Monday, January 30, 2017


Kerr Eby (1889-1946) was a combat artist on the front lines of two major wars.

He witnessed a lot of death, and his literal drawing style strained-- often unsuccessfully-- to convey the enormity of the tragedy.

Eby's most powerful picture was one where he abandoned some of his literal approach.  In September 1918 an immense dark cloud hung over the blood soaked battlefields of St. Mihiel in France.  It lingered there for three days.  As the French, German and Americans nervously prepared for battle the cloud seemed eerie and foreboding.  The skittish Germans called it "the cloud of blood."

Rather than focus on heroic expressions or  straining muscles or corpses, Eby made the human element tiny and inconsequential at the bottom of his picture.  He abandoned  his trademark details which gave his previous pictures such authenticity.  Instead, the immense, symbolic cloud dominated the picture as a flat, simplified shape.


This image, called "The Great Black Cloud" was widely regarded as Eby's most profound, moving picture.

The poet W.H. Auden wrote that it was folly to attempt to capture absolute things directly: 
We have to regard the universe etsi deus non daretur: God must be a hidden deity, veiled by His creation.
An artist who attempts to look directly into the face of death and accurately record what he or she sees is destined to fail.  The result will always come out shrill or confused or just plain inadequate.  The enormity of the subject will never be captured by its details.

Absolute and universal forces are hidden behind their own creations... for example, a cloud.  The best artists seem to focus on those creations, implying what is behind them.


chris bennett said...

Very good post David, thank you.

I consider all of creation to be veiled with an equal measure of mystery, and the dosage is not increased for parts that have a greater significance for us humans. The opening of a flower is as mysterious as a super nova or a mushroom cloud. So that whatever the theme, be it an apple on a plate or the death of a thousand men, the way to give anything aesthetic expression, anything at all, is, as the actor's say; 'never to play the object'.

kev ferrara said...

Great post, great image... in agreement with Chris B; everything has majesty, drama, poignancy, universality... if we have the sensitivity to notice it.

It is a rare and astonishing thing for an event to produce a perfect symbol of itself. As Robert McKee pointed out, such events, in life, seem to have a mystical significance that borders on the religious. Perfect and worthy subjects for Art, all.

Kristopher Battles said...

As a former Marine Combat Artist, I can certainly attest to the idea that one can never convey the big picture, or the enormity of war. But all artists struggle with this problem, to greater or lesser degrees-- the problem of being literal or overly detailed-- losing the grand scheme in the details (forest for the trees).

But I must say that some of the best war images I've seen, whether combat art sketches from the field, or combat photography, are those of the small scene, where the power lies in the "every man" nature of the subject.

One of the reasons the War Department sent out as many combat artists as they could, to all theaters they could, was precisely because no one style could fit it all in, nor could one artist's eye capture it. It needs the sum total of all artists and styles to begin to paste together an adequate history.

Thanks for showing Kerr Eby's work.

The Navy Art Collection has most of his originals, and since I'm now a civilian combat artist working for the Navy Collection, I get to every once in a while enjoy his work as well as all the other Navy artists in the collection.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- That's an interesting turn of phrase, I like it. You know, Santayana shared your view that everything in nature-- whether a flower or a super nova-- contains mystery to a miraculous degree. He went on to say we can all readily identify the miraculous nature of a super nova, but that only a philosophical mind can appreciate that small, commonplace objects are just as miraculous.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "It is a rare and astonishing thing for an event to produce a perfect symbol of itself." I agree, although I suspect sometimes we're more receptive to such symbols than other times. They may not be so rare, it may be that we're rarely of a mindset to watch for them. I'm guessing that soldiers don't think much about symbols while they're in the heat of battle, but if a foreboding cloud hangs over them for three days while they're preparing for battle, that would spur a lot of speculation about some pretty cosmic topics as well as some searching for omens..

chris bennett said...

David Apatoff - To add a little more dimension to that turn of phrase: An actor playing someone with a limp will not 'play the limp' but will, for example, play someone trying to hide the fact they have a limp. This helps make the performance believable. This holds true even for the building blocks of an image; when you paint across a form you are no longer 'playing the form' but playing the space in which the form exists.

Sorry about the daft apostrophe in 'actor's' BTW :)

David Apatoff said...

Kristopher Battles-- Thanks for your comments. This group has talked about a number of combat artists on this blog, including Dunn, Townsend, Brodie, Briggs, and Ivor Hele (from Australia). Commenters have made some strong points but I'm especially glad to have input from an experienced combat artist.

In a culture where much of our art is persiflage for feuilletons, I think the subject matter of battle offers a serious and welcome contrast. (I've often quoted William Blake, "Great things are done when men and mountains meet; This is not done by jostling in the street.") At the same time, such momentous subject matter seems to impose huge challenges for an artist. As the old saying goes, some pictures are best composed in a storm, while others are best composed in calm. My own sense of things is that aesthetics favors the pictures composed in calm. I'd welcome your views on the trade off. I understand that Harvey Dunn's contingent of artists that accompanied the Armed Expeditionary Forces in World War I were counting on time back in the US after the war to reflect and transform their preliminary work into real art, but the US government pulled the plug on that project.

Your job with the Navy Art Collection sounds terrific! I don't suppose the inventory is available for viewing by the public?

Chris Bennett-- Ah, yes, choosing what to prioritize and how directly to convey it are at the heart of most art forms. In the past century, we seem to have developed more of an appreciation for art that is a raw scream, that casts off the suffocating layers and strictures of the academy and reflects spontaneity and action. For example, there are some pictures (often involving war or political propaganda) where artists have no patience to craft an oblique approach (staging a picture that goes beyond "playing the limp.") As I suggested to Kristopher Battles above, my own prejudice is that the aesthetics of a picture benefit from careful planning and self-awareness, but there is certainly more than one legitimate view on this.

chris bennett said...

David Apatoff - Leaving aside those works that gain acceptance courtesy of a vast area of the cultural landscape infected by the continuing legacy of Post Modernism, I'd say this:
The potency of a work of art is maximum when it is complete; when it satisfies its own set of intrinsic potentials and conditions. The more complex a work the more potentials and conditions there are to be resolved.
In my view any sense of 'obliqueness' from such works is in fact the experience of aesthetic fulfilment of those potentials and conditions. Such things as 'raw screams', agit prop, pushing sensitive buttons, one-liners etc, is not oblique because it is sloganism.

Donald Pittenger said...

I hope this isn't stretching things too far, but I see an analogy to the school of action-illustration that portrays the "before" or the "after" and avoids showing the actual punch, gunshot, sabre cut or whatever.

Kristopher Battles said...

David Apatoff-- The Navy collection is mainly in Springfield VA now, but you could set up and appointment to see it, that's for sure!

Yeah, I would agree about the trade off-- some of the more composed "studio art" done when back home can address the more formalistic content that the "in the moment" sketches and watercolors. But there's certainly a time crunch there, before the immediacy and feeling derived from the witness aspect of the art begins to fade, and even the sketches and photos can begin to lose their "glow" in aiding the more involved "calm" works...

I can testify to the sad fact of the Army Artists who went off to WWI like Dunn and Townsend not being given funding and time to finish studio work.

I had the privilege of seeing part of the WWI collection in the Smithsonian's Military Art Collection-- I unrolled some of Dunn's drawing scrolls, with dozens of original charcoal drawings from the front lines, not seen in decades, and probably never seen by the public, all sitting in flat files and drawers in the museum. And who knows what kind of works could've been done if they'd had the funding and time to do them.

chris bennett said...

Donald Pittenger - William Waterhouse approached many of his subjects in this way. And because he was such a great artist (one of the greatest in my view) it is extremely telling that in many of these pictures we are touched by their meaning without knowing the literary source, i.e. the destiny or fate of the characters depicted.

chris bennett said...

In fact, I'd say that nearly all of Waterhouse's paintings are a master-class in 'not playing the limp', whether they are eliding the actual punch, gunshot or sabre cut, or frankly presenting the moment, such as a maiden picking flowers in spring. Because the 'limp he does not play' is the one that belongs to all his subjects. And by not doing so, we believe in their universality.

Kristopher Battles said...

Donald Pittenger and Chris Bennett--

I was taught that in Illustration MFA classes, about portraying the before or the after... it was an eye-opener.

I think Waterhouse did this, as did Howard Pyle and so many of the great artists and illustrators.

It is a HUGE thing to be able to pull off in one's work.

Kristopher Battles said...

It's definitely a more mature approach to picture making and narrative. I guess that's why they're the Masters!

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett wrote: "The more complex a work the more potentials and conditions there are to be resolved."

As this group has discussed before, I have mixed emotions about complexity. I salute the skills necessary to deal with it successfully but there is a lot to be said for simplicity, spontaneity, forthrightness and even bluntness-- especially when dealing with combat scenes. I think the skills required to distill something to its essence are as important as the skills to handle complexity. All of which goes to your point about completeness; knowing when a picture is "complete"-- in other words, knowing when to stop-- is directly related to its potency. Often, the stopping point seems far short of complexity. Some of Kaethe Kollwitz's drawings of war and revolution are violent and seem almost to flail around in despair ( ). At first glance they may seem unfinished but they couldn't be more potent.

Donald Pittenger-- It seems that there are at least two very different ways to deal with the "before" or the "after" and avoids showing the actual punch. Thee are the action-illustrators to which you allude, who whet our appetite and probably achieve a more successful image implying the punch than they could ever achieve with a literal depiction of a punch. But the second is the whole Austin Briggs approach we've discussed, where illustrators rebelled against the hackneyed choice of the punch as an apogee moment, and tried a more cinema verite treatment, showing subjects in unguarded moments, scratching themselves, checking their watch or looking away.

Kristopher Battles-- Thanks! I didn't know the Navy Collection was open to the public but I'll definitely call and see if they are willing to let me in. (I'd previously checked the Navy's web site and saw they had ten museums scattered around the country none of them seemed to specialize in art). Do you know if people need any special credentials to get access? It sounds like the Smithsonian's Military Art Collection is also worth a visit. Do you know what the rules are for getting access to that? Is it affiliated with any specific museum?

Can you tell us more about the time when "the immediacy and feeling derived from the witness aspect of the art begins to fade"? I'd imagine the factual details go pretty quickly, but I'd think that the emotional responses persist for a little while, and perhaps even benefit from the reshaping. I've known veterans (not artists) whose nightmares persist and remain vivid, and others who with time sort things out and make order out of chaotic emotions.

Kristopher Battles said...

David Apatoff-- I can ask Gale Munro, the head curator of the Navy Art Collection, what it takes to see the art. The work is at a storage facility in Springfield, VA, and though not technically open to walk-ins, I'm sure we can arrange something. If not, I will apologize profusely for getting your hopes up!

The Smithsonian's military art collection was in the main building, the "castle," if I recall. I think you'd have to contact the curator as well.

The Smithsonian's military art collection was in the main building, the "castle," if I recall. I think you'd have to contact the curator as well.

As to the time between the event and the studio work and the fade…

I can only say that there are positives and negatives to it.

When one is there, sketching, witnessing, and taking photos of an event, there’s of course a focus and an immediate recording of how you’re viewing the thing. There’s no reflection on the grand scheme so to speak, no cognitive process by which one weighs the pros and cons of a specific compositional tool or symbolic element. It’s done in the moment, dashed off, rushed to paper, and all the focus and thought is subconscious and from the core. Muscle memory and all the experience comes out in immediate, zen-like ways. Thus the benefit is an immediacy and feeling that comes through, and the pieces are more “witness art” and “Reportage” than academic pieces.

The works done back home, distanced from the events by time and space, are more cerebral, and while still full of emotion hopefully, are less “immediate” in both form and content.

You’ve struck on the benefits of the "cooling down" period, in the formal sense, in your discussion of Eby’s work. There is surely a positive from having time to think, plan, compose, and so on, out of the immediate experience—while still feeling some of the emotions or what drew you to record the event or subject in the first place.
In planning paintings from a given experience, the distance from the event can help. But it takes reflection and discipline to have success.
The resulting product, while evocative of emotion (one hopes), should also touch on the grander notions and overarching themes. It’s no longer Reportage in this sense, but is more academic, and also very valuable in a different way from the immediate sketches.

Robert Henri’s wisdom comes to mind here.

He said, “If you do not act on a suggestion at first, you grow dull to its message” which to me is key for the reportage in-the-moment capturing.

But He also said, “If you work from memory, you are most likely to put in your real feeling,” and also, “You will never draw the sense of a thing unless you are feeling it at the time you work” as well as, “The artist should be intoxicated with the idea of the thing he wants to express.”

To summarize or paraphrase, I guess it would be to focus and remember while in the moment, and then when at a distance from the experience, bring to mind the thing, find the key emotion of it, meditate on it, and express it in a more mature way…

Thanks for making me ponder these things. This is a fascinating subject!

David Apatoff said...

Kristopher Battles-- Thanks for your thoughtful (and first hand) balance of the competing considerations. Your quote from Robert Henri “You will never draw the sense of a thing unless you are feeling it at the time you work”)reminds me very much of Howard Pyle's repeated advice to his students that they had to project themselves into the situation they were depicting and really "feel" what it was like to be a irate or a knight. He believed that their emotional investment in a work really affected the outcome. But keep in mind, it was always an act of imagination-- none of these artists were ever pirates in real life. They never had to watch anyone walk the plank, the way combat artists did.

And on the other side of the spectrum was Robert Coane, who argued that the best way to make passionate pictures is dispassionately ("you can't drool and draw.") I suspect the truth is not only somewhere in the middle, it's a moving target.

Thanks for your guidance on the Navy Art Collection, I definitely plan to go. If Gale Munro spurns me, I may be back at your door asking for advice.

Kristopher Battles said...

"It's a moving target."
Ain't that the truth-- in so many things in life, but especially in art!