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The Morning Report - 11/18/20 | Main | The Morning Rant
November 18, 2020

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Lea 1000.jpg

The 2000 Yard Stare
Thomas Calloway Lea III

Thomas Lea was a muralist and illustrator of western and Texas landscapes when World War II broke out. He was commissioned by Life magazine to follow the US Navy during the War in the Pacific and witnessed many of the theatre’s major battles. He was following the Marines when they landed on the tiny south Pacific island of Peleliu in 1944. His works recording that battle would become his most famous pieces.

In the background of this work is the Umurbrogol Ridge where some of the most vicious fighting of the war took place. The Japanese were entrenched there and the Marines were tasked with flushing them out. The Americans eventually succeeded but were chewed up in the process. Lea has rendered the mountain face with quick, jagged lines and strokes that, I think, help communicate the difficult terrain and the niches and hollows which effectively hid and shielded the enemy.

At the foot of the ridge, the thick jungle is shredded. Three Marines rest near a tank which has its gun pointed up at the ridge. The plume of smoke rising to the right (behind the main figure) looks like it might line up with the angle and sighting of the gun, implying the tank fired the shot that caused the smoke. It adds noise and drama and chaos to what seems, at first, a quiet work. Whether the tank fired the shot though is up to the viewer and will affect the viewer’s overall reaction to the piece as a whole. The battle lasted two months and one of the Marines collapses behind a tank in utter fatigue.

The main figure of the work is in the extreme foreground, so close to the viewer that we cannot ignore him. His uniform hangs off his sun-burned body. It covers him but doesn’t clothe him. It is dirty and torn. His helmet sits on his head at an awkward angle, like it was just mindlessly placed there. It is dented and the strap is ripped.

With all the action and noise of the surrounding work, it is that face, and those eyes specifically, that dominate the work. It is gaunt, with hollow cheeks and an unshaven beard that testifies to the stresses this man underwent. The condition of his face matches his uniform. The skin just hangs off his skull. His eyes sit in sunken sockets. They stare wide and are baggy and ringed with swollen red lids. How long has it been since this man has slept? Is sleep even possible here? At first it seems that he is staring at me, but soon I realize that he isn’t staring at anything at all. He is looking through me, past me. I’m not there. His pupils are so dilated that his eyes have no color, no individuality—no life. They are big, black, empty pits. The things this man has experienced has caused his mind to shut down. He is a robot now, his actions are automatic. There is nothing there. He has been so beaten down by the endless terror of this endless battle that his mind and soul have become blank. I have heard that many veterans don’t like talking about their service. The memories must be too horrible to recall. They are this man.

The painting gives the viewer a look at two different ways of coping. The two Marines talking seem oblivious to the battle. Their body language is neither urgent nor attentive. Their uniforms are more “put-together”. The one man even has his back to the battle! Battle is an occupation and they go about it like a job. The other two Marines in the work demonstrate the other type. They are stripped bare. Their uniforms, like their psyches are tattered and warn. They are in all ways tired. That the two tired Marines are more prominent may suggest that this was the most common type Lea encountered.

This work is an illustration. Through quick strokes, jagged lines, and hash marks, Lea is quickly sketching what he sees in a quickly changing, chaotic landscape. Like an Impressionist, he is trying to capture a mood or experience, and uses the blank stare of a Marine to solidify the work’s objective. Like Mathew Brady’s pictures of the Civil War, Lea captures the horrors of battle, what those men went through, and what we owe them.

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posted by Open Blogger at 09:30 AM

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