Antietam - "by day's end, 22,717 were dead, wounded or missing."
The Herron displays afford us no such luxury. While lacking graphic images of combat, the artwork forces you to deal with reality of war. While the actual fighting takes its toll, what follows is often a conflict that never ends. All three exhibits have an emotional impact and provide perspective to a subject that remains seemingly hopeless. They also make clear that like art, war comes in many forms and has many unintended consequences. The day's events left me wondering what the art of war will be like 100 years from now. Unfortunately, future generations will probably be able to answer that question.