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US army collection: Looking at the art of the Iraq war

A collection of paintings is stored in a basement in Washington, DC. The artists are serving—or have served—in the US Army

The Baghdad house under demolition in the painting Iron Law is no ordinary building; it is the home of Saddam Hussein’s two sons, Uday and Qusay. American troops watch the destruction, standing and sitting, like tiny bystanders in George Bellows’s Manhattan excavation scenes from 1900.

The artist is a former US soldier, now-retired Sergeant Elzie Golden, 54, who painted the work and several others as a full-time “combat artist”. Few soldiers know it, but all the armed services have artists on their staffs, and all have spaces to show work made on the front line.

Sgt Golden’s pictures are now part of the US Army Art collection, which comprises 15,403 works of art held in the basement of a Washington, DC, office building.

Another scene, which shows a military convoy approaching in the desert, is by Heather Englehart, also a former sergeant.

She served in the Louisiana National Guard and paints on military tent canvas. While not an official military artist, Sgt Englehart donated her paintings and sketchbooks to the Army after her deployment. The collection, which has no acquisitions budget, welcomes donations, says its civilian curator, Renee Klish.

The US Army has had artists on the battlefield since World War I, when the Army Corps of Engineers sent eight painters to France—“pleine guerre painting”, some joked. Soldiers and civilian teams painted during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, and in Kosovo and Bosnia. Soldier artists also painted and sketched the Civil War, although not officially.

The dozens of works from Iraq tend to be realistic, earnest scenes of US soldiers fighting in a foreign landscape. Absent from most are ancient sites, Islamic symbols or clerics, US casualties, and any Iraqis, living or dead.

War looks arduous, but uncomplicated.

Sergeant Timothy Lawn, 41, went to Iraq for a year in December 2004 as a Public Affairs non-commissioned officer. His articles, photographs and paintings were published in The Scimitar, the newsletter produced by the office of General George Casey, the former US ground commander. Sgt Lawn’s works, mostly watercolours, include Final Push (below), a view of the US response to an April 2005 ambush on a convoy in Diala Province near Iran, which killed two Tennessee National Guardsmen. In the painting US soldiers advance on a trench, where two dead Iraqis lie near a compatriot who fires on the Americans. Small arms and rockets are in the sand.

“The battle scene was disturbing to some people, especially because I showed it from the enemy viewpoint,” says Sgt Lawn. He travelled with his own supplies with units like the sniper team in Mosul, which he sketched on-site and painted later. “People in Iraq would say to me, ‘What a waste of money—painting,’ but the American public, deserves to see it,” he says.

Only one combat artist is now officially assigned to the US Army. Master Sergeant Christopher Thiel has not yet visited Iraq, but paints soldiers fighting there and in Afghanistan from photographs: “I’m really here to document what soldiers are doing out there. The mandate for the artist here hasn’t really changed since the art programme was established in World War I.”

“They told the artist then and they tell the artist now, ‘paint what you can, please make something that’s recognisable’—I haven’t strayed too far from that,” says MSG Thiel. “They don’t appreciate cubism.” Last month MSG Thiel, who favours portraits, was finishing Masters of Chaos—OD63, a portrait of a Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan, disguised in local dress. “You can barely see the machine gun that he’s got concealed...” he says.

Combat artists come from a range of backgrounds. Elzie Golden studied art at the School of Visual Arts in New York before his 23 years in the military. Timothy Lawn, who led a mortar squad in the first Gulf War, attended the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida. Christopher Thiel, a graduate in psychology, never studied art before he entered the Defense Information School (DINFOS) at Fort Meade, Maryland, which trains military candidates in painting, drawing, illustration, graphic arts, photography, videography, and rudimentary film-making. After 66 days of instruction, graduates return to the various armed services.

All paintings and sketches done on the job by Sgt Golden and MSG Thiel are the property of the US Army. On my recent visit to the basement offices of the Army Art Collection in Washington, DC, the pictures were either hanging on roll-out walls or lined up on the floor, awaiting installation. Visits must be cleared with an Army public affairs officer at the Pentagon.

Displaying the work for the public is another challenge. Apart from the basement storage area, the army collection has no galleries in Washington, DC, unless you count its website or the Pentagon office of the Undersecretary of the Army, where some of the works are displayed. There are plans to move the entire collection to a projected National Museum of the US Army at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, but so far, public galleries to show the works are not part of the design, according to curator Renee Klish.

Insiders say the real challenge is for the Army to deploy more of its artists to observe and document the unfolding war. Renee Klish has proposed this but there are currently no plans to do so.

o A selection of works from the US Army art collection can be viewed at www.army.mil/cmh-pg/art/A&I/artwork.htm

o The Defense Information School website is at www.dinfos.osd.mil/dinfosweb

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Art of the Iraq War'