Thursday, July 24, 2008

Civil War Art As History, Or Just Art

After a particularly stressful day at work last Sunday, I decided a sojourn to Adams Avenue Bookstore was just what I needed to soothe my nerves and calm my mind. There's something about used book stores that just helps me feel relaxed and quiet. They're always cool inside, that pervasive musty smell, and oh my the books. There's never a time limit or obligation to buy anything, and the stunning diversity of the collection at Adams Avenue just lets the imagination run wild.
It's always been a personal rule that book-buying is non-budgetary spending; if I see it and want it, I buy it. We're not talking signed first editions here, we're talking old paperbacks and hardbacks without dustjackets. I'm not collecting for the money, I read everything I buy (admittedly I've gotten a bit behind) and having a library stuffed full of books on sports, old cocktail recipes, and the Civil War is just too freaking cool.
Anyway, I went into AAB and immediately got settled in the history section. Within 20 minutes, there was a lovely stack of texts on all manner of Civil War esoterica, now destined for my library. Among these books was a collection of works by famed contemporary Civil War artist Don Troiani, and this is the crux of what we're going to discuss.
Mr. Troiani is touted in circles both historical and artistic as "modern America's finest historical artist" and his depictions of Civil War personalities and battle vignettes are perennially among the best-selling CW pieces, and the marketplace is enormous. He keeps a massive collection of uniforms and armaments in his studio, and goes on location to develop his images, using models in full battle dress to set the scenes. His meticulous attention to detail and historical accuracy even includes test-firing various CW firearms into trees and planks to get the bullet markings just right.
If you read the link about, you will understand the size of this man's reputation and portfolio. Underpinning his reputation and success is this attention to historical accuracy, and here is where I have a huge issue with his work.
I provide you with a link to google images that has a host of images of his paintings (the gallery that supports him online is down). Here it is, what I invite you to do is take a look at the paintings and think about what things strike you. Then think about what might be missing from this depictions of Civil War combat by an artist known for his historical rigor. Here is some music to listen to while you browse the paintings

What do you think?
The uniforms are perfect, the locations are golden, the flags, weaponry, everything is just right, just what collectors want to hang on their walls.
Everything except the accurate depiction of what happens to a human body that has been struck by flying lead from a carbine or shards of iron flung from a cannon. There is no rendering of the limbless, headless, eviscerated men who covered the fields that Troiani apparently so accurately depicts. Somehow amidst all of his "accuracy" he has forgotten the men killed and wounded in the Civil War.
I am quite familiar with penetrating trauma and have a good sense of what it looks like. I can say unreservedly that these pictures fail completely when it comes to the accurate depiction of Civil War combat. Even more maddening is that Troiani does include vivid images of men flying through the air, lying prostrate on the ground, or reaching up to a comrade for help. Like something out of a PG war movie, however, these men have only the faintest traces of blood on them. This is absolutely not reality, because these men would have been absolutely shattered the moment they were struck.
So why is this so, and why too is he still regarded as the very greatest and most accurate Civil War painter? The underpinning of this stems from a theme that comes up again and again here; how we remember the Civil War. In our consciousness, this was a glorious fight fought by inspired leaders and superhuman men (oh how do the Lost Cause themes run rampant). There is little room for the harsh reality of what happened to the men on the firing line. We all hear and read the numbers killed, wounded and missing, but are never given a chance to think about what it looks like.
The closest we ever come to the reality of Civil War combat is through made-for-TV movies like "Gettysburg", reenactors marching bloodlessly into fake combat, and artwork like Mr. Troiani's.
This is a conscious choice that the painter and buyer make, this is the way they want the war depicted and remembered, this is how the bloodiest war in our nation's history looks on the walls of tens of thousands of American homes, as well as on the Internet. Not only is this wrong, but it is disingenuous as well. The men depicted in Troiani's scenes deserve to be remembered and memorialized, but they deserve to have it done accurately.
I'm not naive enough to think that Troiani hasn't painted more graphic depictions in his studio and probably trashed them, because the simple fact is they just won't sell. Who wants blood and guts on display in the family room, right? But you can't have it both ways, you can't say something is accurate to boost sales while simultaneously shirking historical responsibility. I am as loud a proponent of Civil War memory in our culture as anyone, but it must be correct! If it's not, it should be placed on the sideline.
I actually have a piece of Civil War art on my wall; a black and white photograph of Little Round Top at the left edge of the Union line. This is the ground made famous on July 2, 1863 as it looks today, including the regimental markers of the 20th Maine. There is nothing but the ground in this picture without overt historical interpretation, my point being that we can remember and consider famous Civil War locations in our homes, but for artists like Don Troiani to be touted for their "historical accuracy" is just wrong. Art? Yes. History? Absolutely not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Nice choice of art. I have an artist's proof by Mort K√ľnstler on the wall of my office of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain on July 2, 1863.

Best Wishes,

John Kelly