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VOL. 124 | NO. 165 | Monday, August 24, 2009

Dixon’s Civil War Exhibit Punctuated by Whitman’s Poetry

By JONATHAN DEVIN | The Memphis News

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WAR, POETRY: George Cochran Lambdin’s “In the Beech Wood,” left, depicts a quieter moment in the Civil War. A young Confederate cadet carves initials on a beech tree with his sweetheart.  Eastman Johnson’s “A Ride for Liberty – the Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862,” right, is among more than 60 works in the Dixon Gallery’s current exhibition “Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era.” The exhibition reveals the environment of the American Civil War through landscapes and the words of a master poet. -- IMAGES COURTESY OF THE DIXON GALLERY AND GARDENS

The Dixon Gallery and Gardens is attempting to tackle the environment of the American Civil War through the eyes of an unconventional poet in the current art exhibition “Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era.” The exhibit, which opened last month, includes American masterpieces of the 1860s from collections across the country.

If it sounds like either Whitman or the Civil War alone would have been plenty of material for an exhibition, Kevin Sharp, director of the Dixon Gallery, agrees, but that didn’t stop him from combining the two for one giant of an interdisciplinary show.

“When I first started thinking about this exhibition, I was thinking of a landscape show from the 1860s,” said Sharp, who curated the exhibition himself. “I started thinking about the relationship between landscapes and poetry – poetry led to Walt Whitman, and next thing I knew I’m doing this Cecil B. de Mille version of this little show.

“That’s the wonderful thing about doing these kinds of projects. They often take you to places you didn’t expect to go.”

The exhibition leads viewers through five “chapters” of Whitman’s experience of the war, beginning with the news that his brother, George, had been wounded in the battle of Fredericksburg.

Walt Whitman, who had remained relatively unknown despite the third edition of his masterpiece “Leaves of Grass” being published, boarded a train the same day and found his brother alive in a hospital camp, but stayed on to nurse wounded soldiers.

The exhibition includes more than 60 pieces by American artists from every genre up through the mid-19th century from the romantically influenced Hudson School to Daguerreotype portraiture. Among those are Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Frederic Church and John Frederick Kensett.

“What we began to look for was the variety of expression,” Sharp said. “What we didn’t want is to illustrate the war. We wanted works that expressed the war.”

Cannons and corpses are few in the exhibit, but landscapes abound in works such as Church’s “The Meteors of 1860,” an oil on canvas, in which two yellow fireballs cross the sky over a twilight lakeshore.

“Meteor showers were incredibly common in 1859 and especially in the summer of 1860 and everyone read it in the newspapers as a harbinger of things to come,” Sharp said. “It’s not hard to imagine that people would see those comet sprays across the sky as cannonballs.”

The chapter titled “The Poetics of Beginnings and Endings” includes Johnson’s rendition of a family of four slaves on a single horse, riding for freedom, an event Johnson witnessed himself while accompanying Maj. Gen. George B. McLellan’s Union Army of Virginia near Manassas.

Titled “A Ride for Liberty – the Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862,” the shadowy terrain seems to indicate uncertainty for the runaway family’s future.

Throughout the exhibition, Whitman’s poetry highlights certain works, perhaps none more poignantly than the finale piece, Homer’s “Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave,” which illustrates the scene described by Whitman in “As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods.”

“As toilsome I wander’d Virginia’s woods,

To the music of rustling leaves kick’d by my feet, (for ‘twas autumn,)

I mark’d at the foot of a tree the grave of a soldier;

Mortally wounded he and buried on the retreat, (easily all could I understand,)

The halt of a mid-day hour, when up! no time to lose – yet this sign left,

On a tablet scrawl’d and nail’d on the tree by the grave,

Bold, cautious, true and my loving comrade.”

“Bold, Cautious, True” closes in Memphis on Oct. 4 and will travel to the Katonah Museum of Art in New York for exhibition from Oct. 26 through Jan. 24.

For more information, including museum hours and tickets, go to www.dixon.org or call 761-5250.

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