For millennia the realms of war and art were as entwined as a soldier’s fingers in his trusty gauntlet. Along with religion and the grandeur of monarchs, military glory occupied vast acreage on palace and temple walls.
Unfortunately some things never seem to change, and the existence of war is one of them. Commemorative paintings and statues are small comfort to the grieving, though generally created with good intentions. Over time and diminished memories, they become just art – some of it the best that was ever made.
Our military may not have funds for a modern day Arch de Triomphe or Battle of Trafalgar, yet they host, exhibit and promote boatloads of military themed art, particularly the Air Force.
In 1950 the U.S. Army transferred some 800 works of art documenting the early days of the Army Air Corps to the budding United States Air Forces Art Program, USAFAP. Original pieces date to the early 20th century. They include works by Henri Farre, a French pilot-artist from World War I and captured German art from World War II, a type of war booty I imagine.
At this point their extensive collection exists of about 10,000 pieces of aviation art of various mediums, and it all begins with the Pentagon. Specifically the chief of art is known as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III.
America’s brass still values the arts, and for some of the same reasons as the ancients but with a little modern polish. Traditional military art is a form of record keeping, historic accuracy or, in the case of propaganda, historic inaccuracy.
Scratched into an ancient Egyptian wall at Karnak is a depiction of a war scene from the 12th or 13th century B.C., one of the oldest images around. Archaeologists believe the battle was waged between Egyptians and early Israelites. Of course the Egyptians claimed to be victorious.
From the classical Greeks on, military art eulogized individuals who died or were injured, also those who fought with valor. Where doesn’t some general loom in limestone over a town square or their exploits recounted in prose or paint?
The U.S. Air Force is no exception; they just do it less conspicuously. Part of their art stash includes a series of portraits of military leaders, such as Major General Chenault from 1950. Most are traditional drawings or paintings, realistically rendered and conservative in style – but there are exceptions.
The USAF describes the purpose behind their art collection as both historical and educational, to “expose the role and diverse capabilities” of the United States Air Force.
Although contemporary USAF art is more illustrative, rarely reaching for fine art status, there is a tradition of artists following our troops since the Revolutionary War. Only relatively recently was the USAFAP made official, but art was always there and in the military tradition goes a long way.
In 2007 the program had approximately 250 active artists, but over the years, it represents hundreds. Artists may be active members of the armed forces, such as reservist Maj. Warren Neary, who chronicles a med-evac mission from Afghanistan.
“Bandage 33” depicts two airmen at Kandahar, Afghanistan, caring for Tech. Sgt. Zach Rhyner after he was critically wounded in 2013. Onboard with them the entire time, Neary captured the turbulence and life-threatening crisis as they struggled to save Rhyner.
“It is this moment that I worked to capture in the painting,” Neary said. “They saved his life.”
Why employ painters and sculptors after Kodak and cameras? War correspondents and cameramen may faithfully record every digital jot and tittle, but accuracy isn’t everything, or portraiture and landscape painting would have died decades ago.
Human perception, dramatic story telling or using discernment – all those things a camera can’t easily do (although some say with Photoshop all things are possible). To capture a story, show compassion, create a tableau or to simplify complex human and political situations are often an artist’s challenge. Rarely does a single photograph manage it, and videos are not a medium the USAFAP seems to have embraced much for artistic purposes.
The Cold War wrought many changes in military art, reflecting how war was “marketed” in a sense. Victory, sacrifice and patriotism were universally unquestioned during the World Wars, and there was a draft, so no shortage of men.
Officials openly admit the purpose of combat art in the last century by the U.S. and allies was done “in support of domestic and foreign ‘propaganda’ and public information programs.” Even Hollywood pitched a hand – a big one. Since then the heady exuberance and aggressive tone of the 1940s has been dimmed way down.
Without a draft, soldiers and the public must be convinced of two things at least: that the nation is worth defending and risking our lives; and that we are in some type danger, either directly or indirectly. Military art may not address the first concern, but it can illuminate the second quite well. It’s a unique type of live, reportorial illustration that can capture the energy and pulse of the moment better than anything else we have yet discovered.
Our screens are filled with images of carnage and death from present war efforts, but there is a great deal more happening behind the cargo craft. Rescue missions and humanitarian efforts are just as dramatic and even as dangerous as open warfare.
Just this week three of our sailors were washed into the sea off the coast of Japan in a typhoon, and so many rescuers were poisoned with radiation from the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima that medical helicopters are downed and troops feeding or sheltering civilians put themselves at risk.
The average civilian couldn’t know the extent of humanitarian and disaster relief work the U.S. military is involved with. I certainly didn’t.
Publicizing this is one of the purposes of the USAFAP, as Victor Juhasz’ art makes manifest. Juhasz is a gifted professional illustrator who has been embedded on many U.S. Air Force expeditions and sent to various camps and battlefronts. His love and respect for soldiers is evident by his illustration and commentary, and it isn’t surprising to learn his youngest son, Ben, joined the Marine Corps.
For one 2009 mission alone Juhasz watched video presentations, learned history of an academy, viewed artifacts and attended two air-traffic controller exercises (an obstacle course training exercise and parachute jump set-up). All this to draw Air Force Special Ops Forces in training, to capture as he put it, the “frenzy and movement and descriptive gestures that could tell the story” of their intense preparations.
Much of Juhasz’s work revolves around wounded warriors, their rescue, injuries and state of mind. Juhasz doesn’t only see them as models, and the compassion clearly shows its face in his work.
After years with the art mission, Juhasz was sent to Afghanistan in July 2012. He describes his family’s fear over the move as “some sort of death wish, or postponed mid-life crisis exercise coming to fruition.” He admitted to being a “life-long coward” who needed to “prove to myself … get it out of my system.”
Victor’s “Embed in the Stan” adventure was more than he imagined, involving “dragon skin” body armor, times without military escorts, hot-zone landings and helicopter chases under fire. His work there earned awards and a GQ online story using his own colorful commentary and illustration.
Juhacz is an active member of the Society of Illustrators, where he promotes and works with the USAF Art Program. The relation between the organizations dates back to 1952, when the Air Force sponsored 30 artists from the Society of Illustrators. Later the Air Force requested a formal alliance between them (in art at least). By this means, hundreds of civilian artists accompanied USAF troops across the world to record their observations in image, color and line.
Members don’t do this for the money – there is none. Jahacz explains they work for the honor alone. Still it must be a rush for an artist to face impending death from a grenade to get that sketch just right.
Works, if accepted, are donated to become part of the permanent Air Force collection at the Pentagon and other military bases. The Society holds annual military themed shows with a current exhibit at their New York City headquarters ending soon on October 18, 2014.
As an aside, it is emotionally difficult to revue art with the troops from Iraq done just a few years back. I can only imagine what the veterans and artists feel about present circumstances. They gave their best as soldiers or artists while they were there. Destruction of art in Iraq is just one proof that ISIS forces are uncivilized and can’t even rise to most base level of humanity.
Along with the rest of the military, the USAF Art Program has been hit with serious budget cutbacks but is still moving. Some USAFAP presentations and exhibits have been scaled back or canceled and the staff reduced. Still the Pentagon keeps a running series of military theme paintings open to the public, as well as directing them to points South and West at various museums and bases.
See the USAF art in person at the Pentagon gallery:
Room 5D855, Pentagon,
M – F: 8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. ET
The Society of Illustrators is located at:
128 East 63rd Street (between Park and Lexington Avenues)
New York, N.Y. 10065
Sources: AFNS US Air Force / Vicotr Juhasz / GQ.com / Society of Illustrators