Of Sunlight and Shadows: 'The Civil War and American Art'

The Sharpshooter (partial) by Winslow Homer (1863)

This companion book to the sprawling art of the Civil War exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum is a remarkable blend of academic incisiveness and absorbing melodrama. It's also the best art book of 2012.

The Civil War and American Art

Publisher: Yale University Press
Length: 352 pages
Author: Eleanor Jones Harvey
Price: $65.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-12

More men were killed in the American Civil War than in all the other wars of the 20th century put together. The late great art critic, Robert Hughes, waxed poetic about its impact on American art in his sweeping 1997 work, American Visions. "It swallowed up the men of blue and gray as a furnace swallows coal. It was America's Illiad, and America's holocaust." The effects of the Civil War were felt at every level of life in American culture, especially in its art. It changed the entire landscape of the country physically and psychologically, and its wounds are still palpable even today.

Every great exhibition usually brings a great exhibition catalogue with it, and The Civil War and American Art is a glorious companion piece to a moving, beautifully curated, perspective-altering show. It's a big, thick book with over 300 pages of lush, sensuous color reproductions of American masterworks by Frederic Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, as well as work by the pioneering photographers, Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O'Sullivan.

The book's author, Eleanor Jones Harvey is the curator of the recent exhibition The Civil War and American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. (16 November 2012 - 28 April 2013). Harvey has laid out a series of carefully crafted chapters about painting and photography, from the 1850s to the 1870s, these crucial 20years before, during, and after the war, that build in momentum and intensity to give the reader a sense of not only the key images of the period, but the ideas that ran through those images.

The show, and consequently, the book, focuses primarily on genre and landscape paintings and war and landscape photography during the war years. There's no mention or inclusion of any sculpture of this period, notably Augustus Saint-Gaudens's Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment (1884) in Boston and his golden memorial to William Tecumseh Sherman in New York's Central Park (1892), both pivotal works and epoch-defining in their own way. Thus, Harvey's definition of "art" in her title refers only to painting and photography. However, for the parameters of this show, that's a fair omission. Consolidating the vast array of material from this period and distilling a key argument to a representative set of artworks must have been a daunting challenge that Harvey accomplished with great flair and intelligence.

The scope of paintings includes works by more artists from the North rather than the South, but some memorable Confederate canvases stand out. Notably, Everett B.D. Fabrino Julio's The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson (1869), a Grand Manner history painting of the two generals in deep conversation, a painting shrouded in such cloying reverence and self-aggrandizement that Mark Twain said it looked as if Jackson had a declined Lee's dinner invitation and was asking him for a match. Memorable, too, are Conrad Wise Chapman's Fort Sumter paintings of 1863, tattered and ennobled Confederate flags flying against the coastal winds through cannon fire.

But it's really the work of the northern artists that stay with you. One of Harvey's areas of expertise is American 19th century landscape painting, and the best chapter in the book in terms of its intelligence and craftsmanship is "Landscapes and the Metaphorical War". Harvey's argument is that even though many of the painters did not paint the war directly, it was always on their minds and came through in their canvases, either allegorically or more literally.

The leading painter of the Hudson River School, Frederic Church, is the star of this section. Church's stunning swirl of fiery reds and smoke of a volcanic eruption in South America in 1862, Cotopaxi, was painted the year after Frederick Douglass made his famous speech declaring slavery to be "a moral volcano". More direct in its intentions is Church's 1861 painting Our Banner in the Sky, the setting sun and emerging night stars of the sky coalescing physically and spiritually into the Stars and Stripes. The Union cause as God's cause.

The chapter, "The Art of Wartime Photography", is also very strong. We have to remember that this was the first American war to be witnessed by the modern art and technology of photography and its documentary impact was radical. It's hard to fantasize about the romance of war when you're confronted with the image of bloated, rotting corpses strewn across a battlefield.

A talented firebrand Scotsman named Alexander Gardner joined Matthew Brady's photography studio in New York in 1857, and went on assignment with him during the war. Gardner had an uncanny eye for the gruesome and the poetic. His 1862 photographs of the aftermath of Antietam, Union and Confederate dead splayed along the lonely fields, are mesmerizing. Crowds lined up from out the door of Brady's studio when these photographs were shown for the first time.

Stunning also, and unforgettable, is Timothy O'Sullivan's A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 1863-bodies strewn along the field the morning after Lee’s retreat stretching out into the distant horizon. The image of lives being lost and sown like grain occurs again in a painting by the other heavily represented artist in this show, Winslow Homer. The Veteran in a New Field (1865), of a man in overalls reaping a thicket of golden wheat, would have resonated with its audience. Not a single family was unmoved by the scale of the War, and this image of the reaper is hauntingly ambiguous—one of both tragedy and hope.

Homer was commissioned by the leading periodical of the day, Harper’s Weekly, to go to the front lines of General George McClellan’s army to sketch and paint first-hand accounts of war. Homer went far beyond the confines of a mere illustrator to give us the most haunting and enduring images o f the Civil War. His Sharpshooter of 1863, a lean, soulful young killer, curled up in a shadowy elm tree with a shotgun poised at his target, is perhaps one of the most haunting images of the Civil War captured as a single cursory image.

I was a little sad not to see Homer’s extraordinary, hypnotic painting of c. 1864 in the show, In Front of Yorktown—a mysterious, ineffably beautiful and sad image of a young man staring into a smoldering campfire flame the night before the siege of Yorktown, Virginia in 1862. The Homers that Harvey includes are outstanding, no doubt, but this one is special in its enduring melancholy and beauty. That solitary flame, according to the art historian Alexander Nemerov, is something akin to the eternal warmth and mystery of life itself.

Ultimately, Harvey’s book is perfect for lovers of American art and history. It has an absorbing, engrossing power of its own akin to the power of what Ken Burns’s The Civil War had for the television audience of the '90s. It gives us a profound sense of what the Civil War really was like, how people felt and reacted to it, and its enduring impact on American life. If you have the chance, go see the exhibition at the Smithsonian in D.C. or at the Met in New York this summer. But do get a hold of this extraordinary book, too.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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