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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 20, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


U.S. Army in Europe, Time-Lapse Painting

Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy is a history of the U.S. Army in the European theater during World War II. This fall marks the 75th year since Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 started World War II -- though the U.S. did not become part of that war until 11 December 1941, when Germany declared war on us days after Pearl Harbor brought us into the Pacific war with Japan.

The U.S. was only slightly more prepared to enter World War II than we had been to enter World War I. Franklin Roosevelt had done all that was politically possible to prepare us for war -- but that wasn't very much.

By the time joint U.S. and British operations began with the landings in North Africa in 1942, Britain had been at war for three years. The British Army had fought and lost in Europe and Belgium, extricating itself almost miraculously at Dunkirk. Since then, they had lost in Greece and Norway, and barely hung on in Egypt until General Montgomery defeated the German wunderkind Rommel at El Alamein.

The result was that when the American Army entered the war, the British viewed our soldiers -- and our generals -- as naive junior partners, unworthy of being taken seriously.

And they weren't far wrong. Peacetime armies tend to promote bureaucrats rather than commanders -- because when you aren't at war, how do you know who the effective commanders are going to be?

Because the U.S. Army was going to be much larger and the U.S. was pretty much supplying both armies (as well as providing massive support to Russia), it was politically essential that the commander of the combined forces be an American, and Roosevelt's choice was Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The problem was that Eisenhower, a likable fellow, had never commanded troops in the field. Instead, he had served for a long time as deputy of the egomaniacal Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. To survive in that position took almost superhuman patience and tact -- precisely the skills that would be essential in keeping the alliance together, what with all the generals' egos constantly bumping into each other. But to the Brits, it made Eisenhower seem a complete lightweight -- a clerk rather than a general.

This was not helped by the fact that Eisenhower had perfected the art of modesty. He was almost always the smartest officer in the room, but never showed off, so that intellectual featherweights could completely overlook the fact that Eisenhower had a lot more going on in his head than anyone else.

Eisenhower was forced to keep the big picture in mind. Not just: What strategy will stand the best chance of beating the Germans in the shortest possible time, but also: What disposition of forces and commanders will help maintain American enthusiasm for the war without dampening British spirits ... and vice versa.

Thus when Montgomery maneuvered to be placed in command of all the forces, leaving Eisenhower as mere titular head of the operation, he proved his own unfitness for the position by his utter inability to understand the politics of the war. If Americans began to resent British dominance of the alliance in Europe, Congress would force the U.S. to concentrate its efforts in the Pacific, where it was almost completely an American show.

Besides, Montgomery -- and his British supporters -- were blind to the fact that the more his reputation grew, the less willing Montgomery was to put it in jeopardy by actually committing troops to battle. Thus his bold actions at El Alamein were replaced by McClellanesque dithering, hesitation, and procrastination by the time he got to Sicily, and he was almost inert in France and Belgium.

Eisenhower's biggest problem eventually became the fact that he had to keep fending off Montgomery's attempts to grab control of everything -- while at the same time trying to get Montgomery to actually use the British Army in aggressive action against the enemy.

Rick Atkinson's powerful trilogy -- An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa; The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy; and The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe -- does a fair job of tracking military operations. But it is far better at documenting the constant jockeying of generals in competing with each other for fame and power.

I have never seen a better portrayal of Patton's almost insane ups and downs -- a weird combination of arrogance and pathetic insecurity. But nobody emerges unscathed. Atkinson frequently feels obliged to agree with Eisenhower's critics -- he was inexperienced, and his unwillingness to give unequivocal orders rather than general directions was often the cause of mixups and inaction.

Yet this was also Eisenhower's strength, because his hand was light enough on the reins that prickly, resentful egos like Montgomery and Patton were able to stay with the army and cooperate more or less effectively, despite the fact that they seemed always on the verge of open revolt against any kind of authority.

A more forceful leader probably would have fired both men early on -- they were both unreliable and insubordinate to a shocking degree. Yet to dump Montgomery would have caused deep resentment throughout the British Army, not to mention the British people. And to dump Patton would have been to lose a valuable tool in the American arsenal, because, crazy though he was, Patton also got his army moving and used it effectively.

Still, it was shameful how many soldiers died needlessly in order to feed Patton's eagerness to be the general who arrived first at this or that place -- just to boost his own fame and his own ego. Yet that very hunger for fame may well be part of what made him an effective commander. Never mind that he often seemed more interested in beating Montgomery and the Brits than in defeating the Germans who were actually shooting at him.

But it wasn't just the Germans shooting at the American and British armies. The number of friendly-fire incidents was shocking. The air forces were not well coordinated with ground forces. On one operation in Sicily, the U.S. air forces suffered most of their losses from anti-aircraft fire from the allied fleet. And far too often, American bombs were dropped on American and British positions, vehicles, and armies on the move.

Yet in most cases, these were honest mistakes, because nobody was able to talk to the people they most needed to talk to. Atkinson makes it clear that such incidents, though horrible and deeply regretted, happen in every war since the invention of long-range weapons. The South's best general in our Civil War, Stonewall Jackson, was killed by fire from Confederate troops, and he was not the only one to die that way.

Atkinson also does a fine job of depicting the behind-the-lines forces that had such a strong effect on the outcome of the war. American logistics were a nightmare -- every speck of food and munitions and clothing and shelter and transportation for a multi-million-man army had to be transported across an ocean thick with U-Boats and then overland to wherever the troops happened to be.

When you have to deliver fuel to the tanks that are leading an attack, it takes almost as much fuel to power the trucks as they can carry to the tanks. And the trucks themselves get blown up by mines or simply wear out and break down.

Atkinson delivers a delightfully nasty yet fair portrait of the man who governed our logistics in Europe -- an irritatingly eccentric martinet who, despite his oddities, was able to overcome the obstacles well enough to keep the army moving.

This is one of the many cases where, despite the endless corruption, theft, incompetence, and errors in the loading, transporting, and unloading of supplies, enough got through for us to overwhelm our enemies with superior force.

Then there were the French, who at first actually fired on American troops in North Africa, since we were invading French colonies there, and then insisted on maintaining armies in the field, though every bit of their armament and supplies had to come from the United States.

Once they were on French territory, they became hopelessly unmanageable, because they were constantly distracted by the desire to liberate French cities and lands rather than destroy the German Army and invade Germany itself.

And if Montgomery's ego was nearly unmanageable, he was a wallflower compared to the arrogant, vain, and blustering DeGaulle, whose primary agenda was to pose himself as the Liberator of France -- at the expense of the British and Americans who did most of the fighting and dying.

All these behind-the-scenes stories are fascinating, especially if, like me, you've already read very good accounts of the actual fighting. Let's face it, a hill-by-hill account of the Italian campaign would have been tedious and repetitive, while the story of the attempts to negotiate the surrender of Italy while there were still German troops all over the country is far more interesting to read.

I listened to the books as read by three different narrators, and while all of them were clear and energetic in their reading, the array of mispronunciations was, to put it kindly, amusing. Each narrator seemed to have specialized in pronouncing one language -- usually German -- correctly.

However, there were words that were laughably mispronounced, and not just the usual culprits like "buoy," which narrators invariably pronounce as "boo-ee" instead of sounding exactly like "boy," which is the original and most correct pronunciation.

To me, the most annoying was Passchendaele, the name of a Belgian town that was the site of a bloody battle in World War I (400,000 British and 400,000 German casualties). It was referred to frequently in the third volume, but always with a weird pronunciation, roughly: PASS-ken-DAH-lay.

But during World War I and for generations thereafter, English speakers have pronounced it "Passiondale."

Of course, British soldiers pronounced another battle site, Ypres, as "wipers," but that was more of a bitter joke than a serious attempt at pronunciation. Still, Brits are notorious for pronouncing foreign names as they're spelled rather than as the locals pronounce them. That's why we speak of Paris rather than Pah-ree.

But names are always hard, and despite the lack of maps to help guide us through events, these books worked very well on audio, allowing me to hear all three volumes in a little over a week, what with commuting three hours each way, to and from Lexington, Virginia.

Books about particular battles or campaigns can obviously go into much more detail about strategy and tactics, but Atkinson's history was refreshing precisely because he went into so much detail about screw-ups and behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

By the end of the trilogy, you realize that the allies were lucky to have been led by a man as brilliant and self-effacing as Dwight Eisenhower. Later, he brought the same traits to the presidency, and, like George W. Bush after him, he was commonly viewed by the press as a mental lightweight. It was only later that people began to realize that he was way smarter than the people who called him dumb -- he just didn't have to indulge his ego in pointless niggling and vain display of his knowledge and analytical powers.

Most of his critics didn't know enough even to understand his decisions, let alone criticize them. Most of the time, Eisenhower was aware of pressures that they never knew about -- and they never knew about them precisely because Eisenhower took care of them himself.

I highly recommend Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy for those who want to look back at how America fought and won "the Good War." People who criticize mistakes in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would be wise to put things in perspective, because it makes no sense to call attention to American mistakes in recent wars, without comparing them to far worse incompetence in previous wars that we now regard as glorious victories.

*

Those of us who love hyper-realistic paintings of the human figure are often in awe of the way beauty and insight can be captured by strokes of a brush pulled through oils, acrylics, or watercolors.

Just because the painter has a model or a photograph to copy from does not really explain anything -- I can stare at objects all day and still can't draw anything closely resembling the object. And as to human figures and faces -- I'm just lucky if I can get the number of fingers right.

I watch TV shows in which witnesses describe a criminal to a sketch artist and it's laughable how close they get to the look of the actor playing the bad guy. I can't believe witnesses can actually remember somebody's face well enough, and in enough detail, to tell an artist, "That's right, except the nose should be a little longer." Who notices those things?

I guess I'm the guy that hospitals use wristbands for; otherwise I'd have come out of the hospital with the wrong baby every time. When people ask me, "What does your new grandson look like?" I say, "A baby." I mean, once you know it's an infant, what more can you say?

"Whose nose does he have?"

"His own. It's really tiny. I don't know any adults with a nose that size. It would be a tragic deformity."

But portrait artists can sketch a few lines and it looks like the person they're painting. I find that miraculous. Never mind the ability to color and shade so it looks like a real human being.

Every color of human skin is hard to match on canvas, paper, or wood. Yet the finest artists -- of the kind I like -- are able to paint so realistically that I often can't tell if I'm looking at an artful photograph or a photographically real painting.

Recently I ran across the work of an artist named Zhang Jingna, and because of her exquisite use of makeup and light, I thought she was a painter until I actually went to her website and realized that her work was all photography.

Now, if you're troubled by nudes in art and photography, you probably don't want to visit her site: http://www.zhangjingna.com. But I think there's nothing more beautiful than artful depictions of the human body -- either for beauty, emotion, meaning, or power. There's plenty of pornography in the world -- but this is not it. (Unless you're fourteen and male, in which case practically everything is potential pornography.)

Look at everything under the Series heading, and you'll see Zhang Jingna's fabulous range -- and get an idea of why photography is every bit as much an art as painting or sculpture. Her portraits are so rich with subtle expression that she gives you the illusion that you're seeing into the model's soul.

Zhang Jingna has made her living as a fashion and advertising photographer -- and her work in that mode is striking and memorable. But now she is broadening her scope and the results are breathtaking.

I'm looking forward to her forthcoming book called Motherland Chronicles, because her work in that series is memorable and powerful. It makes me want to write stories using her characters.

Zhang Jingna also offers a blog for photographers looking to improve their technique: http://blog.zhangjingna.com/

But the fact that brilliant photography exists does not eliminate or even weaken my desire for equally brilliant paintings of the human figure. Even when the untrained eye (like mine) can be fooled, there is a difference. Movies didn't make novels or plays unnecessary or undesirable, and photography didn't eliminate the power of visual art.

One of my favorites in recent months is the Portuguese painter Carlos Barahona Possollo. I really don't recommend his work to the casual viewer, because his sense of humor, irony, and satire lead him to create many paintings that are, in a word, indecent. They are meaningfully indecent and often disturbing -- even as they are also funny or ironic.

None of this takes away from the excellence of his technique and composition, however, and when I ran across a time-lapse video of him creating his painting "Venus Disputed by Lust and Decorum," I was fascinated to watch how the colors were laid on, and the way he worked with the cartoon, or line drawing based on a photograph.

The whole painting is not reproduced in the video, which is a good thing, for while the male personification of Decorum wears a strategically-placed fig leaf, the male personification of Lust most definitely does not. The affected portion of the painting is omitted from the video.

It's an odd thing about our culture that even today, male nudity is generally regarded as far more disturbing than female nudity. I remember being shown pictures of the statue of the Venus de Milo (which just means "Venus from Milan") when I was in third grade.

Such a degree of nudity would never have been tolerated in a Sears catalog, but nobody thought twice about showing it, as Art, to children. Then again, maybe it was OK because she was in stone and monochromatic. And because she had no arms, which was more troubling to kids like me than the display of her naked torso.

But they never, never showed us Michelangelo's "David" at any grade until I was in college. And even then, people who would never have batted an eye at a nude female image tittered or pretended not to notice the very male nudity of the "David."

Personally, I think all human bodies are beautiful -- even bodies of a size and shape not fashionable (or even healthy). And all are appropriate subjects for art, in my opinion. But I know that is not a universal view -- and so I don't provide you a link to Possollo's generous website, where a large number of his works are displayed. If you want to find it, Google will help.

However, here is a link to the time-lapse video of his creation of that painting, and it is in line with our cultural bias -- female nudity (a Venus, of course) but not male: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPBc4k60yAg

Most of the time in the video is spent painting the face of young Cupid, who is hanging around near his mother. (That's right, folks -- remember that however beautiful Venus is, that is post-partum beauty, because Cupid is her kid. The Greeks and Romans didn't want a boyish, immature woman as their symbol of feminine beauty; they worshiped a woman of proven fecundity.)

Of course, if you dislike realistic art, or art that offers beauty and meaning, there are no shortage of opportunities for you to be pleased by most of the public art offered in our culture today. We who admit that we value realistic paintings of the human figure are in the minority now, and rarely have control of public money to spend on art that pleases us.

Yet I also believe that most people far prefer realistic art to the kind of art that you have to be told is art so you don't think it's leftover parts and pieces from a construction project.

If you're willing to come out of the closet as a lover of beautiful realism in art, I suggest you look at the Art Renewal Center ( http://www.artrenewal.org ), a foundation that sponsors contests for artists working in realistic forms, along with a vast library of online art, much of which can be purchased as high-quality canvases or prints on paper, suitable for framing and display.

Each year, their contest winners are gathered into a gorgeous book -- you can purchase back editions if you want copies you can hold in your hands. But all the work is also online in their "Museum," and believe me, you can spend days exploring all the images they offer.

The museum is divided between the work of long-dead artists and their "Approved Artist & Living Master Gallery." These are works by contest winners and other artists that have won the approval of the Art Renewal Center. Since their standards are high, this is a real honor, and the work on display is worthy of being included in the same tradition as Bouguereau, Ingres, Burne-Jones, and Rembrandt.

That doesn't mean they're always -- or ever -- as good as the best work of such past masters. But they are worthy heirs, continuing to use similar techniques to explore the modern world -- or imaginary worlds -- and to provide visions that are accessible to the untrained viewer and not just to art critics.

The Art Renewal Center also sponsors education projects and affiliates with various art schools, doing what they can to promote the education and training of artists who wish to continue this tradition. You can donate to the Art Renewal Center; or you can help support them by buying their publications or prints of the art they offer.


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