The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Art of War

Never before seen paintings help illustrate the power of art and its ability to convey the horrors of war. At least that was the intention of exhibit organizer Denise Rompilla, assistant professor of art history.

“Artists served as high profile correspondents throughout much of the war; physically documenting its concepts and executing them on the spot, and often under harrowing conditions,” Rompilla said.

The exhibit “Images from the Atomic Front” featured approximately 60 works of art that were on loan from the Military Art Collections in Washington D.C. It included rarely seen watercolors, oil paintings, and drawings from war correspondents such as R. Munsell Chambers (U.S. Army Air Corps) who painted “Under the Mushroom Cloud,” Charles Bittinger who did an oil painting of the blast in Bikini, and Standish Backus (Navy combat artist) who was a leading artist of the California Watercolor School. Many other artists also exhibited their documentation of the bombings.

To commemerate the closing, Rompilla held a lecture on March 27 in the Sun Yat-Sen conference room. She discussed combat art in America from the Revolutionary War to World War II. She also mentioned that many military officers did not understand nor appreciate the importance of the works that the artists were producing.

Through research and organization Rompilla was able to bring the paintings to St. John’s.

The paintings document the events of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 and were on exhibit in the St. John’s University Art Gallery in Sun Yat-Sen Hall from February through March.

“Nothing prepared me or my students for the harrowing images that we encountered,” said Lisa Dolling, head of the Honors Program.

Dolling brought her students to see the exhibit and asked them to consider, “Can something that is overtly and blatantly violent and potentially destructive be a fitting subject matter for a work of art?

“The events of the past seven or eight days have made the consideration of these works that much more compelling.”

According to Rompilla, there was a controversy with the Smithsonian Museum a number of years ago. The Smithsonian wanted to exhibit the works as a timeline that showed military operations that led to the dropping of the atomic bombs and the aftermath that it caused. However, veteran groups didn’t want the works released to the public. The Smithsonian was under so much pressure that it decided to drop the exhibit.

“It was purely by accident that I had run into these images and military collections from Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Rompilla said. “I thought it was quite extraordinary that they even existed, knowing that there was controversy with the Smithsonian.”

Rompilla filled the gallery with paintings that artists created based on the bombings and sometimes in the worst of conditions. The works illustrated what the artists were seeing through their own eyes.

“I really thought how fascinating it would be to pursue the possibility of getting these images and exhibiting them for the first time. I never thought that I would actually receive any clearance,” Rompilla said.

The style of the artist changes and they become unsettled by what they have seen, Rompilla said. “In the beginning, they’re bold and very confident, and then when they get to the areas and they’re witnessing these effects first hand, you can see the shakiness and the hesitation in their style. There’s an uncertainty. An uncertainty that you can’t see with photography.”

Paula Garcia, a sophomore student said that the paintings were excellent depictions of the events but at the same time very disturbing.

“The exhibit was filled with emotion-filled paintings,” said Garcia. “It was as if standing in front of the painting transported you to the actual time and place.

I felt great sympathy toward the victims of war. No one deserves to have their homeland and family demolished the way theirs did,” Garcia said. “A simple painting of a mushroom-shaped effect of the bomb is enough to give anyone chills.”

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