Monday, March 13, 2017

Almost Blinded Myself with Lime Juice

Tori Amos once claimed to be the queen of the nerds, but I'd argue that point, having been nerdy before she even knew what a piano was.

And I'm not talking your run-of-the-mill nerdiness here.

I'm not even talking about getting excited hearing about an event like the American Civil War Museum's history happy hour - slogan: drinks are on you, history is on us" - focused on "Winslow Homer's Civil War: How a Northern Artist Portrayed the South."

No, indeed, I'm talking about digging through your bookshelves so that you can bring along a book, "Winslow Homer's Watercolors" to share and discuss when your nerdy companion picks you up for dinner first.

And then over dinner, looking at the colored plates in the book and discussing watercolor technique and Homer's post-war travels to Bermuda, Key West and the Bahamas, such a long way from the battlefield work he'd done sketching war life for the pictorial newspapers back in New York.

It was like the pep squad getting us all riled up before the big game. By the time we finished dinner and went to the Camel for history happy hour, we were so ready for Winslow we could hardly stand it. Art historian Karen Sherry ("This is the first time I've ever given a talk in a bar") finished us off with a well thought out talk, lots of images and some insightful conclusions.

Homer was a worthy subject because he ignored the traditional depictions of the heroic aspects of war and zeroed in on the everyday life of rank and file soldiers. "The Last Goose at Yorktown" shows two uniformed soldiers on their knees in the grass, desperately trying to nab dinner. Pitiful, but not pretty.

But he also showed the impact on the home front and the changes war brought to women's roles."The Empty Sleeve at Newport" showed a woman driving a carriage because her male companion no longer has a left arm as a result of the war.

His wicked wit was apparent in almost every piece we saw, whether questioning stereotypes or contemplating which aspects of conflict are morally right, as in "The Sharpshooter" showing a Union solider perched high in a tree, rifle cocked and ready to shoot.

But as Sherry pointed out, the vantage point was high, as if that of a Confederate sharpshooter about to take aim, an unusual angle for Homer's Union-sympathetic eye.

More typical because he could show that blacks were better off with northern troops was "The Bright Side" showing, yes, the sunny side of a tent but also three black paid laborers on the Union side taking it easy in the sunshine. Ditto "Pay Day in the Army of the Potomac," where a black soldier is the first in line to collect his pay from a paymaster who looks like Lincoln's twin. No symbolism there.

By the time we got to the final image, "Prisoners from the Front," we're looking at a summary of the war's cast of characters. On the right (get it?) is the immaculately dressed, young but stalwart New England general who's taking possession of three Confederate soldiers.

Facing him with audacity, flowing red locks and his uniform mostly unbuttoned is a Virginia cavalry officer who would have set Scarlett O'Hara's heart a-flutter, accompanied by an old soldier clearly unable to accept the new world order and, bringing up the rear, a big, dumb galoot of a foot soldier, the kind who requires someone smarter to tell him what to do.

There it was, a wickedly witty cross-section of the lost cause captured in oil. Go, Winslow.

But you don't capture that sort of thing without seeing a lot of battle, dysentery and camp life along the way. Small wonder the man had been all but unrecognizable to his friends upon returning from being embedded with the army.

Even smaller wonder that after the war he began setting out for warmer climes and tropical locales to capture a kinder, gentler world. Our history happy hour proved he'd earned the right to spend his post-war career capturing a sloop in Bermuda, a river in Florida or a palm tree in Nassau.

Even a card-carrying nerd could enjoy those places, assuming there were drinks and history involved. Audacious southern types optional.

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