Why The Civil War Still Matters to American Artists: Lecture with Artist William Dunlap

  • ELEANOR HARVEY: Our first speaker this evening is Bill Dunlap, who says that he’s always been under the spell of the Civil War. When he was growing up in Webster County, Mississippi, he and his brothers found a rusty naval colt pistol left over from “that old war.” They added the loaded pistol to their arsenal of toys until someone pointed out that black powder can remain dangerous for centuries — the gun was given to a museum.

    Bill Dunlap, though, came out of the University of Mississippi in 1969, in his own words, like a feral animal with an MFA. He “coached art,” in his words, at Appalachian State University for a decade — as he likes to say, “You can’t teach it; you can only coach it” — where among other questionable academic achievements, he established a branch campus in Manhattan, which thrives to this day. His paintings, sculptures, and constructions are included in collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Corcoran Gallery of Art here in Washington, the Lauren Rogers Museum, Mobile Corporation, Riggs Bank, Federal Express, the Roger Ogden collection in the Ogden Museum of Art in New Orleans, the Arkansas Art Center, and the United States State Department. He has had plenty of solo exhibitions, most famously his panoramic exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, but he’s also shown up in museums across the country.

    His “Panorama of the American Landscape,” a fourteen-panel, one hundred and twelve foot long cyclorama painting depicting a contemporary view of the Shenandoah Valley in the summer and Antietam battlefield in the winter, was commissioned for the rotunda gallery at the Corcoran in 1985, and since that debut it has been shown in a dozen American museums and art centers, most recently at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. “Reconstructed Recollections” and “In the Spirit of the Land” are also exhibitions of Bill’s work that continue major tours.

    Mr. Dunlap has received major awards and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Foundation for study and travel in Southeast Asia, the Warhol Foundation, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

    Since 1980, he’s lived and worked and occasionally written and talked about art from studios in McLean, Virginia, just outside here, New York, Coral Gables, Florida, and Mathiston, Mississippi.

    He is an inspired speaker, and has lectured on art-related topics at colleges, universities, institutions, and at professional conferences. He also serves as the arts commentator on WETA-TV’s cultural roundtable show About Town. Will you please join me in giving a warm welcome to Bill Dunlap.

    BILL DUNLAP: Thank you, Eleanor, I appreciate that. That’s so good I almost think I wrote it myself. You know, but what one wants to thank Eleanor for is this extraordinary exhibition she’s put together. She envisioned it, dug it out, she’s shown us paintings we’ve seen before but never in this particular juxtaposition, and it’s changed the way I think about painting, and the way I think about photography, and certainly think about this period of time.

    As she said, I hail from a part of the world that was very much affected by that war. I don’t have to do much more than open my mouth for the self-evident fact of my southerness to become plain. And, you know, even today, that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. And I am uncomfortable with their uncomfortable-ness. But stereotypical behavior— what can you do about it except recognize it, point it out, and move on?

    I was at a dinner party some years ago, a smart dinner party on the Upper West Side, and the conversation was about America and its various eccentric regions, and how none of them rose to the level of New York, which I tended to agree with. And a young woman, a very bright young woman who recently graduated from Brown University, said, “Bill, what do you think about the Civil War?”. And the question was so simple and to the point, and directed at a very complex issue, that I was speechless, only momentarily. What I finally was able to say was, “You know, I honest to God don’t know what I think about the Civil War, but I do know I think about it a lot.”

    This period of history, this un-civil war, if you will, has hung over me like an incubus since I was a child. I grew up in Webster County, Mississippi, born in the mid-’40s, in a place and time that was in every way still very much in post-reconstruction mode, with the exception of indoor plumbing, electricity, and the internal combustion engine. The social mores were the same— everybody, I mean everybody, knew their place, and they knew how to behave in it. And you stepped out of that place at your own peril, no matter who you were.

    Eleanor referenced finding that colt cap-and-ball when I was a child. That was remarkable. My older brother and I, we were visiting our great-grandmother up in Walthall, and there had come a big rain, and we were outplaying in the mud, which is what children did before Facebook. And we were building these dams, you know, and they would break, and we put our little boats in them. And this big old clot of mud came up, and we hosed it off and played with it, and it was a navy colt pistol.

    And interestingly enough, fifty years later, I’m out in McLean, Virginia, living in an old house right off 123 above Chain Bridge, which— 123 would have been a military road during the war. And I’m digging in a bed of irises, and this mini ball just fell into my hand. That would have been a bivouac area for Union soldiers. And some old Union soldier— we tried to do this with the colt pistol too. Two chambers had been discharged, and then somebody threw the gun away. I mean, who got shot, and who got shot at? And this mini ball was not fired. Some Union soldiers sitting at their boiling coffee, melting lead, and pouring it in one of those wooden bowls, and it just fell out of his haversack. And it lay there until it ended up in my hand, which— the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, you know.

    It’s so consistent with the way that war has been for me. What I intend to do is today talk about two projects that had the war as a point of departure. When I came up to McLean in 1980, after hearing all these stories as a child that I considered first-person stories about the war — they weren’t, of course, because the war was out of living memory — but all these grandmothers and great-grandmothers and aunts would sit around and shell butter beans and tell us these stories. And reconstruction was within recent memory, and as the great Shelby Foote opined, he said that as horrible as slavery was, and as bloody and unimaginably horrific as the war was, reconstruction was worse, because it lied to everybody and it lasted a hundred years. But hopefully we’re beyond that now. And I’ll just go through these in a hurry because I want to sit out there and watch what everybody else has got to say.

    It’s the mid-1980s, and Jane Livingston is a Co-Director and Head Curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and she got a grant from somebody to give this extraordinary space to three artists: Sam Gilliam was one, Alex Castro was the other. Castro painted the walls black and put steel sheets on the floor and dimmed the lights, and you walked through and you could hear all these sounds, and Sam Gilliam draped these beautiful canvases all over the place. It’s worth pointing out that Sam also is from Mississippi, from Tupelo. And I got the other one. Now, as a child, I had seen the “Battle of Atlanta” cyclorama, an extraordinary thing. And up here, I’d gone out to Gettysburg to see the Paul Philippoteaux Rotunda, and his round painting — he painted completely in the round — which has now been restored and beautifully installed.

    I knew I wanted to do something like that, to echo the nineteenth century panorama, which was a form of public entertainment, before Edison’s film sort of knocked it off the block. They used to— Philippoteaux made four versions of the “Gettysburg Cyclorama.” They rolled them up, moved them from town to town, installed them, and charged twenty-five cents for people to come in. It was really quite wonderful.

    But this space lent itself to a round painting. But I didn’t want to illustrate the war— that had been done, and there was nothing contemporary about that. I had a model made of the rotunda and then started to figure out what in the world I was going to do. I went through my own work and found the occasional drawing, reproduction, the sort of things that usually show up on refrigerators, old invitations to shows. But it started to sort of come together in my mind. This particular group of buildings, this painting. Forty-eight inches by ninety-six inches, oil and dry pigment on rag paper. I had been painting the landscape of the Civil War a lot, but never identifying it. And when you’re driving around in northern Virginia and Maryland, and you come up on Manassas, it’s an unspoiled landscape. It’s really quite wonderful. The Henry House showed up in a lot of paintings, I just never identified them.

    This one I called “Three Deer Head for Antietam.” And people have pointed out to me that there’s sort of a Holy Trinity here, a Father, a Son, and the Holy Ghost. Oh, and by the way, we have a Pope, for any of you all that give a d*mn. His name’s Jerry Falwell. I’m joshing you, hey, hey, hey, hey, it’s allowed.

    This is a fairly accurate painting of the— are you Googling it? I can tell, y’all are Googling the d*mn Pope, aren’t you? Leave that man alone! We’ll have him for fifteen or twenty minutes.

    But this is the landscape right in front of the visitor center. That’s the roulette house. Bloody Lane would be right over here somewhere, and these deer heads ended up at the bottom in quite an interesting way. Artists are always keeping these sketchbooks. I made this little drawing right here, which just slipped into a sketchbook, in October of 1981. These three deer heads were in a hunting camp where I was, had been invited to go out to eastern Oregon on a deer hunt, and one of those big old deer walked up in front of me on the first day of the season, and I shot him. And it’s a surprise to me to this very day how easy it was. This was a mammal that was larger than I was, but there’s something mystical about being in the woods with a gun. If I was there with my sketchbook and my camera, I’d be an artist, but since I was a hunter and he was the hunted, and we got that business over with. I made the drawings, and we were in the woods for ten days, and I stuck it in the sketchbook, and that’s a little drawing of the Antietam deer.

    I’ve been on both sides of this hunting question, y’all, and when I was in about the seventh, eighth grade — I grew up hunting and fishing, it’s part of the culture in Mississippi — one of my buddies came by and picked me up one night. We drove out to this deer camp in the delta, and we parked, and everybody was laughing and carrying on. The black guys were there to the right sitting by a fire, telling their stories, and there was a big cage with these naked carcasses in it, and I walked over to the camphouse, and these men were in there drinking, and they were cussing the black folks, and they were cussing the Kennedys, and one more boy was outside trying to shoot an owl. He couldn’t see it, but— and I said, “Nope, it’s not for me. I’m not going to do this anymore.” Hunting became a very accurate metaphor for all that was wrong with my part of the world, it seemed to me. And so I did not go back into the woods with a gun until October of 1981.

    And this is a beautiful part of the world, too, the Malheur National Forest. It’s where Lewis and Clark traversed on their way to the Great Northwest, and, you know, we didn’t have any outside communication to say the least, but when we came out and stopped at John Day, Oregon, to fill up our cars with gas, there were two headlines. One was, “This is the Greatest Deer Harvest in Oregon’s History,” and the other was the Anwar Sadat had just been shot by his own bodyguards, Army of God guys. If you want to Google something, Google Anwar Sadat and watch him die. This was, when you think about it, the kick-off, the first quarter of this East versus West ball game that’s going on now that goes back to the Greeks and the Persians. But it’s remarkable. This man, President of Egypt, if you need to be reminded, went to Israel, shook hands with Menachem Begin, signed a peace treaty, and sealed his own fate. So, those two things were sort of seared into my mind. I came back and made this drawing using the old trick of perspective: something large in the foreground, let it get smaller as it goes back— “Deer Head into Infinity.” And there’s a little note here from John Ruskin about accurate observation. You know how we artists are, we’re always writing that stuff down.

    The other drawing that kind of made sense to me was, I was sort of channeling my inner George Inness. I really liked the fact that Mr. Inness noticed that the railroads were playing havoc to his landscape, and in my case, it’s landscapes I’ve been seeing for years, and all of a sudden industry started to show up. Maybe these are nuclear cooling towers, maybe they aren’t, I don’t know. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I like hitting the switch and having the lights come on, but.

    Here, we’ve got this smoke, this effluent coming into the air. The birds are flying into it. That’s my famous Starnes house with a blue roof, because it already had enough red in it. And dogs in my works are always stand-ins for human beings, always. These Walker hounds are things I grew up with. My grandfather was an old fox hunter down in Mississippi, but he’s not one of those guys that rode with the red jacket and horses. He had nothing to do with their fox hunting. These were boys who would get together and put their dogs in a pack and turn them loose — that’s when the fox is naturally out — and listen to the race. As you can see, my dogs are doing — just like people — sniffing and licking, and not paying any attention, and the world’s coming apart around them. So, these are the things that I thought would be the core of the panorama.

    Oh, yeah. My New York dealer called me, Sherry French, and she was all excited. Harper’s wanted to use that painting on the cover of an issue they were dedicating to agricultural policy. And the title of this piece is “Agrarian Industrial Complex,” a play on the words of President Eisenhower when he left office and warned us against the military-industrial. So, I was pretty excited about having a painting of mine that would be on the best coffee tables in America for a month. And then, as you see, they edited out my d*mn dogs. They took my sniffers and my lickers out! I called Sheila Berger, who was the art editor at the time, and was raising hell with, and she said, “Bill, did you cash the check?” and I said “Alright, okay, let’s go onto this next—”.

    Alright, so, I’m making this panorama now, you know, fourteen canvasses, six by seven feet. Put my dogs in there, the hunters. I started in August and the show opened in May, and I’ve never had more fun, never worked harder, had no social life, and here, it’s close to the deadline, painting real fast here.

    There they are. Just like a bunch of politicians, aren’t they? It’s extraordinary.

    That’s the scale of the paintings. I’ve got a pretty big studio out in McLean, but I never saw the whole thing together. And for those of you that are artists, you’ll appreciate this. I could get three up at one time, and I’d put three up and work on them, make them work as individual paintings, and then also make them work as a group. Then I’d push one out and put another down, and I worked on that until we installed them. That’s the sort of scale there. That’s the Antietam battlefield, the roulette house, same sort of thing you saw. And I did my best to superimpose a battlefield map across it. Any of you who go to these national parks, they’re really quite wonderful, and you get the battlefield map, you look at it, you can’t tell a d*mn thing about it. It’s just illegible, but that’s, you know, kind of probably what I did.

    This is the way it looked in the Corcoran. “The Hunted.” And you know about Antietam. I shouldn’t have to tell this group this. But it’s America’s bloodiest day. Numbers in the Civil War are being revised upward by a new bunch of counters, and it’s hard to argue with it, but on the 22nd of September, 1863, twenty-some odd thousand young men got up and they were dead before the sun went down. Now, we’re very efficient killers, but the butcher bill has never come in quite as high as that. We ought to pat ourselves on the back, I suppose. But Antietam is charged grounds for a lot of reasons. It’s ungodly beautiful, and it’s kept preserved just as it is, as Sally Mann’s going to show you later.

    That’s the way it looked on the other side. That’s the contemporary green verdant hills of Virginia with my cooling towers and a little house and the dogs running wild, all out of control with one another.

    I thought I was going to have to eat this thing, you know. It was great to make it, but when it was over, then this tough little dealer of mine in New York, Sherry French, started to travel it around.

    Another thing that’s kind of interesting is the kind of de Chirico-esque nature of the landscape in places. Let me go back to this one. If you notice, there’s this— if you’ve been to that— there’s an Italianate tower built in the 30s for viewing. You can go up here and look right down Bloody Lane and look to the left and the right, but you feel like you’re in a de Chirico painting, because that should be in Florence. But you can see what the artist is trying to do here. It’s all drips and splatters and process here, and process is very much a part of what I’m trying to do as an artist. It’s not enough to represent something. I like to think I make paintings about something, not of something.

    This is the way it looked at the Aspen Museum and one of the working drawings in the background back here. I think this one’s called “Soon to be a Great American Rug.”

    And this is the way it looks now. It’s installed permanently in the Mississippi Museum of Art. You know, I’ve come to believe that we’re all tap dancing for the home folks. You can go to New York and get your ticket punched, and things can go well for you and be sort of moving in large circles, but if the home folks kind of think well of you, that means a lot. And when they added onto the museum and built a big wall, we’d talked about them acquiring this piece, and I said, “You know, you don’t have to build a round room.” I’d seen it like this before, and I like it. It becomes a very modern painting now. The grid is involved— there’s seven canvasses up here, and seven down there, and I totally approve of that, and actually like it better.

    Alright, fast forward for thirty years. Benny Andrews, my great friend, dies. He’d been the Ogden Museum of Southern Arts’ one artist board member, and they asked me to do it, and I said yeah, I would. And if you all know New Orleans, the Ogden is right off Lee Circle. They’ve got a brand-new building that’s attached to an HH Richardson library that we’re restoring, and right in the middle, right in the lee of those two buildings, a saddle, attached at the hip literally, is since 1880 the Confederate Museum. Jefferson Davis’s bones were disinterred, and they lay in state there in the 1880s and early 90s, and everybody kind of came to see it. And they’ve got a great collection of objects that are incredibly charged, but needless to say, when you put two museums in one building, you can have yourself a major pissing contest. Not like this museum here, where the Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum get along famously, nothing like that at all.

    But these people lawyered up, they all got mad at each other, and one of their board members is my buddy Winston Groom. He’s not just a terrific novelist — wrote “Forrest Gump” and got filthy rich on that — but he’s a great historian. He’s written about Shiloh, he’s got these great little small histories about the — well, they’re not small at all — about the history of America that have to do with his family. He’s on their board. I said, “Winston, we’ve got to do something about this.”

    And this painting you’re about to see, this Gilbert Gaul painting, is not in Eleanor’s show, nor should it be. This is the kind of painting that was made after the war, circa 1880, that illustrates the war. Gilbert Gaul made this painting for the market. Then they were turned into chromolithographs and sold widely. And what I purported to do, I talked to both the boards and said, let’s take this painting and install it, and conceptually surround it by objects from the Confederate Museum’s collection that would have been left on the field when the smoke cleared. I mean, the obvious ones are, there’s that navy colt pistol right there, exactly like the one we pulled out, and there would be, you know, haversacks and boxes and bullets, and, you know, they had plenty of that, but imagine what else. Letters, you know, ten types. This painting is worth deconstructing a little bit. I mean, one person at the Confederate Museum, one of their board members, said, “We’re not going to be involved with that painting because it’s a Union painting.” I said, “Wait a minute, man, it wouldn’t be a battle if both sides weren’t there, for Christ’s sake.” So, it’s pretty easy to read. Look at the arrogance of this Confederate officer up here. I know that guy. He was a KA at Ole Miss when I was there, I know that guy. And here’s this old Yeoman farmer who’s reverted back to primitive behavior. And here’s another— oh, it’s just remarkable. It’s a hell of a d*mn painting. There’s a lot of loose oil painting up in here, and they’re all these artistic references too. Gaul is certainly referencing Manet’s “Fallen Matador” right here. And here, there’s a nice James Surls sculpture that you all would recognize.

    Do y’all know Surls’s work? Texas artist? Dario does. In the early years of his career, Surls would take these wonderful big logs and carve them out, and hand hew these things and make these kind of caterpillar-looking things, and he tells this great story about having one on the back of a flatbed truck and driving in Texas, he was taking it to a show somewhere, and stopping to get some gas, and he said this old boy walked up and shook his head and said, “You know, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of those.” And Surls stepped back and he said, “Well, if you don’t mind telling me, where in the hell would you have seen one before?” He said, “Oh! Normandy Beach, D-Day, June the 4th, 1944.” As it turns out, this chevaux-de-frise, which is also depicted in one of George Bernard’s photographs, is an ancient war machine. At D-Day, they would have been made of steel to stop the tank, but the chevaux-de-frise is to stop the horse, if you will.

    Alright, stay with me here. I’ll show you as much of this as I can. What would have been left on the field after the battle cleared?

    We took a small gallery in the Ogden, painted the walls blood-red, and on both sides, these are tree trunks, not Isamu Noguchi’s sculptures, as you might think. These are tree trunks from Chickamauga. Ball, shot, shrapnel canister— you can see what it did to a tree. You can imagine what it can do to flesh.

    The curators at the Confederate Museum got all into this. They went into drawers, they went into storage areas they hadn’t seen before, and found cards, dominoes, hand-carved mess kits, any number of things. And there’s that colt pistol, just like the one we found. Money, photographs, locks of hair— the things they left behind. And needless to say, the two museum staffs came together, and everybody got kind of happy with one another for a change. People who wouldn’t dare to come into the Ogden came, and people who would never condescend to go into the Confederate Museum did. And they all lived happily ever after.

    Well, that does appear to be a bunch of museum curators getting together at a conference somewhere.

    But, basically, I wanted to cut mine short because I wanted to hear what everybody else has got to say. That is my final word on the matter, and I hope it’s something that you can cogitate on for the foreseeable future. Thank you all.

    Artists Terry Adkins, William Dunlap, Sally Mann, and Dario Robleto come together to discuss how they address aspects of the American Civil War in their recent bodies of work, and why. Moderated by Senior Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey.