The life that went out of New York City like a winking light on Sept. 11 went out the same way nearly 65 years ago in another culture center, the city of Guernica, Spain. Three thousand incendiary projectiles wiped out the Basque capital in a single afternoon. Machine gun fire from low-flying planes came in for more killing.
It was one of those awful times in military history when the target was not a military one. The aim was to demoralize 7,000 people. September 11 was another one of those times.
A great painting marks the bombing in 1937, "Guernica" by Picasso. September 11 needs one, too. Unlike photographs that tell what pain looks like, Picasso's image shows what it feels like. The angular tongue of a shrieking mother holding her dead child is the kind of thing that points up suffering. Artists in the last century gave America its commemorative icons, as well.
Felix Deweldon's statue of five marines and a Navy corpsman raising the flag on Iwo Jima, standing near Arlington National Cemetery, memorializes World War II. Not far from the statue stands a homage to the Viet Nam War: Mayha Ying Lin's long black marble wall, half-buried in the earth, inscribed with the names of the dead and missing.
The difference between the two memorials is more than stylistic. It shows the change in our way of viewing war. While Deweldon saw his work as a "symbol of our freedom," Lin saw her work as a symbol of a second kind: "I had an impulse to cut open the earth, an initial violence that in time would heal. The grass would grow back, but the cut would remain."
In visual art like this, you can see how we have thought about war through the decades. Visual art is our silent witness. In the last century, it showed how triumph gave way to tragedy. The written word described it, but the graven image epitomized it. Brisk sales in American bookstores of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which told of how Prince Andrey Bolkonsky came to view death as a necessary end to life, spoke of our willingness to accept our fate. A painting by Rockwell Kent called "Bombs Away" was the novel's unwitting illustration: a woman sitting bravely in a field as bombs burst in the air. The novel takes a long time to tell the story. The painting tells it at a glance.
While Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions described a Nazi officer who doubted the rightness of his orders and James Jones' From Here to Eternity drew a sympathetic picture of an American soldier who went AWOL, Leonard Baskin's woodcut "Hydrogen Man," a naked figure reduced to a boneless, shredded mass of veins and arteries, spoke directly, without a word, for the Cold War of the '50s.
In a painting by Faith Ringgold during the Viet Nam War of the '60s, a worn-out-looking woman, wearing a star signaling a son in service, peers from behind the stripes of the American flag, as if they were prison bars. Norman Mailer's story about the 1967 peace march on Washington, The Armies of the Night, sounded the cry for change. Ringgold's painting put a cold, hard-pinched face on it.
James Purdy's 1975 novel In a Shallow Grave related how a Vietnam vet who lay under a pile of corpses for days also felt dead, even after he was rescued. This same anti-war feeling, which turned anti-government in the '70s, was visually summed up in Jack Levine's "Feast of Pure Reason," which attacked the lawlessness of power with three overfed authority figures. Levine took the title from James Joyce's novel of abuses endured by its protagonist, Ulysses, and made a model of it.
Annihilation was the theme in the '80s. Acceptance of violence as an everyday occurrence in America's cities was made clear in George MacDonald Fraser's 1988 book The Hollywood History of the World. As the author observed, "It seems to me possible the 20th century may be regarded by posterity as the time when the civilized nations of the earth began to commit suicide." Bill Charmatz's ink drawing "Duet," showing adversaries shooting each other in the head, said the same thing right off.
The subject matter of the '90s was indifference and lack of ideals. In the '95 Novel Without a Name, its author Duong Thu Huong wrote, "There is no way back to the source, to the place where the pure, clear water once gushed forth. The river has cut across the countryside, the town, dragging refuse and mud in its wake." Jean Rustin's painting "Father, Mother and Son," with its expressionless figures staring out like concentration camp captives, makes the point in a hurry.
It's clear our enemy in the last decade lived within our borders. It was us. We fought ourselves. No more. In 2001, the enemy is from without. He won't show his face. We know the story. We need an illustration for it.