The Pity of War
January 02, 2017
A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar stood under the open sky, after WWI, in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of forces of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human life.
Through a chance encounter with a haunting image of a WW1 German soldier, I realized I had a special connection to The Great War, the war that many at the time thought would end war. In 1912, my 22-year-old grandfather had come to the US from Germany to pursue his professional work in chemistry.
When war broke out in Europe in 1914, he was able to remain in the US rather than return to Germany to serve in the Kaiser’s army. In 1917, when the US officially entered the war, President Wilson declared all Germans citizens “alien enemies.” As such, my grandfather was required to register himself and his property with the government. Though my grandfather was never interned, he had many vivid stories of anti-German sentiment.
In some measure then I owe my existence to this accident of fate. As a result, I felt emotionally connected to the over 16 million people world-altering conflagration.
I began “The Pity of War” in 2014 as a four-year undertaking to coincide with the centennial of the War. Searching through the vast photographic archive, I found French poilus, Russian infantrywomen, German Leutnants, British munitions workers, American doughboys, Algerians and Kenyans—people thrown together in an apocalypse that violated all notions of what it meant to be a human being.
As I paint these portraits, each individual becomes vital and familiar. The invisible line that stretches from me to them, from our time to theirs, quivers with connections, perceptions, and emotions. We stand face to face and engage in a rich dialog about violence, war and destruction and about dignity, wisdom and compassion.
The project title comes from the English poet Wilfred Owen, who whose own poetry unflinchingly describes the horrors he experienced as a soldier in the trenches of WW1: “My subject is War and the Pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.” Owen died in the final week of the war.
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