Art of the American Soldier.
Three blocks from the White House, behind a massive steel door in a large, underground bunker-like room, lies what just may be the most unusual and arguably powerful collection of original art in the world – thousands of paintings by artist soldiers in theaters of war. Turns out, the Army has been commissioning soldiers, who were also artists, to paint what they saw on the battlefield, no holds barred, since World War I. The reason why: human interpretation by paint brush depicts war, and preserves history, in a way photography never could – and anyone who saw the collection for themself knew this to be true on a visceral level.
But the oddest part: though the collection is powerful, provocative and quite literally breathtaking, and though it included works by great (and would-eventually-be-great) artists from the mid-20th century, it remained “the most famous collection nobody’s ever heard of.” Outside of tiny military circles, it had not been seen. That is, until the National Constitution Center (NCC) was granted permission to showcase 200 pieces of the collection in a one-time showing.
The NCC chose us to help with the exhibit, as well as market the show. We started by spending 2 days in the climate-controlled underground facility, helping choose the best pieces to exhibit. We tried to get a little of everything, from the realities of war – storming a beach, scrambling for cover, facing death – to more lighthearted and iconic pierces, including original cartoons featured in Yank magazine and Stars & Stripes. While we were there, we also shot a promotional trailer (top left) that we showcased on the exhibit website to pique curiosity, especially among the general public. (We commissioned an original score for the trailer as well, using soloists from the Philadelphia Orchestra.) The message: this is not some arty types-only gallery show. Gripping, poignant and real – this work is not someone's recollection of history, this work IS history, and these canvases were right there – in the thick of it.
We branded the show, giving “Art of the American Soldier” a look and feel worthy of the topic matter. In the weeks leading up to the opening, we interviewed eight surviving artists who had contributed, going all the way back to WWII and Bill Keane (of “Family Circus” fame), putting their video stories on 8 original (V1) iPads which were peppered throughout the exhibit floor. (This was 2010, and the first time iPads had been used this way in a museum. Visitors could tap an iPad to hear the story behind a painting, from the actual artist who had painted it.)
We created a website to promote the exhibit, and a mini site that allowed users to browse the collection online, as well as submit any unknown work from family members who were both war veterans, and artists. And our print (left) advertising and outdoor campaign captured the essence of the show, and the strange yet compelling dichotomy between art and bloodshed.
Opening night brought in visitors and press from around the country, and the reviews were outstanding. In the end, the NCC broke its own exhibit attendance record (which we again broke in an exhibit about Prohibition, one year later) and was awarded a 90-day extension from the Army. Then, oddly, when all was said and done, the work was shipped back to the underground facility, out of public view. Though the Army promises one day to build a public museum in Washington DC dedicated to the collection, no ground has yet been broken.
Note: at the underground facility, I was taken to a back room behind another steel door. There, Renee Knish, the Army Art Curator, opened a drawer and pulled out three works of art painted by Adolph Hilter, that the U.S. government does not want on display – anywhere. How these paintings were acquired, I have not idea, but they were better than you might think. (Hitler had studied art in his youth.) The only people in his paintings were tiny shadows far back in the composition.
AOTAS On TV
Source – https://vimeo.com/161334255