Monday, May 23, 2011

Portrait of War: The U.S. Army's First Combat Artists and the Doughboys' Experience in WW I

Eight U.S. soldiers witnessed more of the American fighting experience during World War I than any other U.S. participant, military or civilian. Their harrowing mission was a groundbreaking event in the annals of U.S. military history: They were the first combat artists recruited by the army, with the purpose of making a historical record of war.

Although they had no military training, these soldier-artists were commissioned captains and entered the war determined to capture "the shock and loss an d bitterness and blood of it." Relying on their letters, diaries, interviews, and, of course, their artwork, in PORTRAIT OF WA R: The U.S. Army's First Combat Artists and the Doughboys' Experience in WW I (Wiley, Fall 2006) Peter Krass tells their gripping story, which is, at the same time, a richly textured recounting of the soldier's experience. What emerges is a fresh and unique perspective on World War I.

Unlike imbedded journalists confined to their assigned units, these highly regarded artists were given passes that allowed them to travel freely; so, at great personal risk, they alone witnessed all major American action. They came under fire and charged through burning wheat fields as they pushed to the front along the Marne River, where the Americans were making a desperate stand. They penetrated hallowed Belleau Wood, where the Marines fell in waves and the stench of blood overwhelmed them. They painted while standing among the dead during the terrifying Meuse-Argonne Offensive. And they went "over top" to fully comprehend the soldier's experience. Through it all they recorded their encounters in letters, diaries, and sketchbooks.

Amidst the carnage and chaos, the artists were also forced to battle with the General Staff in Washington, who wanted art conducive to conducting a propaganda campaign. The artists' rendering of grim realism hardly served as propaganda, but they were determined to show the truth of war. A dramatic story with many dimensions, PORTRAIT OF WAR has a humorous element, too, as these untrained captains attempted to adapt to military life. By building a compelling narrative interwoven with a blues motif and by including more than 40 pieces of the artists' work, Krass brings the reader into the trenches, into battle with the soldiers, and into the combat artists' lives as they struggle to survive what was at times a surreal experience that changed them forever.