Combat Art Exhibit Provides a Unique Window into Wartime Experiences

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by Wendy Migdal

If a friend you haven’t seen in a while suggests going to visit an art museum on a Saturday, your first thought might be to head into D.C., or to check out the wonderful shops in Occoquan or Manassas. A thought that might not occur to you, though, is to head to the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

In March, the museum opened a new exhibit entitled “Go to War…Do Art”: 80 Years of the Marine Corps Combat Art Program to honor the anniversary of the program’s founding. The exhibit includes sketches, pen-and-ink drawings, watercolors, and even a few oil paintings and is a survey of art from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the post-Vietnam era. 

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Forward Patrol by MSgt John DeGrasse, USMC. National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle, Virginia

The vast majority of the works were created “in-country,” meaning the artist was actively participating in a combat mission. This gives the pieces a feeling of immediacy. It’s true that a photograph may capture an event exactly as it happened, while art is being filtered through someone else’s perceptions. But it’s that very aspect that makes the work seem so personal. You are aware, standing in this air-conditioned gallery in 2023, that you are looking through the eyes of a man who was on that landing craft heading toward Iwo Jima in 1945 or on a snowy forward patrol in Korea in 1951. According to artist-in-residence Kristopher Battles, “Visitors who have been Marines, who have been in these places, say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what it was like.’”

While most art exhibits are unified by a similar style, such as Impressionism, or by a single artist, this exhibit is unified by a topic, leaving the viewer to marvel at the myriad ways it can be interpreted. There’s everything from the quick pencil sketch of an island invasion that was rolled up in someone’s pack to a Vermeer-like oil painting, all dark-background and glowing subjects, of a surgical hospital in Korea.

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Triage Hospital by MSgt James A. Fairfax, USMC. National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle, Virginia

Brigadier General Robert Denig spearheaded the creation of the program in 1942 out of his belief that the American public needed to understand what their Marines were doing in the war. The artists were recruited from Marines who had already enlisted. This was not a cushy assignment; they actively participated in combat and documented their experiences while still on the mission. Many of the World War II artists had been commercial artists in their previous careers, and their work often has a distinctive 1940s look to it. Battles adds, though, “Every era develops its own distinctive look that is influenced by society at the time.”

Though the combat art program was revived again during the Korean War, it wasn’t until 1966, with the United States’ growing involvement in Vietnam, that it was established permanently. During the Vietnam war, active-duty Marine artists served a full 13-month tour of duty, while reserve artists served for about six weeks. Since Vietnam, Marine artists have traveled the globe documenting training exercises, humanitarian efforts in countries such as Rwanda and Haiti, and the conflicts in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan. 

After World War II, the Marines’ pieces ended up with the Army. After Vietnam, though, the Marine Corps kept their work at the History and Museums Division at Marine Headquarters. Though most of the pieces from previous wars have come back, a few remain with the Army. The museum also has received numerous gifts from the estates of Marines who may not have been employed as official artists, but who created art on their own, particularly in the case of the Korean War. 

Today, there are thousands of artworks in the collection, most of which are housed at a separate storage facility on Dumfries Road and are managed by a curator. The Combat Art Gallery has been open at the Museum since 2017. Past exhibits, which typically are featured for 12 to 18 months at a time, have included Colonel Charles Waterhouse’s Medal of Honor series, the works of watercolorist Mary Whyte, and an exhibit on war dogs. 

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Mine Sweep by John Groth. National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle, Virginia

Battles was himself a combat artist from 2006–2014 and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Art was not only a second career for him, but it was also the second time he had been a Marine.  He originally joined the reserves as a computer operator, was out for 10 years, and then re-enlisted as an artist. He now manages about 40-50 people who are associated with the program, though only about a dozen of them are full-time artists. In addition to training artists himself, he also supervises a mentorship program in which an older artist is assigned to a younger artist. 

“Art facilitates reflection and understanding,” says Battles. “People often find a connection to a piece. They relate to art in ways they don’t relate to writing or to photographs.” 

 

Wendy Migdal is a freelance writer who has lived in the Northern/Central Virginia area since 2000. She enjoys history, reading, and all things dog.  

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