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“Seeing the Elephant”
Artists Respond to Conflict and War

August 19 - October 10, 2015

purcell print

Jesse Purcell, A.G.F.T.P.O.T.U.S.O.A. (A Gift from the People of the
United States of America)
, 2002, four-color process screen print
purchased through the Griffiths Endowment Fund, SLU 2015.20.

 

George Wilkins Kendall noted in Narrative of the Santa Fe Expedition (1848) that “seeing the elephant” signified a man’s disappointment in “anything he undertakes, when he has seen enough, when he gets sick and tired of any job he may have set himself about.” The phrase became common during the U.S. Civil War, and usually referred to a soldier’s experience of combat after he had seen all that could be endured, returning home jaded and disappointed.

Represented in paintings, prints, photographs and sculptures, armed conflicts and wars have been subjects of art since antiquity. Artists explore and examine conflict for various reasons, whether to criticize the waging of war, document the reality of events, comment on humanitarian issues, idealize the warrior/soldier or come to terms with the legacy and enduring trauma of war.

Selected works from St. Lawrence University’s permanent collection draw attention to conflicts and uprisings spanning centuries and continents. The brutality of war as depicted in Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s Los desastres de la guerra series contrasts with the use of art as therapy by contemporary U.S. veterans/artists of Combat Paper. Other work in the exhibition served as propaganda; Albert Sterner’s poster, We Need You, from World War I called on middle-class women to assist the war effort as nurses and medical workers. A 19th-century woodcut by Mizuno Toshikata glorifying the deeds of a commanding officer during the Sino-Japanese War is juxtaposed with contemporary woodcuts by Canadian artist Freda Guttman condemning the genocide of the Mayan people in Guatemala.

segal print

Arthur Segal, untitled woodcut, 1915,
gift of Steven Sohacki (SLU 79.332.14)

Two years ago, gallery staff, with the assistance of art historian Caroline Welsh, began a multiyear assessment of the permanent collection to make artworks more accessible to members of the St. Lawrence community for teaching and research. Seeing the Elephant is a direct result of this effort and serves as an example of how selected themes from the collection can be utilized, whether in exhibitions or in the classroom.

The exhibition was organized by Carole Mathey, assistant director of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery, and Melissa Schulenberg, associate professor of art and art history.