November 16, 2012
Its battles, its generals, its lasting political implications are all fairly familiar territory to most, but the Civil War’s art is another story altogether. In the midst of a sesquicentennial anniversary, the country turns again to that defining moment with exhibitions, books and movies, including the current blockbuster film Lincoln by director Steven Spielberg.
But it took the dogged determination of curator Eleanor Jones Harvey to bring together a unique exhibit full of original scholarship that tracks how the war was portrayed in art before, during and after and how that war changed forever the very categories of landscape and genre paintings or scenes of everyday life, as well as photography in America. The American Art Museum’s exhibition “The Civil War and American Art” shows how American artists and the broader public wrestled with a war that fractured a country’s young identity.
According to Harvey, it has long been assumed that the great landscape artists “took a pass” on the Civil War, seeking not to sully their pristine paintings with the problems of the war. But, she says, the precise opposite occurred.
Her first clue came while reading the journals of two Texas soldiers who described the scene of a bloody Confederate victory as a metaphorical landscape of wildflowers, covered in red. From there, she says, similar allusions to weather and landscape were easy to spot in newspapers, poems, sermons and songs. Talk of a coming storm filled the country’s pews and pamphlets in the years leading up to the war.
A stunning meteor event in 1860 inspired Walt Whitman’s “Year of Meteors,” which referenced both John Brown’s raid and Lincoln’s presidency. The public could not help but read the skies for signs of war. Harvey says some even worried that the meteor, which passed as a procession over Manhattan, might be a new military technology from the South. She adds that when viewers first saw the dark foreboding skies of Frederic Edwin Church’s Meteor of 1860, the anxiety over the pending war was writ large.
Storms, celestial events and even volcanic eruptions mixed with religious metaphor informed the conversation of the day. “This imagery found its way into landscape painting in a manner that was immediately recognizable to most viewers,” writes Harvey in a recent article. “The most powerful of these works of art were charged with metaphor and layered complexity that elevated them to the American equivalent of grand manner history paintings.”
Among the 75 works in the exhibit–57 paintings and 18 vintage photographs–grand depictions of battles in the history painting tradition are noticeably absent. “There’s no market for pictures of Americans killing each other,” says Harvey. Instead, artists used landscape paintings like Sanford Gifford’s A Coming Storm and genre paintings like Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South to come to terms with hardships and heart aches of four years of war.
By drawing on pieces made in the midst of conflict–indeed, many of the artists represented in the show spent time at the battlefront–Harvey says she wanted to address the question “What do you paint when you don’t know how the war is going?” In other words, what future did America think was waiting at the end of the war.
While the exhibit’s epic landscapes deal in metaphors, the genre paintings look more directly at the shifting social hierarchy as people once enslaved now negotiated for a lasting freedom in an unyielding society. Johnson’s A Ride for Liberty–The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862, for example, depicts a young family presumably fleeing to freedom. But, Harvey points out, Johnson painted this while traveling with Union General George McClellan who chose to turn back runaway slaves. “We want to read these as benign images,” says Harvey, but the reality on the ground was anything but.
Winslow Homer also spoke to the uncertainties many faced after the war. In his arresting genre painting, A Visit from the Old Mistress, the artist captures a stare-down between a former slave owner and the women who were once considered her property. Harvey says she’s watched visitors to the exhibit head in for a closer look and get caught in the depicted standoff, stepping back uncomfortably. There is no love shared between the women, no hope for the now-dead myth that perhaps slaves were, in some way, part of the families they served.
But for the newly freed and others, the fields were still waiting. The Cotton Pickers and The Veteran in a New Field, also by Homer, show the back-breaking labor that still characterized life after the war. The solitary veteran, for example, has his back to us, his feet buried. “All he can do is keep scything things down,” says Harvey.
A final gallery of landscapes returns visitors to the metaphors presented earlier. This time, artists take up the idea of America as a new Eden and the attempt to once again find a redemptive narrative in the land. Closing with Albert Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, the exhibit ends not in the North or South, but gazing West. The failure of Reconstruction was yet to come. But in the West, America hoped it had found another chance at Paradise.
Harvey’s accomplishment has, in a single exhibit, untied the Civil War from the straight jacket of a rehearsed and certain narrative and returned us to the uncertain precipice of its promise.
“The Civil War and American Art” opens November 16 and runs through April 28, 2013 before heading to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
October 9, 2012
Adam Gopnik is a staff writer at The New Yorker. An essayist in the grand tradition of E.B. White, Gopnik brings a studied, yet enthusiastically amateur, eye to everything from baseball to art to politics. Published in 2000, his book Paris to the Moon, grew out of his time spent writing for The New Yorker‘s “Paris Journals.” He has won three National Magazine Awards for his essays and written a number of books, including Through the Children’s Gate, Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life and The Table Comes First: France, Family, and the Meaning of Food.
Gopnik, 56, was born in Philadelphia and raised in Montreal. He graduated from McGill University and completed his graduate coursework at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. In 1990, he curated the exhibit “High/Low” at the Museum of Modern Art.
This Wednesday, he will be lecturing at the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art series. We talked by telephone with the writer from his New York apartment about American art, his writing career and his plans to go back to school.
The lecture for Wednesday’s talk is titled “What Makes American Art American?” That’s a lot of ground to cover, can we have a preview?
A few years ago I gave a keynote address when the Smithsonian American Art Museum reopened and I tried to talk, then, about the difficulties of making sense of the idea of American art. In other words, you can take a strong position. My little brother Blake who is the art critic for Newsweek’s Daily Beast insists that it’s kind of narrow and shallow chauvinism to talk about American art having special qualities, that to say that there is some essence that passes from John James Audubon to Winslow Homer to Richard Serra, we’re deluding ourselves. Art is inherently cosmopolitan and international and trying to see it in national terms betrays its essence.
On the other hand, you have very powerful arguments that there are specifically American traditions in the visual arts. You may remember that Robert Hughes in American Visions made that kind of case. I want to ask again how can we think about that, how should we think about it? Does it make any sense to talk about American art as a subject in itself?
The other question that I want to ask, and it’s the one I’ve added to this meditation since last I spoke in Washington is what about the question of drawing boundaries? One of the things that’s been specific about people looking at American art for a long time is that we more easily include things like furniture—think of Shaker chairs—the decorative arts, cartooning in our understanding of what American art is. If you look at the early collections of American art in museums, for instance at the Metropolitan Museum here in New York, you see that they very easily broke those lines between the fine and the decorative and applied arts in ways that they weren’t doing in collections of European art at the same time. That was done originally, as a kind of gesture of diminution. You could look at American art as a kind of lesser relative, still something that was cadet and on its way. And so you could include lots of seemingly extraneous material sort of on an anthropological basis. We were looking at ourselves anthropologically. As that’s persisted, it raises another set of questions. Is that enriching? Is that evermore legitimate? Is that a kind of model that should be allowed to sort of infect the halls of European art? That’s the new question that I’m going to try to raise in addition to rehearsing, because I don’t think it ever gets stale, the fundamental question of what we mean when we talk about American art.
It’s hard not to think of art divided along those traditional, national lines.
That’s the natural way to see it, and I think that’s the right way to see it. I think we can talk about continuities in American art as we can talk about real continuities in French art or, God help us, in English art. But they’re not self evident, they’re not transparent.
So what defines American art?
The title I gave to the last lecture was in terms of two poles: “The overabundant larder and the luminous oblong blur.” On the one hand, you have the overabundant larder, you have this sense of plenty. It’s best exemplified in Audubon’s work. If you think about what Audubon set out to do, it was something completely new. He was trying to make a picture of every single bird and every single four-legged beast in North America. He was totally omnivorous and democratic, there’s no sequencing, there was no, “these are the noble beasts and birds and these are the lesser beasts and birds.” It’s everything at once. That sense of inclusion, of inspection, of the complete inventory, that’s a very American idea. In obvious ways it runs direct from Audubon to someone like Andy Warhol, that same omnivorous, democratic, Whitman-like appetite for the totality of experience without hierarchy within it. That’s why for Warhol, Elvis and Marilyn are the holy figures, rather than holy figures being holy figures.
And against that you have what I call, the luminous oblong blur. That comes from an evangelist back in the 1920s, who said once when someone asked what does God look like to you, “Like a luminous oblong blur.” That’s the sense that transcendent experience, spiritual experience, religious experience is available, it’s out there. W.H. Auden once said that it’s the deepest American belief that when you find the right gimmick, you’ll be able to build the new Jerusalem in 30 minutes. It’s that sense, that that transcendent, powerful, sublime experience is there for the asking. You find the luminous in something like 19th century landscape and it runs right through to Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman and the sublime abstract painters of the 1940s and 50s. They think what they’re showing you is not pain, but paradise, or some version of it. That’s a very powerful tradition in American art as well.
I read that you said, your work is about a longing for modernity in a postmodern world. I was wondering how your work fits into this trajectory of American art?
Did I say that? That’s a bit full of itself isn’t it? I think it’s true, I apologize if it seems pompous. What I meant by it, when I said it and I’m sure I did, is that the art and civilization that I cherish and love is that of modernity. It’s the essentially optimistic, forward-looking and in some way ironic way but in some deep sense confident world of Paris and the Cubists of 1910 or Pollock and the abstract expressionists in 1947. It’s not that these worlds were without deep flaws and a sense of tragedy but they believed in a future for art. They believed in the possibility of lucid communications. They believed in the possibility of creativity. We live in a postmodern age in which those things themselves–lucidity and creativity–are all thrown in essential doubt. In that sense, that’s what I meant in longing for modernism in a postmodern age.
In terms of my own work, I think that one of the great privileges I have had writing for The New Yorker, but it’s also in a sense an extension of the kind of sensibility I happen to have, is that I like to do lots of different kinds of things. I hate this sense of specialization. I have an appetite for lots of different kinds of experience. One of the pleasures of being an essayist as opposed to a specialist or an academic is that you get to write about lots of different kinds of things. It’s no accident, then, that The New Yorker as an institution is kind of unique to America. There’s no French New Yorker, there’s no British New Yorker because it relies on the notion that you can write with authority without having any expertise about lots of different things. That idea of the amateur enthusiast is one that is very much a part of a certain kind of omnivorous American tradition.
How has studying art history helped you go on to examine all these topics?
I just was going back on a sentimental journey a week ago to Montreal to McGill University, where I did my undergraduate work in art history and it was sort of heartbreaking to me because they don’t have an art history department anymore. It’s now something like communications and visual history or something very postmodern and up-to-date. I think they still teach art history but they teach it within this much broader, anthropological context. The point is, I had this wonderful mentor-professor in psychology, which is what I started out in. I was torn about whether to go into art history or stay in psychology and I was agonizing over it with the self-importance that you have at 22. He calmed me down and he said, listen, this is not an important decision. An important decision is whether you’re going to go into art history, psychology, or dentistry. That’s an important decision because it will make your life very different, but decisions that seem really hard aren’t very hard because it means you’ve got something to be said on both sides. I probably wouldn’t have been very different had I taken the turn to psychology rather than art history.
I do think that the habit of looking and the practice of describing (which, I think is sadly decayed in art history as it’s practiced now, but as far as I’m concerned it’s at the core of it and is what all the great art historians did) I think that is a hugely helpful foundation for anybody who wants to be a writer. In fact, I’d go farther and actually even say that it’s a better foundation than creative writing because to confront something as complicated and as many-sided and as non-verbal as a great work of art and try to begin to find a language of metaphor, evocation, context and historical placement for it, is in some respects the hardest challenge that any writer can have.
I completely agree, and having studied it, I was heartened to hear you had an art history background, though I know you didn’t complete the Ph.D. program at New York University.
I didn’t, I’m ABD (All-But-Dissertation) I guess the year…I did my orals in 1984, so you can figure it out, but it’s almost 30 years now. I’ll do it someday. I’m the only one, of five brothers and sisters, without a PhD. Some day I’ll go back and get it. When I was studying art history back in the 70s and 80s it was still very much an old-fashioned disciplined. You mostly did archival research and most of the professors did iconography, just puzzle solving about what’s the little dog mean in the righthand corner of the picture. Now, of course, it’s been totally revolutionized and modernized and I think it makes you long for the old archival, iconographic tradition which seemed terribly stultifying when I was part of it.
I no longer write regularly about the visual arts, though I try to write often about them when something stirs me. But I still feel, if you’ll allow me a semi-sentimental moment, that there’s no rush of excitement as great as that of walking into a great museum and being aware that you’re in proximity to beautiful things.