Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Homeland Asunder

Homeland Asunder
By Tom Wachunas

“This is not war, this is murder.” – a Confederate general after viewing Union dead from the Battle of Cold Harbor, 1864 –

“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” – Robert E. Lee, after the Battle of Fredericksburg, 1862 –

Some anniversaries are cause for joyous remembrance. Others of course are occasions for somber reflection if not remorse. Amid all the media coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, there were several reports of how the awful debris from ground zero has made its way to far-flung places across this land. Corroded girders and all manner of twisted, burned architectural remnants have been exhibited as public monuments. Oh how we cherish the artifacts and remains of our cruelest tragedies. In as much as we regard such displays with solemn respect, I wonder if they’re not so many milestones along our trudge through history as much as they are millstones weighing down our relentlessly troubled heads and hearts.

To the extent that war itself has been disambiguated into an “art” (Sun Tzu’s 5th century BC treatise, “The Art of War,” comes to mind), then it’s certainly true that we’ve made an art out of remembering it. A breathtaking, lavish example is the current exhibition at The Canton Museum of Art, called “A Nation Divided: The Heartland Responds.” The sprawling show commemorates, with particular relevance to Ohio and surrounding ‘heartland’ states, the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. In its sheer depth and variety of artifacts – clothing, weaponry, letters written from soldiers’ camps, and a stunning array of other 19th century wartime “accessories,” the exhibit is a curatorial tour de force.

But what sheds the most dramatic light on this dark episode of American history is the imagery – photographs, drawings, and prints that bring a palpable, heartrending immediacy to a terrible conflagration. Photography in the 1860’s was still considered by many to be a newfangled concoction, a novelty. The first permanent photographic images – daguerreotypes – were introduced in 1839. As a medium for presenting indisputable records of physical realities (prior to modern-age technical trickery), it’s fair to say that photography quickly came of age during the Civil War. And with it, the classical notion that war was in any way a noble or sanctified pursuit would flounder in a sea of images of the wounded, the dead, the savaged landscape.

This is certainly not to say that the predominant content of the imagery here is blood and gore. Far from it. In fact, emanating from many of the photographs of soldiers is a sense of quiet pride and dignity, even if there is the accompanying appearance of antiseptic stiffness. No such rigidity, though, is to be found in the marvelous drawings by Winslow Homer that were turned into prints for Harper’s Weekly. For all their aged, dingy patina, these are remarkably alive depictions of soldiers that exude real emotion and often, if it can be said of such a horrific context, compelling warmth.

The exhibit nonetheless succeeds in reminding us quite effectively of the more jarring and deadly complexion of battle. One display case presents us with photos of Alvah R. Williams, a Pennsylvania soldier wounded in the Battle of Petersburg. A photo shows him after surgery, his right arm amputated. Also on display is the .58 caliber bullet (“Minie Ball”) that shattered his elbow, as well as a leather prosthetic. It’s an eerily medieval contraption with internal metal gears, originally colored to look like flesh, and now just a sickly, mottled gray. Elsewhere, another case houses a battlefield surgeon’s tool box, containing amputation saws, knives, a tonsil puller, blood letter, and an utterly sinister-looking skull drill.

On the heels of commemorating 9/11 and all it conjures in our hearts, this exhibit is still timely in its powerful joining of art with history. Yet in all of its authentic lest-we-forget sensibility, and the thoroughly expert care with which it was assembled, there is perhaps a hint of bittersweet irony about it. I wish we didn’t need (or want) to see shows of this sort at all. But we do. In his own era, Robert E. Lee hoped we would not grow too fond of war. He’d surely be mortified to witness that now in the 21st century, war remains evidently not terrible enough to abandon. So I suppose you could say I “love” this exhibit. But I hate doing so.

Photo: “Home From The War,” by Winslow Homer, on view through October 10 at The Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday 10am to 8pm / Thursday, Friday 10am to 5pm / Saturday 10am to 3pm / Sunday 1 – 5pm. (330) 453 - 7666

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