Saturday, June 2, 2012

Wandering Whitman

How fitting that I had to walk through a gauntlet of Confederate flag-waving protesters.

I was on my into the VMFA to see the new exhibition timed to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and emancipation.

"Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era" demonstrates how poets and writers dealt with their feelings as the country was torn apart by war.

The show opens with a portrait of Whitman, looking every inch like a Richmond guy: bearded, hatted and chill.

His poem, "As Toilsome I Wander'd Virginia's Wood"  sets the tone for the rest of the works to be seen.

Long, long I muse, 
Then on my way go wandering

Winslow Homer shows up immediately in two contrasting paintings.

"Skirmish in the Wilderness" was dark and showed more than one battle focus in the scene, with soldiers shown in the tangle of a savage-looking forest.

Wilderness is putting it mildly.

"Army Teamsters" was light-filled with a blue sky and a group of African-American soldiers resting comfortably against a white tent, horses peacefully grazing in the background.

Two sides of the war coin, I suppose.

Eastman Johnson's "The Field Hospital" showed a soldier in a cot bed set in the woods; a woman was writing a letter as he dictated.

Call me uninformed, but it had never occurred to me that wounded soldiers convalesced en plein air.

The exhibit has two original books, Whitman's pre-war "Leaves of Grass," espousing a mistrust of radical agitators on both sides and "Drum Taps," the poems he wrote after the war.

Many a changeful season to follow
And many a scene of life

In a similar vein, even the landscapes done after the war had a mostly melancholy tone. Paintings of actual people almost always wear the saddest of faces.

In an acknowledgement to just how many men served during the war, including artists and writers, notation is made of which unit each artist served in and for how long.

But even when they served the Confederacy, some made their true feelings known on their canvas.

One such artist was Thomas Satterwhite Noble whose "The Price of Blood" showed a wealthy Southern planter (in slippers and smoking jacket, no less) selling his mixed race son to a slave trader with complete nonchalance.

Symbolic bloody coins litter the table as he makes the transaction.

Disturbing as it is, it's clear that Noble abhors the institution of slavery.

Bold, cautious, true and my loving comrade

And that's really the crux of this excellent new exhibit.

Even "delicate men" like artists and writers were forced to take sides, and in many cases, take up arms.

But even when fulfilling their duty, men like that will inevitably share what's in their hearts and minds.

It makes for a truly unique look at a war some Virginians are apparently still fighting.

I know. I passed the flag-wavers on the way out, too.

It was what Whitman called "many a scene of life."

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