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SJU features combat artists’ frontline view of war

With the threat of war imminent, St. John’s University opened an exhibit last week featuring works of combat artists who documented the atomic bombings in Japan, the Pacific and the Nevada desert.

“I wanted people to know about combat artists and how they put their lives on the line and were not just sitting back in studios,” said Denise Rompilla, an assistant professor of art history who put together the “Images from the Atomic Front” art show in the university’s Sun Yat-Sen Hall art gallery. “With the current events in Korea and Iraq, it certainly is timely.”

The exhibit begins with works by Standish Backus, R. Munsell Chambers and Robert MacDonald Graham, three out of a select group of about 30 artists nationwide who were chosen by the U.S. military to document World War II with their paintings in addition to serving as front-line soldiers.

“The Navy appreciates the artist, in reporting his experiences, has the opportunity to convey to his audience a larger sense of realization of a subject than has the photographer, with his instantaneous exposures, or the writer, who lacks the advantage of direct visual impact,” wrote Backus in a note that accompanied his art.

Backus, Chambers and Graham were sent to Japan six days after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945 to document the surrender of Japan and the end of the war.

Using watercolors on paper, Backus painted eerie landscapes of Hiroshima after the atomic bombings, depicting a few figures wandering aimlessly in the barren, smoky city littered with human artifacts, such as stone altars for worships, bicycles and telephone polls.

“There’s no rubble even,” said Rompilla. “Things were just completely wiped out, incinerated.”

Paintings by Chambers and Graham have a surreal quality. One painting by Chambers depicts a dead woman whose clothes have been burned off lying next to a dead child, with the city still on fire in the background.

“The first sun breaks through the clearing smoke on the kiln that was Hiroshima. Secondary fires burn endlessly — torches over grotesque sculpture which has been fired from human flesh. Still, things live, to impose their whimpering upon the majestic silence,” wrote Chambers.

The second part of the exhibit features paintings by Grant Powers, Arthur Beaumont, and Charles Bittinger, three combat artists who were chosen to document Operation Crossroads, the first postwar atomic tests conducted in the Pacific on July 1 and July 25, 1946.

Using pastel blues and pinks, Bittinger, described as a “supreme colorist” painted images of the atomic mushroom cloud, while noted ship painter Beaumont painted images of the red ship target that the bomb missed.

Among other images, Powers documented King Juda, one of the 164 inhabitants of Bikini Island evacuated from their homeland before the test with the false promise that they would be able to return.

The exhibit ends with images painted by H. Avery Chenoweth and Robert Rigg of a nuclear bomb which was tested in the Nevada desert during the Truman administration.

Official posters entitled “You and the A-bomb,” which were produced by the U.S. Navy during the postwar atomic testing period, advise people to “Take cover! Large trees, stone walls, ditches” and to “Flex knees to absorb violent shock.”

Most of the works on display at the exhibit came from military art collections in Washington, D.C., said Rompilla. The images represent only a few of the combat artists’ works, many of which may have been destroyed when going through the censorship process that took place in Guam and Honolulu during World War II.

“I’ve corresponded with a number of atomic veterans and people of Bikini and I was really moved by the story of Operation Crossroads,” said Rompilla. “They really knew nothing about radiation — they were telling soldiers on ships to begin scrubbing with soap and water to try to clean it off.”

The Atomic Front exhibit will run through March 21. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and on weekends by special appointment.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at, or call 1-718-229-0300, ext. 155.

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