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The American flag – fought over, died for, mocked, hated and loved – leads a second life as an artist’s muse.
Yes, the Stars and Stripes have inspired countless artists since its birth in 1776, and its run does not seem to be losing any steam soon.
The scope of styles, mediums and expression of the U.S. flag in art is dizzily diverse.
Although we have only one flag, it seems exponentially multiplied due to its artistic interpretations over the last two centuries.
One of the most familiar views of our banner is “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the iconic piece by Emanuel Leutze.
Left: Jasper Johns’ “Flag” Christie’s Images Ltd. 2011, Right: “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze
This monumental painting (21 by 12 feet) was made in 1851 to inspire revolution and reform, but not necessarily in America. Luetze made this is Germany, where he hoped the spread the ideals of the U.S. revolution throughout the rest of Europe, which was faced with widespread rebellion at the time. Returning here, he painted another version, which remains in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City. His painting is very emotional in expression and appeals to patriotism, pride and the prevailing ideals of western expansion and empire. A smaller version of it hangs in the White House.
Skip a century to 1955, and young artist Jasper Johns unveils a very different flag. Not whipping dramatically in battlefields or historic backgrounds, but plain and all by itself. At the time, this was unheard of, and many felt it may be construed as disrespectful or flippant to use the flag as an object, an abstraction rather like a canvas.
Art critic Robert Hughes phrased the perplexity of some by asking, “Is this a flag or a painting?”
A reasonable question. Johns encouraged the ambivalence by saying things like, “It is always about a flag,” or a brushstroke, or colors, or seeing a flag unexpectedly and incongruously.
Johns’ versions of the flag – created with oil paints, embedded pieces of paper and encaustic wax – jumpstarted entire new movements, such as pop art in America. His works have also been avidly sought after by collectors and museums, including the writer Michael Crichton, who had several. A 1960-1966 version of “Flag” sold at Christie’s last year for an astonishing $28.6 million dollars.
“Gathering of Eagles” by Roy Breckenridge
The popularity of John’s “Flag” series in the art world seemed to demystify our national banner. What had been almost sacred in a political sense was now made quite prosaic, an object that could have any personal importance attached to it … or not.
But even through the most tumultuous times in the U.S., Old Glory still has the power to move its citizens, whether they stand to the right or left of it, in approval or disapproval. The sheer number of artworks using its likeness proves this.
With the Vietnam War and in more recent conflicts, the flag as a symbol was used to both defend and attack our military. Native American artist and veteran Roy Breckenbridge uses colored inks in a realistic yet mystical style, to convey his feelings for the flag.
“My combat experience will always flavor my work to a degree,” Breckenbridge says. “Those I know and respected who will never return deserve emotional commitment, because they will always be there at my side.”
“Melting Flag” by Pierre Riche
In a very different take, sculptor Pierre Riche creates a massive, 7-foot “Melting Flag.” He uses a hollow-form sculpting technique, from aluminum sheet metal, with a vinyl print of Old Glory adhered to its top surface on both sides.
Working with metal on that scale is not easy, and the artist needs to be very motivated. Riche doesn’t seem to be particularly conservative, and his theme may appear entirely critical at first glance, but his statements prove otherwise.
Riche acknowledges that although America is “messed up,” he still loves the country and even refers to the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and God.
Riche hopes his “Melting Flag” may help to “wake us up out of a long cultural slumber,” lest we “go back to sleep and let the government steer us off the cliff of never-never land. No joke.”
Now for something lighter and just in time for the Fourth of July: Sculptor Joel Selmeier is doubly American as he merges baseball and patriotism in his “Bat Flag.”
Left: “Bat Flag” by Joel Selmeier, Right: “Phillies Flag” bu Alex Richmond
No deep meaning here – Selmeier made these pieces “to raise funds for non-profit work and to draw people to downtown Cincinnati.”
Close along the same lines, photographer Alex Richmond captures this image of a huge U.S. flag made entirely of Philadelphia Phillies baseball hats. Richmond particularly enjoys photographing the Stars and Stripes where he finds her.
In parades, in schools, over the Capitols and in art – long may she wave.