Friday, November 4, 2011

When Artists Went to War

An American Thunderbolt ground crew in England, cleaning its guns on June 6, 1944. By artist Ogden Pleissner, for Life Magazine.   

Following a trail of facts that lead to an interesting story is what reporters love to do. That's how I happened to learn about the artists who went to war in World War II.

I stumbled upon the program when I found two framed color prints of Ascension Island in my father's things. My father had served on Ascension and I could see the prints were of really good paintings.  But, they had captions beneath them and looked as if they had been cut from a magazine.

Who frames magazine prints, I wondered? Perhaps these old paintings had some meaning.

They reminded me of my dad, so I put them up on the wall in the kitchen and studied them. Something about the graphic style said Life Magazine to me.

With the help of Google I learned of the World War II artists program. When the war broke out, the Army sifted through a list of WPA artists and assigned seventeen of them to engineering and combat units. Painters had been part of the Corps of Engineers since the Revolutionary War. But, when the War Department discovered the program a Washington donnybrook broke out. Artists in combat? Congress had a fit!

So, most of the artists were then hired by Life Magazine and given the same status as war correspondents

(As the war went on, other artists, who were already in the uniforms of the other branches of the service, were also tasked to paint and draw for the record by their commanding officers.)

The originals of my father's Ascension prints were by Peter Hurd, a mid-20th century artist who married into the Wyeth family. They did indeed appear in Life Magazine. 

Peter Hurd painting of Ascension Island, Life Magazine, April 30, 1945.

GI movie theater on Ascension Island. A glimpse into the off-hours of soldiers' lives. Painted by Peter Hurd, Life Magazine.

A lithographer I admire, Howard Norton Cook (1901-1980), known for his New York and New Mexico scenes, served as a "correspondent" with the infantry. One of his pieces, Bougainville Barracks Bags, captures the dreary grind of war's endless work.

Detail from "Bougainville Barracks Bags" by Howard Cook, 1945. Salmon and black color lithograph.
Rendova Island, Solomon Islands. 

Then, reading the obituary of Pulitzer-prize winning news photographer Brian Lanker, whom I knew slightly as a colleague, I discovered that he had produced a documentary about the war artists program called They Drew Fire. Aired on PBS in 2000 it is an emotional look at a touching corner of World War II. I found it at my local library.

And I found at least one of the Life Magazines--on eBay--with twenty-four pages of work by the war artists.

Artist Aaron Bohrod on the cover of Life, which gave readers many pages of war information for just a dime. Bohrod served all over the world, including Rendova in the Solomons with artist Howard Cook.

Among them were Tom Lea, Aaron Bohrod, Ogden Pleissner, Fletcher Martin, Tom Craig, Bruce Mitchell, Millard Sheets, Peter Hurd, James Turnbull, and Reginald Marsh. Their work is now in the archives of all the branches of the U.S. military and some in the archives of the now defunct Life. You can find these paintings if you look for them. 

Wartime street scene in Brazil by Reginald Marsh.

It is such a democratic thing to do: sending artists with paintbrushes to war.  Not for propaganda, as was true in some of the countries we fought; but to record their personal visions of the largest conflict the world had ever seen. And to leave behind these images for the generations to come.

"In Broken Caen" by Aaron Bohrod who traveled with Allied troops (here British and Canadians) from D-Day in Normandy across Europe. 

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1 comment:

Thaddeus said...

Over the years I have seen some of their images, I guess, but I never knew about the artists' program during WWII. Thanks for this interesting and enlightening story. I knew that you were a good writer, but I increasingly admire the depth and range of your research as well. Thank you for this very interesting piece.