Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Petty Interpretation of Homer's Classic

by Drew Martin
On a recent trip to Europe, I passed some time on the long evening flight with a movie. I watched Sound City, a documentary about the down and dirty recording studio in Los Angeles that gave birth to famous albums including Nirvana’s Nevermind. It closed in 2011. Dave Grohl, the drummer for Nirvana produced and directed the film, which focuses on the Neve analog mixing console, a beast of a board that controlled dozens of microphones and required the band to record an entire song in a take, as opposed to laying tracks. The bands that created their albums there liked it because it was the closest thing to recording a live show.

A graphic treat of the film was a parade of cover artwork for the albums that came out of Sound City. One of these was Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers’ sixth album, from 1985,
Southern Accents. It features Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field from 1865, which he painted in his late twenties. On April 9th of that year Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union army, and five days later President Lincoln was assassinated. Homer’s Veteran is a beautiful image and perhaps evoked a southern rural sensibility for Tommy Steele, who designed the cover. Ironically, this is not the image of a southern farmer but a northern war veteran who has returned home after fighting. The majority of soldiers on both sides in the Civil War were farmers. The Grim Reaper scythe alludes to the assassination of Lincoln, and his field is a bountiful northern crop.

I recently saw the original The Veteran in a New Field in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art show The Civil War and American Art, which ran from May 27 to September 2. I was reluctant to go because I thought I would yawn my way through it but I was totally wrong. It was a fascinating exhibition of paintings and photographs that expressed the tumultuous time. It was amazing to see how contemporary the artwork was for the period and the manner in which the painters represented the issues of war and slavery in their works. Many of the landscape paintings captured the mood and anticipation of the war with stormy weather on the horizon. The photographs were also interesting. There were small, keepsake portraits in lockets with locks of hair for the loved ones the soldiers left behind. There were also photographic documentation of injured soldiers accompanied by their prognosis and eventual fate. They were gruesome. One showed a young man with his elbow blown apart. The doctors were able to save his arm and he survived. Another photograph showed a man with a tap in his side, which drained six pints of puss from his cavity. He eventually died of related problems. One of the most interesting photographs was a collector’s portrait (for the ladies) of the sharply dressed, arrestingly handsome, and famous actor John Wilkes Booth (shown here), the man who shot Lincoln.

Click here to watch the trailer for Sound City.