As we get ready to barbecue six feet apart from friends and family this weekend and celebrate being able to wear white again without the fashion police flagging us down, I am thinking about an amazing body of work from California-based artist Sandow Birk titled The Depravities of War.
Beautifully presented in an oversize book of the same title as part of a multi-city exhibition in 2007, Depravities captures the horrors and futilities of war in massive woodblock prints that evoke or directly reference prior political protestations by masters of the medium such as Jacques Callot, George Bellows and Francisco Goya.
Part of his Hui No’eau Visual Art center residency, Birk along with his wife and creative co-conspirator, the artist Elyse Pignolet as well as numerous assistants and advisors, produced magnificent 4 x 8-foot pieces depicting successive stages in the in the evolution of war from recruitment and conscription to the spoils of victory and the immeasurable suffering in between.
Callot’s Large Miseries of War etchings which depict atrocities associated with Europe’s 17th century Thirty Years War is memorable not only for its unflinching documentation but also because it is unfortunately timeless. Birk references several of Callot’s compositions, updating them with contemporary images of the Iraq war from newsprint and online sources.
It is a direct line from Callot’s work to Goya’s Disasters of War, which are empowered with a more psychological intensity driven by a staunch anti-war position — a posture also taken by Birk. Continuing the tradition of war prints, Birk places himself squarely as heir to these artists and his work stands up to their mastery.
The book contains not only images of relevant work from Callot and Goya, but an excellent essay from Darius A. Spieth, PhD, an Art History professor at Louisiana State University. There are also fascinating descriptions of Birk at work in the studio related by the Artistic Director of the Hui No’Eau Visual Art Center where the project was executed.
It’s interesting to note that Memorial Day first came about after the Civil War. The immense number of casualties required the formation of our first national cemetery at Arlington. A practice initially called Decoration Day began as the nation collectively started placing flowers and remembrances on the final resting places of their warriors.
Exactly why we would need several more massive military grave sites is worth considering as we take a moment this weekend to remember the lives spent — as Birk so ably depicts — in the service of attempting to resolve conflicts at the end of a gun.