Saturday, January 29, 2011

ARTISTS AT WAR, part two

The illustrator Harry Everett Townsend (1879-1941) was born on a small farm in Illinois. As a young boy he showed early talent, painting signs for local farmers on the delivery route for his father's peddling wagon.

But farm life was too confining for Townsend. As a teenager, he struck out on his bicycle for the big city and when he got to Chicago, enrolled in the Art Institute where he studied under
Lorado Taft. But Townsend remained restless and after two years he moved on to Wilmington Delaware where he trained under the famed Howard Pyle. From there he made his way to Europe to study briefly at the Academie Moderne in Paris.

When he turned 25, Townsend married and seemed to settle down as an illustrator working in New York for magazines such as
Scribner's, Harper's and Century.

Century Magazine

But Townsend remained hungry to see the larger world, and when World War I flared up, Townsend volunteered to cover it. He wrote, "I had gotten drunk, as it were, with the future pictorial possibilities in what I saw, and what my imagination saw, in the warfare that was so soon to come."

Townsend was one of eight artists chosen by the U.S. government to be official "war artists" accompanying the Armed Expeditionary Forces. (Other AEF artists included two other Pyle students,
Harvey Dunn and W.J. Aylward). Townsend's war diary records his excitement about his upcoming adventure:
I left New York in a blinding snow, into the submarine zone with its constant alarms, and through it. My trip through London... with an air raid thrown in.... and the nervous excitement of finding myself suddenly in the war zone, for, while one realized at all times the dangers on the sea, one really felt he had arrived when he found himself in the midst of the bursting of enemy bombs and the sight of enemy planes....

It didn't take long for Townsend to witness the effect of those "bursting enemy bombs:"
Everywhere among the blownup trenches and in the shellholes are pieces of what were once men. Here and there, a whole or a piece of bone; here and there a shoe with a foot still in it.
In addition, the incessant rain and cold spoiled many of his artistic ambitions. Yet, Townsend drew a series of powerful pictures such as this poster:

"Refugees fleeing a storm tossed area, with all the sorrow and misery and pathos that went with it...."

As brutal as his experience was, Townsend believed there was no substitute for an artist witnessing his subject personally:
In hindsight, Tragic and moving... But I knew that not to have seen it during the conflict was not to have seen it as it really was, even for pictorial reference... And I am thankful I was there and I am conscious of the opportunity I had to see and gather material and, better than the actual material, the impressions, spiritual and material, that alone can furnish the inspiration for a convincing pictorial record of what the great struggle was like.
Townsend's wartime experience seemed to have an impact on his style, replacing his light and airy drawings for Century Magazine with a bolder, darker outlook.

Don Pittenger has suggested that great war art is usually not created in the heat of battle, but only afterward, a safe distance from the fighting. Townsend seems to have agreed with this. He wrote after the war, "now I felt ready to achieve something of my ambitions, counting as of little, even ephemeral value , the things we had been able to do during the time we were so nervously, yet energetically, storing up for the future.... Perhaps the greatest pictures of the war can only come with time."

Unfortunately, the U.S. government had neither the time nor the budget nor the interest to commission "the greatest pictures of the war." One suspects that the government was never interested in "great pictures" so much as it was interested in effective pictures for the war effort. In either event, the eight war artists were quickly disbanded and sent home to their civilian lives.

In truth, Townsend seemed to have little interest in pursuing those "greatest pictures" either. He wanted nothing more than to return to normalcy. He settled down in the small town of Norwalk, Connecticut where he bought an old barn to use as a studio, painting domestic scenes and teaching art. And he never moved again.


Mike Fay said...

Murray Tinkelman sent me over to see your piece about Townsend. I spent 10 years as the official war artist for the Marine Corps. I'm now, in addition to working on my MFA at Hartford, working as a freelance war artist and correspondent.

Donald Pittenger said...

David, Thank you for the link.

Readers might want to scroll down and read comments by David, Kev Ferrara and me on the subject or war or combat art.

David Apatoff said...

Mike Fay: Welcome, glad to have you here. (Murray Tinkelman runs "Sue's Answerphone" for the entire field of illustration!) I'd be very interested to hear how the Marine Corps picks its "official war artist," what your duties were, and whether you have a position on this question about how being in the thick of war affects the quality of art.

I have previously written about the great war artist Ivor Hele and the tragic war artist Gilbert Bundy, but it's a category that warrants a lot more attention.

Don, I thought your treatment of this issue was very thoughtful and i urge readers to check it out.

Anonymous said...

Now, if there was an artist with enough resolve to create in the "heat of battle" maybe then we'd really have something to see....

Vincent Nappi said...

Thanks for posting, Mr. Apatoff. I like the shift that came about in his art. It's almost woodcut-like. It reminds me of some of the work that came out of Simplicissimus.

Thanks also for passing on a copy of the new Robert Fawcett book to my friend Daniel Cruit. Both of us can't wait to dive in!

Anonymous said...

I have serious reservations as to how well the subject of battle lends itself to art. At least as far back as the Renaissance, attempts to capture the chaotic aspect have created more than their fair share of entangled messes. To me it seems that any attempt to invoke formal beauty is downright absurd and inappropriate, so the only thing left is graphic realism. Interesting that it seems to be the antithesis of Kantian beauty. Perhaps an ideal situation to distinguish and define differences between fine art and illustration?

MORAN said...

I'd like to get your reactions to lots of other combat artists, such as Howard Brodie.

Anonymous said...

Backpedal: With the exception of an insulated mythological context.

Eric Noble said...

Incredible! Interesting how war can create some of the most beautiful and emotionally stirring art. It seems to be one of those great contradictions of human existence.

kev ferrara said...

Another surprise at IA; to find that Harry Townsend, whose painted illustration work I always find myself skipping past, did such nice graphic work in ink.

I like both the examples you posted, but the Brangwyn influenced one is really strong. (The Brangwyn influence on American art was in full flower at this time. Seemed to be particularly strong among the illustrators (like Townsend) who gathered around Howard Pyle, and those descended from him.)

It is interesting, I think, that this particular style evokes the woodcut. And Franklin Booth's style, from the same period, evoked the engraving. Faux finishes based on the printing technology of the era. With all the current art based on the aesthetic of pixel bitmapping, these old ideas are made new again.

etc. etc..
That dumb diaroma of a war composition you hyperlinked is not only completely unrepresentative of battle scenes in art in general, it doesn't even evoke war. There are hundreds of incredible examples of battle art, from the gritty and real to the fantastic and violent.

Which brings me to this ideé fixe of yours that formal beauty is the object of art --- By my count, there are at least 10 different kinds of beauty that have made the rounds of aesthetic discourse. Isolating 1 will always bring you up short because even your favorite formal pieces will have other kinds of beauty affecting you in equal measure.

Anything about which a human being may speak truth is fair game for art, it seems to me. Truth in art takes the form of an expression. It seems to me, therefore, that war art can and should damn well be confusing and messy sometimes in order to properly reflect the truth of the event.

Anonymous said...

he he. I knew my viewpoint would push your buttons, Kev. That "dumb diaroma" (sic) is a copy of a lost painting by Michelangelo (not disputing that even the original could be anything other than hideous).

Anything about which a human being may speak truth is fair game for art, it seems to me. Truth in art takes the form of an expression.

Wouldn't such inclusiveness include Jeff Koons' and practically everybody else's work?

kev ferrara said...

Yep. But that doesn't mean its any good.

Anonymous said...

Kev, then would it be unreasonable to conclude that your statement...

Anything about which a human being may speak truth is fair game for art, it seems to me. Truth in art takes the form of an expression. regard to the potential of making qualitative distinctions about art, is no good either? I thought that was the context you made the statement in; did I misunderstand you?

kev ferrara said...

No, that point was in reference to you saying you had reservations about War as a subject for art.

Anonymous said...

I see. Your statement was more a matter of defining boundaries of art than making qualitative judgements. My bad.

अर्जुन said...

The trenches could probably kill anyone's enthusiasm for producing "great pictures" of the war. Harry Townsend being no exemption.

Tom said...

Don't forget Sargent's paintings from the front along with his friend Dr Henry Tonks who draw some sad portraits of soliders with different types of head wounds.

Don Cox said...

William Orpen did some of his best work in WW I.

David Apatoff said...

Vincent Nappi-- thanks for writing, I hope you enjoy the book.

MORAN-- when I started this blog, I figured I'd alternate stories about artists in love with stories about artists at war. I guess it reveals something about my temperament that I've done a whole bunch of posts about artists in love and this is only my second post about artists at war.

When you read Harry Townsend's war diary, you learn he might have fit in either category; in Paris Townsend, whose wife and daughter waited for him back home, met an exotic young artist, Mademoiselle Lissagaray, who invited him up to see her drawings. He wrote, "she will mean a lot to my existence here in Paris henceforth, for, lacking [my wife] and really knowing no women of truly artistic sensibilities here now, she will help fill a void that is very noticeable in my life here. So if she seems willing, I will be happy...." His relationship with the Mademoiselle unfolds in his diary ("Will take Mlle Lissagaray [dancing] and know that Cory will not mind....Oh, if she will only understand....if only she knew how much I do think of her here, and how I wish she were here tonight to take.") No wonder I can't seem to make it to the "artist at war" part of the story.

But I do have a bunch of war stories I'd like to share in the future. Also, Murray Tinkelman advises me that there is a book out about Brodie's work, which sounds interesting.

David Apatoff said...

Etc. etc.-- there are all kinds of reasons for creating war art (propaganda, moral, aesthetic, narrative, spiritual, etc.) but as far as I can tell, the reason for that copy of a Michelangelo was to cluster as many flexed muscles and clenched buttocks into as small a space a possible. We should have a broader exchange on Kant's theory of beauty someday. Kant was the apogee of teutonic intellectual rigor and precision at the height of the enlightenment, but I think art is such an inherently unruly and messy process it is destined to thwart even the most formidable cataloguers. (I love that when his corporate sponsors kept looking over his shoulder, Terry Gilliam said, "they keep trying to define it and I'm determined to make it indefinable."

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Harry Townsend, whose painted illustration work I always find myself skipping past, did such nice graphic work in ink."

Kev, I had the exact same reaction. In fact, I couldn't believe that anyone who had been accepted into Howard Pyle's famous circle could paint so badly. But on further examination, it seemed that all the paintings I knew had passed through an engraver's hand to be reproduced manually before photoengraving became popular in the magazines where Townsend's work appeared. When you start to see Townsend's originals (such as this poster) it becomes clear that the staff engravers at Century magazine had done Townsend no favors.

I think your connection of Townsend's faux woodcut to Booth's faux engraving to Lichtenstein's faux printing dots or pixel bitmapping is quite clever. never would have occurred to me.

Eric Noble-- agreed.

David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन-- I assume you recognized (since you have such a good eye for spotting the re-use or "swipes" of images on your own blog) that the Townsend drawing on your link was chosen as the logo for the famous Illustration House gallery in New York. It is, i think, another example of an excellent Townsend drawing in his "woodcut" style.

Tom-- good point about Sargent's war work. One of his paintings is included in Don Pittenger's discussion of this theme, linked in my original post.

Don Cox-- thanks; I had a passing familiarity with Orpen's work, but I didn't remember the name. You gave me a good excuse to go back and look, and I was quite impressed.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I want to take up that challenge, because ironically you seem to be agreeing with Kant on the one thing I don't agree with, and which is at the heart of his aesthetics, namely that "a judgement of taste by which we declare an object beautiful under the condition of a determinate concept is not pure". You and Kant together would just gang up on me, and I'm not having that. :)

Tom said...

For a heat of the battle painting Tom Lovell's civil war paintings are real good espeically "the battle of the crater in Petersburg Va and the black union soliders attack on that fort in North or South Carolina upon which the movie Glory is based.
As far as Gilliam and Kant are concerned it always seems to me you find out more about the viewer of objects then you will ever find out about the objects.

Anonymous said...

Where is अर्जुन?

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I have written previously about artists who "create in the heat of battle." The trick seems to be that you have to think the drawing is really, really important.

Etc, etc-- Kant and I would never gang up together; I am willing but Kant is too selective about the company he keeps.

Tom-- I enjoy Lovell's work but he always struck me as too clean and idealized to do authentic, gritty war pictures. I will have to check out the ones you mention.

अर्जुन said...

Where is अर्जुन? ~ All about.

Anonymous said...

My compliments, अर्जुन; a man with a cute tap dancing wife has surely mastered the art of fine living.

Tom said...

That was my first thought after I made my post. Sometimes his painting have a Hollywood feel to them. But the drawing of his figures in action is outstanding.

Tom said...

Hi David
Just read your account of Ivor Hele in New Guinea. You have to watch this You Tube video by a woman reading from Jacques Lusseyran’s “Poetry in Buchenwald ‘ which is one essay in a collection of essays in his book “Against the Pollution of the I”. As you wrote about Hele, “Yet, Hele's experience shows how important and meaningful art can be to human life.”

And here is a quote from Lussyeran. “No poetry was not simply “literature.” It did not belong to the world of books. It was not made just for those who read. “
But watch the You Tube video, profoundly moving and in a way very close to Hele’s experience in New Guinea.

From such an experience I can better understand why he wrote in is other book "And there was Light"
"And last of all, was it Buchenwald, or was it the everyday world, what we call the normal life, which was topsy-turvy?

An old peasant from the Anjou whom I had just met-how strange that he was born only six miles from Juvardeil- insisted that it was the everyday world which was askew. He was convinced of it."

Jose A. Calderon said...

Yes, Please include the name of the great Japanese Wood block masters.