A Solid Green Mess

Anyone who's been following this blog will know that I'm a big fan of Howard Cook. His work always seems to appear in my in-house exhibits, and if anything, I try to curtail how much of his material I feature, lest I neglect other artists. Well, not this time, because now he's the star of our latest exhibit, A Solid Green Mess: Howard Cook's World War II Drawings.

I started working on this show back in the summer of 2014, when I was looking for World War II-related materials within our collection. With the 70th anniversary of the war's conclusion coming up in 2015, I wanted to do something to acknowledge that international conflict. My initial thought was to do something on Peter Hurd, he was an art correspondent for Life magazine during the war, after all, but I quickly discovered that we actually didn't have much of that material in our own holdings. We did, however, have hundreds of sketches and watercolors by Howard Cook, so to me the matter was settled. 

I'll admit, it took me a while to warm up to the works. I'm not a huge war buff by any means, and compared to Cook's other works, these pieces were often dark and brooding. As I began to really study the drawings, however, I felt a connection with them. We've also got dozens of letters that Cook wrote to his wife, Barbara Latham, in our archives, and reading those really helped bring out the humanity of the drawings themselves. I also read about the South Pacific itself during the war, and realizing how grueling that campaign really was helped me understand why these works were so often dark in mood.

 Let's take a  look at some of these works while I tell you the story:

In the summer of 1943, Cook was invited to participate in the War Art Program,
a federally-funded initiative organized through the United States Army with assistance from George Biddle, an artist and acquaintance of President Franklin Roosevelt. Biddle created an invitation list of 32 artists, with 13 as backups. Participants who accepted the offer were assigned to different geographic regions and provided with art supplies.

Cook was assigned to Noumea, capital of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, and put in charge of two other artists, Aaron Bohrod and Charles Shannon. At this time, the South Pacific, and particularly the island of Guadalcanal, played a prominent role in the public imagination. From August 1942 to February 1943, American and Japanese troops had endured the Guadalcanal Campaign, a grueling six-month endeavor that engaged land, naval, and aviation forces simultaneously. While Allied forces did eventually gain control of the island, there was a heavy psychological toll for both sides, with its tangled jungle setting and multiple fronts pushing both the body and mind to its absolute limits. In short, this wasn't a soothing island vacation that Cook was taking, quite the opposite. Indeed, the title of this exhibit, A Solid Green Mess, is how Cook described the jungle in one of his letters to Latham.

Cook and his team stayed in New Caledonia from May through August of 1943. During his assignment, Cook created dozens of sketches and drawings that he later used as studies for finished paintings and prints. Cook drew all aspects of army life, from firing practice on a transport ship, to the novelty of flying in an airplane. He also participated in the Landing of Rendova, when American troops took over the Munda airport on New Georgia Island, a critical air base.

While I like all of the works on view in this show, the jungle-related studies are particularly striking to me. 

Using a combination of ink washes and white paint, Cook created several grisaille studies that evoke the jungle's thick growth and intense humidity. They convey a sense of heaviness that suggests the weariness of wartime life. Just look at some of these:

Cook also did a peculiar drawing of himself hiding in a foxhole. During the Landing of Rendova, troops had to hide in trenches during air raids, an experience Cook described vividly in his letters, stating that "I condensed myself so intensely in my hole that I did not realize the show was over until I saw a jeep drive up and almost come in on top of me."

The study shows a bird’s-eye view of the artist lying in a freshly-dug foxhole. With his helmet and heavy backpack, Cook resembles a turtle peeking out from its shell, providing a touch of humor while emphasizing the primal nature of his vulnerability. We as the viewers, in turn, are situated above the artist and looking down at him, as though we are one of the planes from which he is attempting to hide, or perhaps the jeep about to drive over him. From our vantage, the foxhole resembles an unfilled grave, underscoring both the protection and danger that accompanies Cook’s attempted concealment. No matter how successfully we render ourselves invisible, he seems to imply, our very inability to fully perceive our surroundings leaves us feeling exposed.

He would go on to create an aquatint and an oil painting based in the sketch. The latter is now part of the NMMI art collection, but we were able to borrow it, along with a couple of other works, for the show. Cook's experience left a deep impression on him, and in more than one letter he expressed a strong desire to never go through it again.

Cook had originally intended to stay in the South Pacific for about six months, but his plans changed when Congress voted to cease funding the War Art Program on July 1, 1943, effective in September. After Congress announced its decision, Life magazine offered to hire on all civilian artists enrolled in the program; military artists were expected to resume their regular posts. Of the nineteen artists invited to join Life, only two declined the offer. One was none other than Cook himself, who had accepted a personal invitation from Collier’s magazine. A few months later, one of his watercolors would appear in the November 13, 1943 issue. I was able to locate one of these issues online, and had our Librarian purchase it for our archives. The language of the article itself is definitely of its time, not what we would call politically correct, but it's nonetheless an important document, both for Cook's work and for the general cultural mindset of the period.

Seeing this show come to fruition has been very satisfying to me, as I've become rather attached to these drawings and the complex ideas they represent. After seeing them only within the context of museum storage, it's good to see them up on the walls, where visitors will have the chance to view and appreciate them. 

P.S. If you'd like to learn more about World War II art in general, you should check out the documentary, They Drew Fire. Released on PBS in 2000, it features interviews from surviving artists, and there's even a clip from an old newsreel showing Eleanor Roosevelt looking at Cook's painting for Collier's. You can find it on Youtube; it's in three parts.