The Art Of War

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" opened Friday 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.

An online art gallery 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. 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.

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.

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.

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."

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