Sentimentality, Captured Beautifully: ‘Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s’

“How do we remember the Second World War now?” asks Alexander Nemerov in the opening sentence of his most recent book on the War and the permanence of memory. Over the course of five chapters, structured thematically around photographs, film stills, and key scenes from movies either well-known or often ignored, Nemerov seeks to come to a new understanding of art and visual culture during the ’40s.

The ’40s continues to fascinate us not only because of the Second World War, but because it was a transitional time in modern American culture. To paraphrase Martin Amis, it was really the last “we” decade before history led us into the “me” decade. This stunning book defies easy categorization. It’s billed under art historical non-fiction, American photography, and film history, but it’s really a personal meditation on why we love art and the movies and the enduring power of popular culture to transcend its own moment in time.

An art historian who teaches at Stanford, Alexander Nemerov, has already written two books on art of the ’40s. A book on the film director, Val Lewton, Icons of Grief (2005), and another on the painter George Ault, To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America(2011). Both books show us a side of American visual culture that we seem to have forgotten about—neglected, melancholy, poetic spaces of struggle and self-discovery.

The frozen image of the young Ann Carter gazing out of the frosted window in Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (1944), or one of Ault’s haunting, quietly unsettling paintings of his Woodstock, New York home, like Bright Light at Russell’s Corners(1946) where the solitary white glow of a single lamp filters across a barn and secluded street, give us images of the ’40s that are different from the ones we seem to know so well. Nemerov excels at showing us how Americans during this time coped with the grief caused by the War. Among the traces of what’s left behind in paintings, photographs, and films, we can still find something authentic and palpable that can make history come alive for us in a new way.

Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945

Wartime Kiss is structured around a set of key photographs. Nemerov starts out the book by toying with our pre-conceived notions of the ’40s and what we think we know so well- Life magazine and its photographs of the War and its home-front pleasures. The first photograph, where book’s title comes from, is Alfred Eisentaedt’s V-J Day Kiss, Times Square, 1945, of the famous image of the sailor kissing the nurse.

The photo is one of those pictures we’ve come to associate with 20th century triumph and joy, a stock image for the barrage of historical montages on television and in magazines. But the emotions running through the scene are not so clear-cut, Nemerov argues. Take a closer look. Look at the way he grips the unsuspecting young woman, locked in the vise of this arms, his face engulfing hers. Nemerov goes to explain that during the course of the day that the photograph was taken, various small riots and felonies broke out all across New York City. The disbelief and delirium of the War ending brought its own share of happiness and violence. Only weeks before, the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first destruction of that kind unleashed on a monumental scale.

Only a few days later, on 27 August 1945, Life featured a new cover, a tantalizing underwater shot of the British-born ballet swimmer Belita Jepson-Turner nose-diving towards the bottom of a glittering swimming pool, her figure poised in the manner of Charles Sykes’s “Sprit of Ecstasy” ornament on the Rolls-Royces—modeled on another English beauty, the model Eleanor Velasco Thornton, in flight. Nemerov’s analysis of the Jepson-Turner photograph adds a whole new meaning to the term “bombshell”.

Death and sex, the fear of annihilation and the promise of lust, are complimentary dualities during war, and there’s often much more to these photographs than meets the eye. “I have chosen these images because they feel to me like a disturbance on the surface of things,” Nemerov explains. “Akin to what Roland Barthes describes as the punctum of a photograph—a piercing, wounding sensation without explanation.”

The chapters devoted to movies are particularly strong, and this where Nemerov does the world, or at least avid film fans, a great service. Through his imaginative vision and investigative zeal he brings us a series of extraordinary casual snapshots by the photographer John Swope of a young Jimmy Stewart and Olivia de Havilland when they were dating in the early ’40s. One shot is of them lying asleep on the grass up in the Santa Barbara hills enjoying a rare respite from the hunger and fray of studio life. Another is of de Havilland affectionately watching Stewart fly one of his model planes. With these photographs, the actual stories behind them, and the narrative that he creates for them, Nemerov becomes a filmmaker, or a visual dramatist in his own right. Indeed, the book flows in time like a beautifully made movie.

Olivia de Havilland is the source of a good deal of the author’s fascination. Two chapters, the second and the final one, are devoted to her early career and key war-era films. For Nemerov, de Havilland is an emblematic figure. Her cosmopolitan upbringing, her beauty, her talent and her conviction represents much of what was best in all who we admired from that time. I enjoyed reading the bit about Nemerov tracking down an old neighbor of de Havilland’s from her teenage years in Saratoga, California, the 89-year-old Willys Peck, who de Havilland used to babysit, who showed him the great actress’s high school year book with photos of her starring in a school production of Alice in Wonderland.

Joseph Cornell, A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova:
Homage to the Romantic Ballet

There’s also an absolutely brilliant bit in later in the book about the artist Joseph Cornell’s love of movies and his admiration of the Russian dancer and actress Tamara Toumanova, star of the 1944 Gregory Peck film Days of Glory. Cornell made the most incredible confection of a layered, almost snow-globe like picture, called A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova: Homage to the Romantic Ballet(1946), which is in the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. By comparing the Cornell work to the Gregory Peck film and the actress that inspired it, Nemerov shows us how different arts intersect with one another in astonishing ways. The Cornell construction is enhanced by our knowledge of the movie, and the movie is enriched by our reading of the artwork.

Significant parts of the book are devoted to photographer Margaret Bourke-White, Anne Frank, Donna Reed, Judy Garland, and the Cary Grant movie, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). What we’re meant to take from all this is more than merely a cursory “flavor of the Forties”. We’re meant to understand something more about our ability to respond to the images around us, whether from movies, art museums or magazines, we’re shaped emotionally by images, and new, unconventional readings of history can be enriched by mining through them.

Ultimately, it’s hard to describe what great writing is and what it does at times, but you can feel it, and you certainly feel it here with this book. In describing de Havilland’s talent as an actor in 1943 propaganda comedy movie, Government Girl, he writes:

“Watching de Havilland throw darts at caricatures of Hitler and Tojo… is to view scenes made only for that historical moment, only for those years when a poke in the eye or a good stab at a statistical chart might produce the right cackle, the right kick in the back of the seat of the guy in front of you at the movie theater, whose very popcorn-spilling happiness bore the aggressive and defiant stamp of disposability… But in Swope’s photograph… de Havilland is on her own time, which seems to be no time at all.”

Nemerov has a certain kind of intuition for a work of art that few art historians have. To the more traditional-minded advocates of art writing, his approach can seem wildly subjective, desultory, and even fanciful. Art historical analysis as self-indulgent musings. It’s none of this, of course. It’s writing that’s rich and memorable, which is more than can be said for most of what’s published nowadays.

Wartime Kiss is a wonderful book. It’s a pleasure to read and it’s thought-provoking, as well. In one of the reviews printed on the back cover, Elisa Tamarkin, a professor of literature at Berkeley, rhapsodizes on the book to say that it’s “a deeply felt meditation on pursuing history as a poetic flight.” Professor Tamarkin has hit on something here. Reading Wartime Kiss is something akin to flying. Beyond the dictum of academic historical writing, Nemerov knows that it’s important to remind us why we turn to art and what it says about us. To be reminded of that, in the eloquent, direct, and unaffected way that Nemerov writes, is exhilarating.

RATING 10 / 10