Yesterday I visited the Smithsonian Museum of American History with my friend Kim Roberts. I wanted to get a second look at their splendid exhibit African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond before it closes next Monday, September 3rd. After we took in the beautiful artwork, including one last live look at Claude Clark's gorgeous Resting, we decided to explore a few of the other exhibits in that cavernous building. The Old Patent Office houses both the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. The six-year renovation and redesign a few years back resulted in the intermingling of the two museum's collections and it makes for some smashing juxtapositions. This is how we found ourselves on the opposite wing of the first floor and the current exhibitions commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
Of the many pieces of photography, painting and statuary I was most struck by a small exhibition of the drawings of the Civil War-era artist Adalbert Volck who created some of the most fascinating (and disturbing) political cartoons of the era and seeing them are a window to the Confederate mentality. According to the Smithsonian's site, Volck was a recent German emigre who savagely attacked the North through this series of cartoons entitled Sketches from the Civil War in North America. Unlike most recent emigres, Volck chose to side with the Confederacy during the Civil War (he also was said to have served as a courier for Confederate President Jefferson Davis).
Rounding a corner from a series of Mathew Brady portraits, I came across these drawings and was first struck by their tiny precision. I came up close to them to take in their beautiful thin-lined detail. But I don't know how else to describe these illustrations but as racist, pro-slavery, extremist artwork. They are beautiful illustration in the service of ugly repulsive sentiments. They are pieces in the service of demagoguing and demonizing almost everything that we now consider just and fair. One piece entitled "The Worship of the North" really struck me. Here's the description from the Gettysburg site:
In an elaborate scene of idol worship, Northern leaders are shown sacrificing a white man to a shrine of "The Negro." A black man sits atop this shrine, labeled "Chicago Platform" with carved busts of Lincoln as a serpent carved into its base. Henry Ward Beecher uses a sacrificial knife, Charles Sumner holds a torch, and Horace Greeley holds a censer from which snakes slither. John Brown, with a pike, is represented as St. Ossawatomie. General H.W. Halleck, General Winfield Scott, General David Hunter, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts; and Harriet Beecher Stowe are all present in the crowd.
What the description doesn't mention are the "bricks" forming the "shrine" to "Negro Worship." They read "Socialism," "Atheism," "Free Love," "Rationalism," "Witch burning," and "Spirit Rapping." I don't know what "witch burning" refers to specifically in this case. I assume "spirit rapping" is a reference to the popular spiritualism of the time. But I'm struck at how some of these attacks are still used now by the Republican Party and the right-wing's current (and I guess this artwork reveals continuing) conflation of lies, smears and bogey men. It's certainly hard not to think of these lasting ugly currents as you pay attention to the words and actions coming from the "festivities" around Tampa's Republican convention this week (those are all separate links there). There's an irony here of course as it's the Republican party then in power that Volck was attacking with his drawing.
Today's campaign would probably change out some of those "bricks." I'd imagine a present day Adalbert Volck adding bricks reading "MEXICANS" or "ALIENS", "GAY MARRIAGE," "SOCIALIZED MEDICINE," and "SOCIALIZED MEDICINE" to the "altar." I highly recommend checking out this exhibit, or at the very least, check out this piece online in it's full size (here). Volck was a gifted artist who, although relatively new to the country, was quite successful in tapping into an ugly stream of American fear-mongering. This is American history and it's not pretty. And as this presidential campaign has shown us, it is still very much with us.