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Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

“In These Days”- Now at the West End Gallery



SEPTEMBER 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.”

― W.H. Auden, Another Time



The poet W.H. Auden wrote this poem, September 1, 1939, as the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, marking the beginning of World War II.  I realize that many of you may not enjoy poetry but I think this is one that deserves a few minutes of your time, one that speaks of that time and this time. The final two verses resonate with me and mirror my own feelings as I watch the death toll from the pandemic grow with each passing day– over 6000 deaths here in the past two days alone– and the acts of sedition taking place within our government and the courts as dishonest men attempt to undo the will of our electorate.

Both are insidious, slowly creeping upon us so that many of us pay little attention and go about our days trying to act as though nothing is taking place. If the deaths were violent and amassed quickly within a day or so, we would respond with an outcry and greater action. The same with the attempted coup d’etat we have at hand. Both plod forward in a slow manner so that we somehow think it is almost normal.

It’s not. And thinking, reasonable people can see this. It brings despair but it also brings out, as Auden put it, an affirming flame in many. A stirring to action in a time when so many are complicit with their silence and the loudest voices are from the worst among us.

In the end it comes down to this, again from Auden:

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Do not let your guard down. Be careful out there and have a good day.

If you don’t like to read poetry, here’s a fine reading of this piece from actor Michael Sheen.



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In the morning they return
With tears in their eyes
The stench of death drifts up to the skies
A soldier so ill looks at the sky pilot
Remembers the words
“Thou shalt not kill.”
Sky pilot,
Sky pilot,
How high can you fly?
You’ll never, never, never reach the sky.

–Sky Pilot, Eric Burdon and the Animals

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I watched a National Geographic documentary this past week, Heroes of the Sky: The Mighty Eighth Air Force, about that unit’s service during WW II. While it is a story that has been well documented and one with which I was familiar, it was well done and served as a reminder of the horror of war and the great loss it inflicts on those who serve and sacrifice. Fitting stuff for a Memorial Day weekend.

The 8th was based in England during the war and was the group responsible for the many US missions into continental Europe, including raids into Germany. Early on, when they first began sending raids into France and then Germany, their bombers were escorted by British fighter planes until their own planes, the P-47’s, were ready for service. However, the P-47’s had a major liability, a limited range. This meant that they could only escort the bombers so far into Europe before having to turn and head back to refuel which left the bombers exposed for the approach to their targets sites.

This fact meant that the casualties suffered in those early sorties were staggering. Hearing the numbers now, with hundreds of planes and thousands of airmen lost in a single month, one is left to wonder if we would have the stomach to bear such a sacrifice now, even in the face of the possibility of being defeated and overtaken by a cruel Nazi/Fascist regime?

I certainly don’t know the answer to that question, especially in these changed times where the minds of many could be swayed via divisive misinformation into an acceptance of the beliefs of those regimes we might otherwise be opposing. After all, even during WW II the Nazi cult had plenty of supporters here in the states, Americans who by race or belief fell under their spell.

I hope we never have to find out. And I suspect we won’t.

My belief is that those who seek to rule over us in a repressive fascist state have long realized that such a thing cannot be achieved via direct war and conflict. No, it will be an insidious and incremental effort, one that seek to infiltrate our branches of power and sources of info, seeking to control the power of the nation by dividing the people into many opposing factions, thereby confusing and thwarting their will to resist. Any sort of national unity would be fractious, at best.

Even a military that is massive and powerful would not be able to stop such an effort. In fact, it might act as a sort of tranquilizer, making the citizens believe that so long as they have such a powerful force protecting them they would be safe and secure, that there would be no possibility of any sort of attack on their country.

I fear that it is already well underway. The tools to do so are in place and easily accessible and it seems that we have the mentality and an environment that is ripe for such an effort.

Look at how easily minds are now swayed into disbelieving facts and accepting ridiculous conspiracy theories. Would it be a stretch for these same minds to fall into the belief that maybe a fascist regime would be acceptable, even preferable?

I hope I am way off base here, that it is just the product of a runaway imagination. But on this Memorial day weekend, it’s something I want to consider and keep in mind, if only for the responsibility we bear for those who have fallen in combat in our past against the forces of tyranny, despotism, and hatred.

We owe that to those who have sacrificed their lives for this nation. We, the living, are their witnesses. We bear testimony to their efforts, their experience and their existence.

For me, that’s the part of Memorial day I try to keep in mind. Hope you will at least consider it this weekend.

For this week’s Sunday morning music, here’s Sky Pilot from Eric Burdon and the Animals. From 1968, it’s one of those songs that holds lots of different meanings. At its core, it’s about a chaplain who blesses troops before they set out on a mission then goes to bed awaiting to learn their fate. It’s an interesting song, set into three parts and including a variety of sounds and effects. You’ve even got some bagpipes playing Garryowen thrown in along the way.

Have a good day.

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The art of an artist must be his own art. It is… always a continuous chain of little inventions, little technical discoveries of one’s own, in one’s relation to the tool, the material and the colors.

–Emil Nolde

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I totally agree with the words above from Emil Nolde, the German Expressionist painter who lived from 1867 to 1956. The artist’s personal relationship with their materials defines their creative voice, giving it distinguishing characteristics that allow it to hopefully stand clear of the work of other artists.  The way one handles and choose their paint, the way they treat their surfaces, how they define space and form in the picture plane, how traditional methods are altered and adapted to their own way of seeing and thinking– all of these and so many other elements make that creative voice unique. It is these things that make an individual artist’ work distinctly recognizable.

That’s the truth part of this post. Below is the deception.

Now, there’s nothing controversial in this sentiment but I was hesitant in using the words of Emil Nolde, who has been the subject of much scrutiny lately as his past associations with the Nazi party in Germany have come to light.

Nolde’s situation was an unusual one. He was a well established Expressionist painter in his 60’s when the Nazi’s came to power in Germany in the 1930’s. While he was an ardent supporter of the party and a fervent anti-Semite who flew a swastika flag above his home, Nolde’s work was deemed degenerate by the Nazis and was very much disliked by Hitler. I am not sure but he may well have been the only party member to have his work shown in the sweeping Nazi exhibit of  degenerate art.

During the war, Nolde was forbidden from selling his work without the permission of the Nazi party. But Nolde took that caveat and portrayed it as a complete prohibition of his work and himself, which it was not. He was still able to work and he was not persecuted in any way. Nolde created a series of small watercolors which he claimed were ideas for paintings that he was forbidden from painting. It became the basis for a celebrated show, Unpainted Pictures. This idea of a persecuted artist creating a body of forbidden work in his head became a symbol of artistic resistance that sustained his legacy for many years after the war, a story pushed by the foundation he had formed to manage an archive and museum of his work.

But it was a false story.

Nolde and his foundation hid his Nazi past and his anti-Semitism for decades. Passages from his memoirs that spoke of his complicity with the Nazis and his anti-Semitic leanings were excised and stories that portrayed him as a victim were embellished.  This went on until 2013 when the foundation’s new leadership, sensing that the previous administrators had laundered a dirty past, pushed for transparency and released the entire archives, previously under wraps, to the public.

I am not sure how Nolde will be portrayed or judged going forward, whether it will be on his paintings or on his actions before and during WW II. There was a good article recently on this story in the New York Times. I urge you to take a look as it tells the story much better than I can here.

 

 

 

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Chaim Soutine Les Maisons 1921Chaim Soutine was yet another brilliant but tragically short lived painter, dying at the age of 50 in 1943.  He was a Russian Jew who studied art as a youth in his native Belarus then emigrated to Paris in 1913.  There, among the many diverse artistic influences, his distinct expressionistic style found its voice and over the next two decades he produced a powerful body of work.  However, he wasn’t hailed as the great painter he truly was until the days just before the start of World War II.

As a Jew in German occupied France, he was forced to be always on the move from safe haven to the next in order to avoid the Gestapo. He sometimes found himself sleeping outside in the forests.  In 1943, he suffered a perforated stomach ulcer and died during emergency surgery.

He is best known for his paintings of the carcasses of meat and his still lives, all painted in his wild, heavily impasto manner.  However, for me, it is his landscapes that are the real treasures.  They have a tremendous amount of movement through them that forms a rhythm that, along with the color and contrasts of the surface, make them sing for me.  I just see them as being very powerful pieces.

Take a look for yourself at some of my favorite Soutine landscapes.

Chaim Soutine Landscape with Red Donkey Chaim Soutine Landscape at Cagnes Chaim Soutine Houses of Cagne Chaim Soutine Landscape with Cypress Chaim Soutine The Old Mill

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"Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro"- Wyndham Lewis

“Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro”- Wyndham Lewis

For many years now, one of my favorite books to just sit and flip through is my now very worn copy of  A Dictionary of Art Quotes by Ian Crofton.  It has great quotes by artists and critics about artists, schools of art and assorted other things that have to do with art.  The thing that I like most is that Crofton keeps it subjective, often having opposing points of view under each heading.  You might read one quote praising an artist while the very next might be one that portrays him as a hack. It’s interesting to see this contrast of perceptions, often by the artist’s contemporaries.

Some artists receive no negative words against their work or personality– Henri Rousseau, for instance, who was much beloved and respected by his contemporaries.  Most have positive quotes with an occasional barb thrown in their direction.  But the section concerning one artist, Percy Wyndham Lewis, really stuck out when I read it.  There is not anything that could be perceived as positive–Ernest Hemingway even said he had the “eyes of a rapist.”  Not knowing much about this artist, it prompted to find out a little more about Wyndham Lewis, as he preferred to be called.

It didn’t take much research to discover reasons behind the vitriol directed at him.

First, a little background.  Lewis was born in Nova Scotia in 1882, educated in England, lost his eyesight in the late 1940’s and died in 1957.  He was an extraordinarily talented painter and writer and the founder of the Vorticists, an art and literary movement derived from Cubism that flourished in the years before World War I but died out in the aftermath.   He painted and drew , wrote well received novels and published a ground-breaking art magazine, Blast.  No lack of talent, that is for sure

"T.S. Eliot"- Wyndham Lewis

“T.S. Eliot”- Wyndham Lewis

But from what I can deduct, he was a very contentious and very opinionated, always seeking an argument or looking to tweak those he viewed as his intellectual inferiors.  He ruffled more than his share of feathers.  As he said, “It is more comfortable for me, in the long run, to be rude than polite.”   But his biggest offense came in the early 1930’s when he wrote in favor of Hitler and the Fascists, believing them to be the keys to maintaining peace in Europe.  That was, to be sure, not well received and was for many unpardonable even though Lewis did reverse his views later after a 1937 trip to Berlin when it became obvious to him that he had gravely misjudged the intent of Hitler.  He wrote a number of items against Hitler and Fascism and in defense of the Jews of Europe but the damage was done: he was a persona non grata.
He basically disappeared from the art scene although he continued to write prolifically, even after the loss of his sight. There was a re-interest in his painting  and Vorticism in the mid-50’s , just a year or two before his death and in subsequent years his profile as an artist has regained some of its lost stature. He is consdiered among the finest of British portrait painters.  His painting of poet T.S.. Eliot, shown here, is considered one of his finest and one of the great examples of British portrait painting.

I picked up a book on his portraiture and find it very compelling.  The self portrait at the top of the page, Mr Wyndham Lewis as Tyro, really stood out for me as did the ominous Praxitella, below.  An interesting character.  I was glad to come across his work and will continue to explore it.

Wyndham Lewis -Praxitella

Praxitella– Wyndham Lewis

A Battery Shelled- Wyndham Lewis

A Battery Shelled- Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis- Seated Figure

Seated Figure- Wyndham Lewis

 

 

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The-Best-Years-of-Our-Lives-  Dana WinterVeteran’s Day is coming up and I thought I might have an image that somewhat represents the experience of some vets on their return home.  In the 1946 movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, Dana Andrews‘ character, Fred, struggles on his return to his hometown and comes across a local airfield where they are junking old war planes from the recently ended World War II.  He crawls into an old B-17 bomber and takes his former seat in the front turret of the plane where he was a nose gunner.  He vividly relives for a brief moment the terror that was still haunting him, tainting every moment of his life.  The haunting image of Andrews appearing ghost-like in the nose of that B-17 is a powerful one in a movie filled with powerful scenes, one that doesn’t sugarcoat the experiences and hardships of the returning vets.  It remains relevant to this very day.

I thought for this Sunday’s musical interlude, I would play something in the spirit of this upcoming holiday.  It would be easy enough to play something patriotic but this isn’t really a holiday of nationalism and a call to arms.   No, this is a holiday that celebrates an end to war , namely World War I when the holiday was originated as Armistice Day, and honors the service of all soldiers with the hope that they will soon return home and resume their lives there.  This holiday honors those who have served and sacrificed so much, not the wars to which they are sent.

The song is Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya which is the original tune on which the Civil War era  song When Johnny Comes Marching Home is based.  While When Johnny Comes Marching Home is more celebratory and martial in tone, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya is pointedly anti-war and mournful.  It was supposedly written in the 1790′s as a protest to the British imperialist invasion of Ceylon, present day Sri Lanka.  It tells of a young woman seeing her lover , who left her after their illegitimate child was born to join the army,  returning from war.  He is much changed in appearance and she mourns for his loss.

This is a very emotional version of the song from British opera and folk singer Benjamin Luxon accompanied by American Bill Crofut on banjo.  Have a great Sunday and gives some thought to the men and women who have given their time and their selves to serving their countries.  Let’s vow to treat them better.

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Taxis to hell- and back- into the Jaws of Death  Robt. F Sargent, USCG Photo 1944I think if you need an image to answer the question of why we take this day to honor  those who have served in the military, this might fit the bill.  It is titled “Taxis to hell- and back- into the Jaws of Death” and was captured during the D-Day invasion of 1944 by Robert F. Sargent, a Coast Guard photographer.  I can’t even begin to imagine putting myself into the boots or minds of those soldiers as they came off those landing barges, can’t fathom to any degree the basal fear  that must have been surging through each of them.  My stomach is in a knot just looking at this.

This is a trial of terror that most of us will never have to face, thankfully.  We should be more than grateful for those who been willing to put themselves in the path of great danger , for those that sacrifice their own opportunity for a long and comfortable life so that their comrades and those at home might have one.  They deserve a day, our gratitude and much more.

I am always conflicted on this day.  It’s too easy to be caught up in the romance  of war and combat from a distance, as though it were a mere video game that you can simply walk away from.  It’s much to easy to beat the drums of war from afar. We must honor the sacrifices of these soldiers by understanding the harsh reality of war and its aftermath,  resolving to try to avoid putting future generations of young men and women in harm’s way.  Who among us would want our children or any other child to have to face the scene in this photo?

Take a moment today and put aside the trappings of the holiday that have evolved from this day and remember why it is a holiday.  Be thankful for those who have sacrificed and pray that we can avoid future wars.

 

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genghis khan Chinggis Khaan statue horse equestrian mongolia 6I came across this photo of the Genghis Khan memorial in Mongolia, about 30 miles outside the capital city of  Ulan Bator.  I’ve always been a sucker for statues of epic proportion and I had never heard of this particular one.  It’s a pretty amazing  image, with Genghis astride his sturdy horse atop a museum,  and one can only wonder how it must appear in person in the vast open air of that Mongolian space.

I always am inspired when I see memorials such as this Genghis Khan statue.  It makes me want to work on something epic in size or at least push the spirit of my  work even harder forward, to think in a bigger way.  Grander in thought.  Perhaps that is the purpose of such memorials, to expand our horizons and broaden our vision.  I know that when I think of some of the other monuments of this proportion, such as the  World War II war memorial featuring a sword-wielding Mother Russia near Stalingrad or the Spring Temple Buddha in China (both shown  below),   that is the feeling that comes to mind.  They push me beyond the smallness of  my inner self where  I often allow myself to retreat in my work.  And that is exciting.

So, thanks for the inspiration, Genghis Khan.  And you too, Mother Russia and Buddha.  I’ll try to be a bigger person.

Stalingrad War Memorial Spring Temple Buddha

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henri-cartier-bresson-leningrad neva riverI wrote the other day about the decisive moment  and mentioned the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson,  who made great use of the term and concept in his work.  I am a fan of his work.  It would be hard to not find something in his work that draws you in.  Many are simply great images  with superb composition and an artistic rhythm running through them, showing the influence of his early training as a painter.  Some are mysterious and enigmatic, making you stop and just wonder what exactly was the story behind the photo, such as the image shown above of a sun bather along the Neva River in 1973 Leningrad .  And many capture defining moments in the 20th century, moments of history and change.

Decisive moments.

henri cartier-bresson_gestapo_informer_1945Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 and witnessed nearly a century of such moments, his death coming in 2004.  He lived through both World Wars in Europe.  He fought in the second war and was a POW for nearly three years until he escaped and continued the war serving with the French underground resistance.   The photo here on the left is from 1945 showing a Gestapo collaborator being confronted in the aftermath of the war.  He traveled around the world at important moments, capturing the people on the street as change was taking place.  His photo of henri-cartier-bresson China 1949people in 1948 China in a crushing line to get gold allotted to them by the government as it teetered on the brink before finally falling to Communism.  Ten people were killed in the crush of this line.  In that same year, 1948, Cartier-Bresson also met Mahatma Gandhi.  He was one of the last people to meet Gandhi and his photos, taken a mere hour before he was shot and killed, are the last photos of him while alive.  Again,decisive moments.

As I said, there’s a lot in his body of work, something for everyone.  He is considered the grandfather of modern photojournalism, making the move from clumsy large  format cameras to the more portable 35mm  that allowed greater spontaneity and mobility.  It brought the immediacy of the moment on the street to film.

Something I find interesting about his grand life is that  he hung up his camera almost thirty years before his death and spent his final decades at his first love, drawing and painting.  Just an amazing life, a witness to a world at the most decisive moments of the time.

henri-cartier-bresson Aquila degli Abruzzi 1952henri cartier-bresson istanbul 1964

 

 

 

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Harold Russell in “The Best Years of Our Lives”

It’s Memorial Day weekend and every year at this time, TCM shows films with  military themes as a way of honoring the holiday.  I see that tonight they’re showing The Best Years of Our Lives from 1946.  It’s a movie I have watched a number of times and am always reminded of one of its stars, Harold Russell.

Harold Russell was not an actor.  He had been an Army instructor during World War II when he lost both hands in an accident while handling explosives.  Near the war’s end, he was the focus of a film about the rehabilitation of disabled vets which is where director William Wyler first saw him and decided to cast him as Homer Parrish, a sailor who loses both hands in the war.

Though not a trained actor, Russell gives a spectacular performance as Homer.  There are many memorable scenes with Homer that linger with you long after the film ends.  One that stands out for me is one in which Homer is in the garage and his young sister and a friend are watching from outside and Homer, tired and frustrated at the stares and pointed fingers from the curious, smashes his hooks through the window at the girls.  The visual impact of the scene is brilliant.

There are many other scenes  that shine as well and they came together to bring Russell the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the film.  He holds a unique distinction as the only actor to have two Oscars for the same performance.  You see, the Oscar board thought Russell had no chance at winning and wanted to honor his performance for bringing attention to the plight of disabled vets so they chose to honor him with a special Oscar.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a compelling film.  Sure, there are moments of sentimentality.  How could there not be?  But this is no rosy view of the world in any way.  It has a dark grim tone and shows the damage the war has inflicted on the returning vets, both physically and emotionally.  It has an honesty about the subject of the effects of war that you didn’t often see in contemporary films of the time.  The vets returned to a world that was changed from that which they remembered and they were often forced to deal with indifference and sometimes scorn from a public that soon forgot their sacrifice.   It seems to me to be the jumping off point for the dark realism of  many films from the next decade.

So, if you get a chance tonight take a look.  It’s a great film and you’ll be reminded why we honor the sacrifice of those who served.  Here’s a great scene with Harold Russell as Homer and his girlfriend, who he has felt alienated from because of his disability. He’s trying to show her what she will face in the reality of  a life with him.

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