Sunday, December 04, 2005
Inviting the Shot.........
Here are two paintings by Winslow Homer that have been on my mind today. For those of you unfamiliar with Homer, you should know that he was a "special correspondent" for Harper's Weekly during our Civil War. A self-taught artist and native of the state of Maine, he brought a no-nonsense Yankee sensibility to his work that echoes yet down the corridors of American art. Parents, wives, children and sweethearts, then as now, had a great desire for some idea of what their loved ones were experiencing far off at war. Homer sought to satisfy that longing with images capturing a reality that few at home could even hope to imagine. Homer, placing himself out in the field, and utilizing his native talent and down-to-earth vision, gave his viewers a vicarious window into both the maelstrom of battle and the tedium of camp life. He elevated the mundane to the poetic, and humbled the faux heroic to simple truths.
One painting is titled "Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg". It shows a Confederate soldier standing defiantly with clenched fists upon the parapet of the rebel trenchline encircling the besieged city of Petersburg, Virginia. In the distance a puff of white smoke reveals the position of a Union sharpshooter. This painting captures and stretches into eternity the pregnant moment between life, and perhaps death. Here in Iraq the ground pounders, both Marine and soldier, patrol daily in the hopes of inviting these shots, of tempting the enemy and death into revealing their position. These are endless moments where death trudges beside you, a battlebuddy who at any moment might come over, tap your shoulder and ask for a light. Some have suggested that the soldier on the parapet has snapped under the strain of combat and has leapt up in a moment suicidal derangement. I believe otherwise. Homer was in the thick of things, and knew that troops will do what simply needs to be done sometimes, no matter how counter-intuitive it might seem. The other painting, "Veteran in a New Field", shows a post-war soldier harvesting a field of wheat. In the foreground lie his blue uniform jacket and canteen, clearly marked with his old unit's insignia. His back is to us as he works his way forward through the chest high field, perhaps triggering in him memories of other fields crossed; where another reeper cut down comrades all around him. Homer's genius anticipated the reality of veterans carrying their experiences back with them; of everyday things and experiences never being the same again. His pictures, in the simple design format of a central figure in the middle ground, trumpet the supremecy of the individual ordinary combatant. Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for Common Man" reverberates in these iconic images.