Shiloh. Antietam. Manassas. All words that have become far more than place names in the American consciousness. And Civil War conflict in these locations and others, whether it is considered glorious or pointless, is the subject matter for 32 mixed-media works presented by the Downtown Gallery through mid-August. Illustrating specific battles as near to one another as Franklin and Chattanooga and as far apart as Gettysburg and Vicksburg, pieces on view (drawn from a total of 91 created over a four-year period) consist mostly of watercolor, pencil, and copies of woodcuts, and they reveal the history-obsessed devotion of former University of Tennessee art professor and past Knoxville Civil War Roundtable President Richard LeFevre. Upon his death in 2000, he bequeathed his collection to the university.
Images in LeFevre’s Civil War Series are displayed in the chronological order of battles depicted, and they should interest Civil War buffs as well as art lovers (the latter more likely to confuse Grant’s image with that of Sherman). That so many Knoxvillians traverse the area once occupied by Fort Sanders perhaps explains our city’s abundance of Civil War experts and enthusiasts; whatever the reason, there are plenty of folks in our midst who will appreciate LeFevre’s attention to historical detail, if not his acumen as an illustrator.
As for his collages, LeFevre unifies the work (perhaps too rigidly) through the use of identical typography positioned at the top of each piece, spelling out the battles’ names—a choice that makes the collection look like a series of book covers or posters. He also includes memorable quotes throughout, such as Robert E. Lee’s statement, “It is well war is so frightful, otherwise we should become too fond of it.” LeFevre clearly enjoyed incorporating words and the usual stuff of collage into his art. Ragged edges of staple-scarred paper remain exposed, and portions of images are divided in sections where paint was evidently masked. The luminosity LeFevre achieves—in particular, with a reddish-orange wash in “Atlanta,” “Cold Harbor,” and “Franklin”—is remarkable for watercolor. However, when combining reproduced engravings and photography, he missed an opportunity to juxtapose those mediums and echo the contemporary feel of his use of other materials.
After all, a remarkable collision was taking place in the 1860s in terms of visual information, and technical limitations were arguably all that prevented photography from being the sole means by which news events were depicted. Of course, there were readers who preferred the artistic license (and manipulation) inherent in illustration, but engravings—however drawn from actual life—could not pack the punch that straight photographs delivered. And photography, being a new development, was that much more shocking to readers unaware of the horrors of war. It seems LeFevre unnecessarily imposed upon himself the limitations of the time by using tiresomely similar illustrations throughout his series, and by employing uniformly small photographic portraits.
For viewers not knowledgeable regarding advances in printing, it might be perplexing that often overwrought pictorial documentation of wartime events dominated publications like Harper’s Weekly and Leslie’s Illustrated, while photographs were being produced by talents including Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O’Sullivan. In fact, until the introduction of halftone printing in the late 19th century, it was not possible to reproduce photography in mass-market publications. Instead, engravings were made from photographs, or from sketches by artists like Winslow Homer and Thomas Nast (known for creating American icons such as Uncle Sam, the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, and Santa Claus).
I interpret LeFevre’s fondness for often melodramatic scenes of fallen soldiers and men surging heroically forward, brandishing bayoneted weapons like gifts from God, as representing a bias that exhibition literature asserts is not evident. That is, I believe it reflects an especially idealized view of the Civil War perpetuated by the South—one perhaps not as important to the victors. And, according to my knowledgeable gallery-going companion, an emphasis on Confederate glory and the battles themselves betrays an effort to conceal the issue of slavery as being the greatest motivation for conflict.
Incidentally, “Fort Wagner” stands out for this reason, showing as it does the all-black 54th Regiment led by Union Col. Robert Gould Shaw—all of whom died near Charleston, S.C., on July 18, 1863. Scaling a hill toward a Confederate flag, the soldiers are rendered beneath a large-scale image of a medal, much as an enlarged cannon is the centerpiece of “Pea Ridge.” LeFevre’s backgrounds range from landscapes (hauntingly bucolic at times, as in the “Gettysburg” triptych, featuring full-length portraits of generals George Meade and Robert E. Lee) to maps and diagrams (such as one of the “iron armored ship” in “Hampton Roads”) to large floating heads (i.e., a demonic-looking Sherman in “Atlanta,” its vertical streaks like those found in a Francis Bacon painting).
Individual collages are surprisingly lacking in certain information, and the many quotes LeFevre chose do not always correspond with people pictured, but The Civil War Series is significant in its scope and striking as visual documentation of events that have shaped our sense of who we are as a nation.