Colors Into Battle

Today has two important associations for me, being September 11th, but it’s also a chance to reflect on the symbolism that we see on days like today.  We often don’t stop to consider where that symbolism comes from, so rather than wade into politics, I’m going to beg the reader’s indulgence and ruminate a little on that collection of pattern and color known as a flag.

Being a proud American citizen, and particularly living in DC, it’s hard not to be aware of the fact that September 11th is a day when we mourn those who died in 2001 during the terrorist attacks on this country.  I wore my Stars-and-Stripes socks today, along with blue and red, but truthfully didn’t see much of that sort of personal display on the way in, even though I work near the White House.  With the passage of time this is somewhat inevitable, as memory fades, so that our grandchildren decades from now will not mark 9/11 in the way that we do.  After all, most of us know when Pearl Harbor Day was, but fewer and fewer Americans every year can say that they remember it, and know where they were when they heard of it.

Meanwhile, being half-Catalan, ethnically speaking, I’m also very much aware that September 11th is Catalonia’s National Day, known as “La Diada” or “The Day of Days”.  This date marking the defeat of the Catalans at the hands of the Bourbons in 1714 is a strange one to choose for a national holiday, since most countries celebrate their victories, rather than their defeats.  However in the intervening years since the passing of the Franco regime, the use of the red and gold stripes of the Catalan flag on this date has increased along with Catalan pride and assertiveness, to the point that Catalonia is going to hold a vote on independence from Spain this November.  All eyes are waiting to see what happens in Edinburgh next week, but in the meantime huge demonstrations marked by giant flag displays are going on all day today in Barcelona.

It’s interesting that flags continue to have a hold on our psyche, when to some extent one could argue that their usefulness on the battlefield has largely been eliminated.  Previously, when you, your buddies, and the enemy were all covered in mud in the trenches, whether France in the 15th century or the 20th century, you would have to keep an eye out for the flag bearer to know where you were and where you were supposed to be. The flag bearer himself was a descendent of even more ancient human place markers, like the standard-bearers of the Roman legions, whose gilded eagles and other symbols were tramped all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

The ability of either Old Glory or La Senyera – as the Catalan flag is known – to stir emotions and remind citizens of their principles, centuries after each of these designs first came into use, shows what a remarkably effective tool they still are, even though on the battlefield they are no longer the utilitarian objects they once were.  They continue even today to help people to find themselves, in a sense, for they concentrate into a single image or object what really matters to them.  Today, both in America and in Catalonia, seeing the flag means far more to the average man or woman than does any speech, policy paper, or the like, because imagery remains the single most important tool in capturing the public imagination, and in encapsulating what the people feel about the place they call home.

Detail of "Follow the Flag" U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917) Library of Congress, Washington DC

Detail of “Follow the Flag” U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917)
Library of Congress, Washington DC

Art Everywhere: Coming to a Billboard Near You

Beginning next month, many of my readers in the States who live in urban areas will be seeing the work of an initiative known as Art Everywhere US.  On both traditional and digital billboards, on bus shelters and train platforms, among other locations, the organizers will be displaying a selection of images from American art history.  The original pool of 100 of these works, “curated”, if you will, by experts from five of America’s major art museums, was narrowed down to a final fifty by online voters on the Art Everywhere website.  These fifty will be seen on approximately 50,000 different types of displays across the country starting August 4th in Times Square, and then continuing to spread throughout the country until August 31st.

Of the pieces making the final cut, that with the single highest number of votes was Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 Nighthawks, which is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.  I do love the painting, though I must confess it isn’t my favorite work of Hopper’s, being somewhat overexposed both in terms of its fame and indeed the lighting of the piece itself.  Still, it’s nice to know that it will be included, and that it’s so well-regarded by the public.

Other works which will be featured in the campaign include probably my favorite work by James McNeill Whistler, his 1862 portrait titled Symphony in White No. 1; one of my favorite John Singer Sargents, his Repose of 1911, which like the Whistler is in the collection of the National Gallery here in D.C.; and Chuck Close’s astounding 1969 painting Phil, a portrait of composer Philip Glass from The Whitney in New York.  The fifty choices are for the most part fairly safe, since apart from photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe (clothed, thank goodness) and the overrated Cindy Sherman (yuck), the 20th century pieces tend to stick largely to the easy and familiar: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc.

It was disappointing however, to see that the earliest painting which was included in the final cut – and the second earliest in the original 100 voting list – was John Singleton Copley’s 1778 Watson and the Shark. While the piece has its merits as a form of composition, it’s not my favorite Copley by any stretch of the imagination.  Moreover, in only choosing one pre-Revolutionary portrait for the voting list, one has to question the thinking of the jury with respect to their art history parameters.  If 1776 was not in fact the cut-off year, then why not go back as early as possible into American art history?

Be that as it may, I won’t quibble with the results.  There are some truly great works of art on this list, and I am looking forward to seeing how they pop up around town.  August is always such a dreary time in the Nation’s Capital, with the oppressive heat, humidity, and flocks of tourists.  It will be terrific to be visually refreshed with images like these, and reminded of the great art collections in this city, just a short train or bus ride away.

"Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper (1942) The Art Institute of Chicago

“Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper (1942)
The Art Institute of Chicago

Independence Day Giveaway: Books for Little Patriots

In honor of Independence Day – and courtesy of my friend, the lovely and talented Amelia Hamilton – this Friday, July 4th, we’re giving away a free copy of each of her two fantastic children’s books: “One Nation Under God: A Book for Little Patriots”, and “10 Steps to Freedom: A Growing Patriot’s Guide to the American Revolution”.

One Nation Under God is a wonderful teaching tool, which uses counting and poetry to explain concepts which can sometimes be tough for young readers to grasp.  Beginning, appropriately enough, with the number 1 for God, Hamilton takes each number from 1-10 in turn, and explains different aspects of the American republic and its history, from the Bill of Rights to the branches of the military services.  For example, for the number 4, Hamilton explains who each of the four U.S. Presidents carved on Mount Rushmore were, while for the number 9, the nine Justices of the Supreme Court are engaged, appropriately enough, in a tug-of-war.

In 10 Steps to Freedom, Hamilton again uses numbers to great effect, only this time by tracing ten key moments in the path to Independence, from the Boston Tea Party to the election of George Washington as the first President of the United States.  Along the way, we get to meet important figures from our country’s history, including Paul Revere, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin.  It’s not easy to explain concepts like the Declaration of Independence or the ratification of the Constitution to children, but Hamilton’s poetry and the colorful accompanying images draw readers in, encouraging them to learn more about the people, situations, and concepts presented.

Anyone who has read to a child knows that oftentimes these books can be a chore for adults.  So often these days, children’s books seem to talk down to their audience, using babyish or relativist terms.  This is not the case here, and those who have children to teach or entertain will enjoy reading these books as much as their charges will.  In her poem about what the Statue of Liberty symbolizes, for example, Hamilton explains the seven rays which emanate from the crown atop Lady Liberty’s head in a way children can understand, and adults will ponder over, giving both an opportunity for further reflection and discussion:

On her crown, those seven rays

Remind Americans every day

That on seven lands and seven seas

Many still are not yet free.

It’s also a delicate balance, presenting stories of warfare to children without intentionally and unnecessarily frightening them.  Hamilton admirably handles the task, by pointing out that brains and brawn had to work together in order to gain the freedoms which Americans enjoy today.  In asking children to remember why we celebrate Independence Day every year, she notes how freedom came at a cost, and was achieved by two different types of fighters: “Some with guns, and some with pens.” Realizing that both were necessary to form and preserve the United States is a crucial step for children to reach, in their civic understanding.

Both books are beautifully illustrated, with bright, dynamic pictures by illustrator Anthony Resto.  Using a mixture of imagined historical scenes and elements from everyday life to accompany Hamilton’s poems, there are many charming details.  In the illustration of the three branches of the federal government for example, we are shown a large tree, with a boy in a tire swing.  And while Betsy Ross sews the American flag, two colonial children play alongside her with a hoop and a drum.  The pictures give adults the opportunity to go into greater detail with children, about the history and ideas being brought to life through these images.

Interested in seeing more for yourself, or as a gift for some little ones in your life? Visit the entry form by following this link; you may enter to win between now and midnight tomorrow.  One entry per reader, please.  The winner will be announced Friday morning here on the blog.

My special thanks to Amelia Hamilton for allowing me to share these terrific books with all of you, and of course to all of my readers for their support.  Good luck!

Growing Patriots