Claggett Wilson – War Artist

Reading this article in the New York Times revealed a large gap in my art history knowledge of America: 

I’ve been reading a lot about the Ashcan Group, the Precisionists, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop Art, but seemed to have totally missed the War art produced by a range of American artists. 

One, whose work has caught my eye, is Claggett Wilson (1887-1952). Classified as a ‘modernist’ painter, Wilson produced a number of paintings and sketches based on his war experience as a lieutenant in the US Army. The collection was bequeathed to the Smithsonian Museum in New York. 

This 1919 painting Flower of Death represents the moment a shell explodes.

The full title: Flower of Death – The Bursting of a Heavy Shell – Not as it Looks, but as it Feels and Sounds and Smells, is perfect, as this painting screams ‘terror’ at you. Look at the soldier cowering in the bottom left and you can see just how terrifying the experience must have been.

The movement lines and debris fly out of the canvas towards us at great speed; you would have little chance of escaping. The iron sheet that is projected through the air is riddled with shrapnel. The sheer ferocity of the explosion is palpable. The colours are cacophonus – Wilson wanted us to hear it and hear it we can.

It is reminiscent of CRW Nevinson’s Bursting Shell (currently in Tate Liverpool):

Here, too, Nevinson wants us to experience the full sensory experience of the catastrophic moment. 

Browsing Wilson’s work gave up this watercolour: Symphony of Terror

The more muted palette here does not detract from the power of the explosion. The sickly yellow glow at the centre, at first, disguise the gasmask faces rising up on the horizon; a choir invisible, bringers of death. 

To calm the nerves, this allegorical work is simply sublime: Saviours of France-Jeanne d’Arc, At Louis, Clovis and the Hands of the Common Soldier. The upward movement of the figures draws your eye centrally but you have to look at the horizontal to see all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. 

Their spirits are just as important, just as vital as the patron saints. Wilson certainly captured the spirit of remembrance here. 

For more on Claggett Wilson’s war art:  

Smithsonian Institute of Art

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