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PHILADELPHIA – For as long as the United States has gone to war, it has sent soldiers marching off to battle armed with paintbrushes, canvas, ink and sketchbooks.
With little fanfare or public recognition, they have captured the sights, sounds and sensations of combat since the American Revolution. Examples of Army soldiers' efforts over the past century will be on display, many for the first time, in a new exhibition in Philadelphia.
"Art of the American Soldier" opens Sept. 24 at the National Constitution Center and runs through Jan. 10. It will also travel to other as-yet-unannounced locations, Constitution Center president David Eisner said.
The museum has planned gallery talks, an audio tour that includes soldiers telling their own war stories, workshops and lesson plans to complement the exhibition. An online art gallery also encourages veterans from all branches of the military to submit their own art expressing their personal war experiences, Eisner said.
More than 250 paintings and sketches from World War I to the present provide a glimpse of the daily lives of soldiers, from the canteen to the stark, noisy and chaotic battlefield.
"The Army was truly interested in seeing war through the eyes of the soldier artists, not for propaganda purposes," said artist and Vietnam veteran Jim Pollock, of Pierre, S.D. "We were encouraged to express our experiences in our own style; we could determine our own agenda and our own subject matter."
Combat art programs are long-held military traditions. The Air Force, Marines and Navy have their own museums in which they display art from within their ranks. The Army, lacking such a museum, keeps its 15,000 wartime paintings and sketches made by 1,300 unsung soldier artists in storage. Many of the pieces in this exhibit have never before been on public view.
"This is the American people's collection and we want them to see it," said retired Army Col. Rob Dalessandro of the United States Army Center of Military History in Washington. "These paintings tell a fascinating story of the life of soldiers and the duty of soldiers."
The scope of the Army's art program has waxed and waned over the decades, its funding often subject to prevailing political winds and aesthetic tastes.
"The Army falls in love with photography during the Civil War and people begin to question why we need artists," Dalessandro said. "Thankfully during World War I, there's the realization that something is captured on canvas that cannot ever be captured on film."
Funding was yanked in the middle of World War II, as the program's $125,000 price tag within a $72 million 1942 war budget was deemed excessive by critics. Then-U.S. Rep. Joe Starnes, an Alabama Democrat, notoriously called the program "a piece of foolishness."
Some civilian artists continued working, however, with financial backing from LIFE magazine and others. Federal funding was restored a year later, and 23 soldiers and 19 civilians returned to their duty.
"By the end of World War II, more than 2,000 pieces of art are produced and there are many prominent artists in the program," Dalessandro said, among them Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin and proto-Pop painter Wayne Thiebaud.
The Korean War had no Army art program. During the Vietnam War, more than three dozen soldiers were tasked with making sketches and photographs to translate onto canvas later. Most recently, Army artists have been witness to military operations in Somalia, Haiti, Panama, the Balkans, and the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars.
Pollock, 22 years old and just out of art school, spent August to December of 1967 in Vietnam. Armed with India ink, a sketch pad and a gun, Pollock visited 52 units and covered 3,600 miles.
"When I got there, what I expected to see isn't what I saw," he said. "I didn't see glorious battles or anything like that. I saw body bags stuffed in a Huey helicopter, I saw death and destruction."
Pollock has several pieces in the exhibit from his Vietnam service. Among them is "Looking Down the Trail," a watercolor of a soldier viewed from above amid a claustrophobic tangle of foliage.
"When we were in the field, the heat was so oppressive the only breeze would be from the bugs flying around," he said. "What I tried to do was focus on the individual soldiers, to get past what you can see visually and get to the deeper emotional experience of this hostile environment."
Unlike the older, more seasoned artists who documented both World Wars for the Army, Vietnam's relatively inexperienced soldier artists often brought a raw aesthetic to their work.
"When the war was over, I went on to other subjects and never returned to it," said Pollock, now a painter focusing on landscapes and abstract works. "Looking back, I'm amazed at what I did do at my age and inexperience."
National Constitution Center: http://constitutioncenter.org
Jim Pollock: http://pie.midco.net/vietwarart/vietart1.html