Monday, October 5, 2015

Through Another's Eyes

And finally, we come out of the deluge.

It may be Monday, but at long last it's (mostly) sunny, making it feel possible that life can go on after the past week of near-constant gloom. Today's goal: get out and see some art.

Daylight is always better for me when navigating the labyrinthine byways of the University of Richmond, so I started at the Lora Robbins Gallery for "Robert Hodierne: Vietnam War Photographs," pulled from the photographer's extensive collection shot during two trips there, one as a 21-year old freelance photographer and the other serving in the military immediately afterwards.

The gallery is small, but the images feel big because the subject matter carries not just the weight of seeing bloodied men doing battle but because history has shown in the interim since these pictures were taken that it was all for naught, a colossal waste of lives and taxpayer dollars.

Most of the photographs are black and white, so the few shown in color are jarring for how bright red the blood stains appear,

One color series was taken on Hill 881, the bloodiest battle up until that point, claiming the lives and wounding over 700 men.

In one arresting image, a young black soldier stands shirtless, a bloody bandage on his left shoulder, his helmet battered and cocked at a crooked angle on his head, staring out of one eye off to the side. He looks physically and morally exhausted.

Another from that series is one of a soldier holding a cloth to the neck of another soldier, who lies with his face bandaged and bloody. It's tough to imagine he made it.

One of the most heartbreaking, "The Ambush," shows a squad leader pinned down in the open field, looking back at one of his men laying dead, while several wounded men lie just ahead of him. The anguish in his face is plain to see.

In "Comfort," we see two hands, those of a soldier and a dying man, clasped together, with the seated figure's cross hanging from his neck.

As I was going through the exhibit for a second time, a young black woman came in the gallery, blue disposable gloves on her hands, holding a bag. She looks around as if she's searching for something before noticing the photographs.

"Oh," she says very low and looks at me. "Who are they? Where?"

When I explain the photos were shot in the 1960s in Vietnam, her eyes get big. "Ah, so long ago," she says in her lilting accent. She looks to be in her 20s, so there's no way of knowing if she's even aware of the Vietnam miasma.

I ask where she's from and she responds, "Sou Suda," meaning South Sudan, explaining that it's a new country near Kenya. She's been in this country nine years and when I ask how she likes it, she looks down but says, "It's good," without truly sounding like she means it.

We go back to looking at the pictures together and I mention how painful it is to see how very young the men who fought this senseless conflict were. "Same thing in my country," she shares. "So young."

After taking one last look around, she leaves the gallery as quietly as she came in. Without even meaning to, she has tied these 50-year old images to the present and fragile countries like hers.

Leaving UR, the sun still trying to peek through, I decide to find something lighter for my next art adventure, stopping at the VMFA to see an important American work recently acquired. When I go to the desk to ask about its location, the face of the woman behind the counter lights up.

"It's just beautiful and enormous!" she enthuses, turning to the staffer sitting next to her to ask if he's yet seen it (he hasn't). Once upstairs in the American galleries, I ask a guard about the West and she gets just as excited, choosing to lead me there rather than simply provide directions and sharing as we go that West was born in Pennsylvania.

Along the way, she asks another guard if he's seen it and when he replies in the negative, invites him along. We've become a viewing party at this point.

"Portrait of Prince William and his Sister, Princess Sophia" is indeed large and beautiful, the latter no doubt due to the talent of West, who was known as the father of American painting. This is despite the fact that he visited England when he was 25 and never came back (probably why the museum signs label him as British-American) after securing patronage from the king.

He's depicted the two young children as having alabaster skin and, unlike so many American painters, the heads of children, not adults' heads on small bodies. Symbolism abounds in the robes, crown, purse and lion that fill out the rest of the canvas.

And while the purported goal of the painting is a reminder that a king protects his subjects (they are his niece and nephew) and they, in turn, owe obedience to the king, it was also hung in the court as a reminder to those upstart colonists that they owed their allegiance to him, too.

As if. You can lead a colonist to an allegory, but you can't make 'em give up on the notion of independence.

You can also go to see a collection of compelling photographs from a dark period in our country's past and come away moved by what someone born on the other side of the world has lived through.

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