Artists & America's Longest War
by Mark Vallen on the 30th anniversary
of the end of the Vietnam War
"Vietnam" Drawing by Mark Vallen 1975)
30th, 2005, marks the 30th anniversary of the US defeat
in Vietnam. As a twenty two year old in 1975, I commemorated
the end of the war by creating a large oil painting simply
titled, Vietnam! The preliminary sketch for that
painting is reproduced to the right of this text. The Vietnamese
peasant woman portrayed in my artwork glances at you with
cold regard, her stare is not celebratory but accusatory.
observing the 30th anniversary of the end of what the Vietnamese
called, "The American War", I have to mention that the conflict,
and the world-wide opposition to it, were defining factors
in my early artistic development.
I created my Vietnam painting at the close of the war 30
years ago, I could not have imagined that America would
have so quickly forgotten the tragic lessons of that misbegotten
imperial adventure. Yet memories of Vietnam still haunt
Americans as the US conducts a brutal occupation of Iraq.
Up to 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the war, with
1,573 American soldiers killed and an estimated 20,000 wounded
as of this writing - causing some to call Iraq, "America's
new Vietnam." It is in this context that I make an appeal
to all artists, and offer my commentary as a challenge.
There's a war going on. Leave behind the isolation of your
studios and your focus on pure aesthetics, and instead become
engaged in the world around you. Now is the time to confront
the deadly realities that plague humanity. and art is the
best means we have to envision and implement a new, just,
and peaceful world.
"Moratorium" by Jasper Johns 1969)
1969 a network of antiwar activists across the US planned
the National Vietnam Moratorium, a nationwide coordinated
protest against the war on Vietnam. Activist and student
groups set Wednesday October 5th, 1969 as the target date
for mass demonstrations. The Leo Castelli Gallery
of Los Angeles commissioned Jasper Johns to create a poster
for the Moratorium. The artist was famous for his pop art
renditions of the American flag -works that were iconic
celebrations of patriotism equally enjoyed by all citizens.
But his poster for the Moratorium was a departure from his
red, white, and blue paintings.
painted a toxic flag, a national symbol poisoned by war.
The stripes in his flag were black and green, with the sickly
green looking vaguely like jungle camouflage. The nauseating
orange field was filled with blackened stars. In the center
of the painted flag was a single white dot - representing
a bullet hole. The design was the perfect banner for an
ailing America in the throes of an unpopular imperial war.
Johns' painting was published as a poster with the single
word "Moratorium" stenciled beneath the flag. The mechanically
printed poster was distributed far and wide, and according
to Deborah Wye, Chief Curator of Prints at The Museum
of Modern Art in New York, the poster "became one of
the most well known images of the Vietnam period." Johns
also signed a special edition of the poster to raise much
needed funds for the antiwar movement. On the actual day
of the Moratorium, university campuses across the nation
either canceled classes or were paralyzed by student strikes,
and some 30 million Americans participated in some type
of protest against US engagement in South East Asia.
"Vietnam!" Antonio Frasconi 1967)
woodcuts of Antonio Frasconi (1919 - ) are the perfect example
of how art can address social issues. His print, Vietnam!,
depicts a US B-52 bomber engaged in what was called "carpet
bombing", the methodical bombing of broad areas with
unguided gravity bombs.
flew in groups of three, with each plane carrying 54,000
pounds of high explosives. Flying at high altitudes, the
bombers released their deadly payload upon the unsuspecting
people on the ground. Such an operation was called "rolling
thunder", and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese perished
under the onslaught. Frasconi represents those victims with
the double image of an anguished human face.
"Vietnam Scene" Duane Hanson 1969)
Photorealist Sculptor, Duane Hanson (1925 - 1996), created
realistic human figures in polyvinyl that would then be
painted and dressed in accessories for the ultimate in realistic
statuary. His Vietnam Scene was a tableau of dead
and dying US soldiers positioned on a gallery floor as if
a grenade had detonated in their midst.
hyper-realistic figures often couched a biting social critique
of the excesses of American consumerism, racism, and other
"Napalm 1" Leon Golub 1969)
Golub (1950 - 2000), created political artworks for most
of his career, and a good number of them were devoted to
the horrors of the Vietnam war. His Napalm series
of paintings are unforgettable condemnations of one of the
most horrendous weapons used by the US in Vietnam -napalm.
The jellied gasoline was dropped from planes in bombs, and
upon exploding they'd scatter the flaming substance to stick
to anything within the target area.
widespread use of napalm by the US army against the Vietnamese
civilian population horrified the world, and the photos
of its victims were successfully used by the international
antiwar movement to turn people against the war. Perhaps
the most infamous use of napalm occurred on June 8th, 1972,
when it was dropped on the village of Trang Bang. Associated
Press cameraman Nick Ut, photographed nine year old Phan
Thi Kim Phuc, as she ran out of her napalmed village with
her clothes burned off and her skin on fire. Ut's shocking
photo exposed the brutality of the war, won the Pulitzer
Prize, and became one of the most famous photos of the 20th
century. But hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who were
napalmed never received any press attention.
not only sought to draw attention to the depredations of
the US in Vietnam, he focused on militarism and injustice
wherever it was to be found. He said of his works, "There
was World War II, Korea, Vietnam. How are you going to connect
with those fantastic numbers of slaughters? You can't do
it by making pretty pictures about it. You have to create
these kinds of stylized forms which are so brutal that they
jump beyond the stylization." Golub's technique in
painting conveyed a sense of violence. He would apply and
then scrap off the paint over and over again, until the
painting's surface texture was as disfigured as the war
victims he painted.
Strive to Train Soldiers to be in a position to Defend
Poster by Vietnamese artist, H. Hoan 1971
Vietnamese poster exhorted the people of Vietnam to ready
themselves for combat against the Americans in the "great
patriotic war." The figures portrayed in the artwork
show a male regular from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA),
along with two female guerrillas of the National Liberation
Front (or what the French and then the Americans called
the "Viet Cong" - for Vietnamese Communists).
of Vietnamese women carrying guns, commanding guerilla
troops, and taking leadership roles in the revolution,
had an enormous impact upon the burgeoning women's liberation
movement in the US. A well-known feminist slogan in the
early 1970's was, Vietnamese Women Carry Guns.
The U.S. Imperialists will be defeated!
Chinese Solidarity Poster 1966
posters with Vietnam were produced all around the world,
and their messages ranged from pacifist calls to militant
declarations of unity with the National Liberation Front.
In the US there was a torrent of posters created by individuals
and organizations expressing opposition to the war, some
of which became famous both home and abroad. In
the socialist world a huge number of posters condeming imperialist
war were produced and distributed. Cuban posters about "Heroic
Vietnam" could be found in just about every corner
of the globe. The silkscreen posters of Cuban artist, Rene
Mederos (1933 - 1996) who had visited Vietnam and spent
time with the Viet Cong guerrillas on the battlefield, were
printed in the pages of the radical US magazine Ramparts
in the early 1970s.
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