"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." - H.L. Mencken
"A good legible label is usually worth, for information, a ton of significant attitude and expression in a historical picture." - Mark Twain
What is art?
My wise old father-in-law has a definition that confounds supporters of the artistic avant-garde, "If I can do it, it ain't art!" (My guess is that he was looking at a work by Jackson Pollock when he came up with this one.) And while Dad's litmus test can certainly be used to debunk much of 20th century modern art, it certainly cannot be applied to the narrow category of Civil War and historical art, the matter at hand, since he could not produce it. But sometimes it's helpful to decide what something is by determining what is it not.
My personal opinion is that much - or most! - of the stuff getting marketed as "limited edition historical art prints" (what my pard Mal Stylo calls "LHAPs") and purchased by reenactors is not art, but illustration. There is a difference. Art is intended to provoke an emotional response, illustration depicts how something is, or was.
Don Troiani, a major producer of limited edition historical art, has this to say: "If an historical painting is not accurate, then it's worthless both as art and an investment. If you are going to become involved in this field then there is no excuse for being inaccurate." Really? Look at Flight into Egypt by Vittore Carpaccio, a Renaissance master. Whether or not the scene depicted here - the Christ child being led out of danger into Egypt - is historical in an absolute sense is irrelevant; the artist thought it happened and so did most of the viewers of the painting. It is therefore an historical painting. But look at the landscape - it's lush in an Italian sense, not representative of the arid and brown Middle East at all. Is it "worthless as art?" Of course not.
How about Ivan the Terrible and his son, by Illya Repin? It claims to depict an actual historical occurrence, the murder of the Tsarevich in a fit of ungoverned rage by Ivan IV, popularly known as "the Terrible." (A better translation would be, "the Awesome," or "the Awe-Inspiring.") Anyway, what's terrible here is the haunted look on the face of the Tsar. Is this an accurate depiction of the features of either man? Are the details of the rug or the furniture accurate? Who cares? What elevates this to art is the powerful emotional response provoked by Ivan's eyes, which dominate the painting.
Finally, examine Grant Wood's satirical Parson Weems' Fable. Not only didn't a young George Washington look like a smaller version of an older George Washington, and not only does Virginia not look like idealized landscape depicted here (Wood's own front yard, actually), but Parson Weems' fable - the famous story about the cherry tree - never happened at all! Also by Grant Wood is the highly stylized Midnight Ride of Paul Revere I used to enjoy looking at on the cover of my seventh grade history text. Are either of these paintings "worthless as art?" Well, you decide. And how about productions of Shakespeare chronicles like, say, Henry V, in Renaissance dress? Is it less art for being anachronistic? Of course not. But I think I've made my point.
What Troiani is actually talking about is the recent development of "art" that is based on accuracy, not emotion. The intended audience for these illustrations is largely reenactors and buffs - amateur historians - not the general public. I once spoke to a dealer in Fredericksburg who, although he made his living selling such things, decried Troiani and others as being "accouterment artists," more interested in showing cartridge wrappers and tinware on the battlefield than depicting the emotion or feel of an event.
Let's examine a few LHAPs, shall we?
Mawkish Religiosity and Kids
The South ain't called the "Bible Belt" for 'nuthin. There is a market for Southern military heroes praying, perusing Bibles, etc., and it is in the South. Now, don't get me wrong - I spend a lot of time in church, too. In fact, I even tithe. But there's something about this stuff - a smug, showy quality, perhaps - that absolutely fails to make me want to become a better Christian. (And Frederick Douglass' comments about antebellum Southern Christianity don't help, either.)
One of the worst, I think, is The Christian General, by William Maughan. In the text that accompanies the picture is this, "Virtually hundreds of paintings and sketches have been done on the great leader of the Army of Northern Virginia but few, if any, have ever depicted him as one of the greatest spiritual men of the 19th century." That may have been true at the time of writing, but it is no longer. Scores of LHAPs exist featuring a religious Lee. (In fact, that market may be becoming saturated.) Anyway, what bugs me about this one is "Holy Bible" painted prominently on the spine, lest anyone mistake the book for, say, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Also unsettling to me is a faint whiff of pedophilia.
Praying Stonewall number one: The Prayer Warrior by William L. Maughan.
Praying Stonewall number two: unknown artist and title. I saw this one at a virtual shrine of Reb LHAP art at the "Grant vs. Lee" event. I get the worst case of the giggles at these places, and images like this, with Mrs. Custer's head floating near her husband, don't help.
Resurrection Morning, by Hong Min Zou. Perhaps another example of Asians identifying what is desired in the marketplace and providing it. (As they did with Toyotas and Daihatsus.) In Renaissance art hovering cherubs and angels provided musical accompaniment to religious events - in LHAPs it's Rebs playing fiddles and banjos.
The Generals Were Brought to Tears by Mort Kunstler. As regards juvenilia, I will confess to being a fan of the Little Rascals shorts, which honestly depicted kids merely being kids. These kids, however, are unrealistic and Shirley Temple-ish. I've seen children at church meetings, and the most frequent emotion being displayed there is boredom. My guess is these two are faking it for the benefit of the generals.
The Compassionate General by William L. Maughan. Uncle Lee, a Bible, a kid in bed and uncomfortably fond glances.
The Noble General by William L. Maughan.
The Rescue, by Don Spaulding. Even Yanks - albeit post Civil War - get into the act.
Reflections by Gordon Phillips.
The Final Visit by Mort Kunstler. Lee with a kid. Lee with a Bible. Lee with a kid and a Bible. Lee, with kids and another general. Lee in front of the fire. Lee comforting a wounded Yank. Lee looking at a grave. For heaven's sake let's stop this pictorial documentation now, before somebody decides to paint Lee at the latrine.
The Prayer at Valley Forge by Arnold Friberg. I must confess a soft spot in my heart for Friberg, who did the illustrations in The Book of Mormon. He was spindly as a youth, and later confessed admiration for big, husky men. So he painted big, husky men. (By all accounts Washington fit into this category.) Even the old men in the Book of Mormon look buff. Anyway, this is probably the best religious general painting we're likely to get. The colors are reminiscent of Maxfield Parrish, and there is a mature, accomplished mastery of composition and human form that the LHAP artists simply don't possess.
(Postscript: They also don't possess originality. Check out this plagiarism.)
Rorke's Drift by Keith Rocco. Not bad compositionally, really. The overriding theme here, however, is white guys shooting lots of black guys. The marketing for this one is targeted at those who consider Zulu to be a film classic, i.e., reenactors.
Why anyone would want this kind of thing in his home is beyond me, but here's Rudel's Fire Brigade by A. Ric Druet. (Rudel, by the way, is a Nazi.) In a military museum, sure. In the living room or den? This makes explaining why one flys a Confederate battle flag simple in comparison. I guess one could always justify it by stating, "They only fought for what they believed in." (World domination.)
For the ladies…
I'm sure one of these LHAP guys did some market research and discovered the purchasing power of women, who practically own and dictate the configuration of shopping malls. So it stands to reason that they might be interested in Civil War LHAPs that celebrate love, marriage and romantic themes in general, right? "The Marks Collection" seems to particularly cater to the ladies, with a host of tacky prints inspired by the ultimate chick film, Gone with the Wind.
Wedding at West Point by Don Stivers. The text that goes with this one is especially poorly-constructed. After two paragraphs describing Civil War weddings, the copy ends with, "West Point swords will cross again, and soon, in other more frightening and tragic circumstances." (Than a wedding?)
Let no man put asunder (Matthew 19:6) by William L. Maughan. In point of fact, a man is going to put asunder, and it's probably one of the praying generals depicted above. So much for the sanctity of marriage.
Tara by William L. Maughan. There's a whole series of these. As H.L. Mencken once said, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public."
Old General by Tom Neel. I read an article once that advanced the theory that if you’re female and you want to make sure no man will ever want to live with you, have more than one cat in the house. This gives males the unmistakable signal, This woman is a ditz. Stay away. You can broadcast the same sort of message with one pussy if it's Confederate.
From Before the Raid, by Gordon Phillips. Okay, Mosby may have been bony, but he wasn't this freakish.
From The Burden of Command by Keith Rocco. When we say somebody has a "long face," we mean he's sad. Rocco seemed to want to emphasize this with Longstreet giving the okay to Pickett. I mean, is it just me or is this guy's face too big?
From Waterloo by Keith Rocco. Sometimes I suspect these fellows of using modern Xerox techniques to create crowded scenes.
From The Premonition by Don Stivers.
Mort Kunstler's hat casualties.
From Serious Work Ahead by Dale Gallon.
Southern Revenge by Dale Gallon. Rebs nuke the North. Once again, is this really something you would want hanging in your home?
No fair! Rebs are using lightning bolts against us!
From The Day is Ours by Dale Gallon. Yanks use flatulence against Rebs in revenge for Rebs' use of lightning.
Gettysburg Moon by John Paul Strain. "Second in the Moon Series," of which there can be twelve (one per month). If the idea catches on there can be one for every phase of the moon as well. ("First Quarter Harvest Moon at Harpers Ferry," "Full Snow Moon at Fredericksburg," etc.) For some reason this one reminds me of an Eddy Arnold theme LP I saw once, "The World of Eddy Arnold." Every song on the LP had the word "world" in it: "Welcome to my world," "You took my world away, " "Make the world go away," "Color my world," "Turn the world around," "It's such a pretty world today," "What's he doin' in my world?," "What a wonderful world," etc.
The Palace Bar by Mort Kunstler. Unless you actually owned this building I don't know why you would want to buy this print.
I haven't even brought up the matter of what seems to be an excessive amount of Nathan Bedford Forrest art (I call it "Forrestry"; here's a little montage), or the habit some artists have of compulsively putting Confederates in the snow, as if the Civil War was a midwinter activity.
And there's the socio-economic observation Mrs. Begone made to me: LHAPs are really middle class.
But, thumbing through a thick, three ring-bound catalog of LHAPs at a bagel joint (the walls of which were covered with LHAPs) the other night with Mrs. Begone, I've concluded that there seems to be no such thing as market saturation with this stuff. So this article can grow.
I don't know if I have the fortitude to continue, however. After awhile all these battle paintings begin to look exactly the same. The Irish theme prints all have green flags just as Spanish classical music always has castanets, and, as Mal Stylo has noted they all have stirring, generic soundbites as titles. ("Aim low," "Hold that line, boys," "The day is ours," etc.)
I do believe I'm beginning to suffer from LHAP battle fatigue.
Some associated links
Mal Stylo's landmark article, "A Guide to Historic Art Print Descriptive Writing." As far as I know Mal was the first to point at the Emperor and comment on his lack of clothing.
My own article, "Reenactors Revolutionize Grammar!" Some of these come from the LHAP flyers - like politics, always a source of unintentional mirth.
Rembrandt (tm), the Purchase Decision-Making Tool for Collecting Limited Edition Historical Art Prints - I've automated the process to make life easier for you.
The Museum of Bad Art. The dirty little secret here is that some of this "bad" stuff looks interchangeable with the modern art you'll see in galleries. Then again, a lot of what's featured here is really bad.
Allens' Creations online catalog. The biggest collection of pseudo-art crap on the Internet short of the Thomas Kinkaid "Painter of Light" site. (Hmmm. What would we get if we combined Thomas Kinkaid with the LHAP masters? "Lee, the kid and the Stairway to Paradise", "Forrest at the Forest Chapel" and "Stonewall, General of Light", perhaps...) Looking at this list, I perceive a new trend: portraying the Buffalo Soldier in every possible action, including praying, comforting children and walking on water. Funny, though, I don't see any of 'em shooting Indians - hmmmm. (These are obviously politically correct Buffalo Soldiers. Hey, how about a Buffalo Soldier in a Kinkaid setting? I call this one "Buffalo Soldier in a Winter Paradise - There Goes the Neighborhood.") I suppose heroic art of Hispanics and Asians is just around the corner, lucky them. But not to worry - the Buffalo Soldiers have a long way to go before they outnumber the LHAP Bedford Forrests or Prayin' Lees.
His Muse Wore Loose Underwear - The art of Art Frahm. When you get sick of looking at Lee, Forrest, kids, Bibles and so forth, check out these wimmen with falling underwear problems. Kinky.
Important copyright information! The people at the Marks Gallery have requested this to be placed here, so I am doing it! - Jonah
The Christian General, The Prayer Warrior, Resurrection Morn, The Compassionate General, The Noble General, and Let No Man Put Asunder are Copyright © The Marks Collection, Atlanta, GA. and/or their respective owners and should not be copied without the expressed and written authorization of the publisher. (800) 849-3125 www.markscollection.com
GONE WITH THE WIND, its characters and elements are trademarks of the Turner Entertainment Co. & Stephens Mitchell Trusts. Tara ©1990 Turner Entertainment Co. ©1990 The Marks Collection. All rights reserved. www.gwtw98.com