|By Dave McCormick
During World War l the U.S. Army introduced a small but successful war-artist program. In early 1942, the Army began looking at replicating the program while increasing its scope.
The artists would be asked to record everyday military life, as well as record battle scenes, with paint and palette, after the fighting subsided. Photography was fine in some cases but, in the intense heat of fighting, it could be nearly impossible toframe a photograph, without the loss of life or limb. The task of putting this program in place fell to the assistant Secretary of War. In January 1943 he tapped mural artist, George Biddle to form a War Department Advisory committee. Along with a number of artists, the committee included writer John Steinbeck. He was a strong supporter of the art program, and wrote Biddle, “It seems to me that a total war would require the use not only of all of the material resources of the nation but also the spiritual and psychological participation of the whole people. And the only psychic communication we have is through the arts.”
In all, 42 artists were chosen to work in 12 theaters-of-war around the world. Biddle wasted little time, in March, 1943, he sent each artist the following memorandum disclosing their mission; “...Any subject is in order, if as artists you feel that it is part of War; battle scenes and the front line battle landscapes; the dying and the dead; prisoners of war; field hospitals and, base hospitals; wrecked habitations and bombing scenes; character sketches of our own troop of prisoners, of the natives of the countries you visit; never official portraits; the tactical implements of war; embarkation and debarkation scenes; the nobility, courage, cowardice, cruelty, boredom of war; all this should form part of a well-rounded picture. Try to omit nothing; duplicate to your heart’s content. Express if you can, realistically, or symbolically, the essence and spirit of war. You may be guided by Blake’s mysticism, by Goya’s cynicism and savagery, by Delacroix’s romanticism, by Daumier’s humanity and tenderness; or better still follow your own inevitable star. We believe that our Army Command is giving you an opportunity to bring back a record of great value to our country. Our committee wants to assist you to that end.”
By May 1943, some artists were in the field working in the South Pacific, Australia and North Africa; other artists were on standby overseas, or awaiting departure clearance. But, at home the Army art program was under the gun. Budget numbers were the reason. In June, the House of Representatives took a hard look at the Army’s budget for 1943-44. Of the total $71.5 billion budget, $125,000 was slated for the art program.
While the amount budgeted wasn’t huge, some people in Congress thought the program was not needed. Democratic Congressman Joe Starnes, of Alabama was strongly against the project. He called the program, “a piece of foolishness.” But, others like Representative A. Willis Robertson of Virginia defended the program. Robertson argued, “we can take photographs of what happens in Europe, but... it takes the vision and artistic skill of the artist to bring us the inspiration which only an artist can put down on canvas.”
Ultimately, the art program was cut. On Aug. 21, 1943 funding for the artists would cease. The artists took the cessation of the program hard. One penned a note in his diary, “One of us might conceivably have had his head shot off, and at the same time Congress is giving us this kick in the pants.” Even with the cancellation of the program, most of the artists wanted to continue on. Some military leaders, realizing the advantages of the program, on their own authority, appointed some of the artists left stranded when the program ended, “official combat artists” of individual campaigns and units.
When Congress cut the funding for the army art program, Daniel Longwell, Life magazine’s executive editor, was in route to Washington D.C. He immediately sought out assistant secretary of war, John J. McCloy. He told McCloy he wanted to employ the civilian artists. In the end 17 joined the ranks of Life as war artists. Although the Life artists were not enlisted men, as were the artists now employed by the U.S. Army, they were in harm’s way on battlefields, all around the world.
Artists Aaron Bohrod and Byron Thomas painted on Omaha Beach two days after D Day. Manuel Bromberg had the dangerous job of covering the Normandy landings. He covered operations with the Seventh Army in Germany. In earning the Legion of Merit, it was noted that he “displayed unusual courage and initiative as a soldier by taking voluntary risks under fire in order to give proper portrayal of our army in action.” His pen and ink drawing entitled Destroyed American Tank,”depicts a carcass of war.
In 1944, Congress had a change of heart, and the Army officially authorized soldier artists to produce artwork in theaters around the world, with the caveat that the art could not interfere with their regular assignments. These Army supported artists covered the fronts in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Northern Europe, the South Pacific, Japan, and Korea. By the end of the war the Army had amassed more than 2,000 works of art. Today the collection is stored away in the archives of the U.S. Army Center for Military History, in downtown Washington, D.C.