Mark Bradford turned a bloody Civil War battle into art that will haunt and entrance you
The title of this Hirshhorn-commissioned work, which references a Southern general whose name became synonymous with military disaster, is politically volatile. It references one of the more dramatic moments of the Civil War, when three divisions of Confederate infantry attacked Union lines across a wide, open field at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. It was a dark moment for the South and is often cited as the turning point — the “high-water mark of the Confederacy” — in a war that until then had favored the South.
Bradford isn’t interested in the drama of the war, but rather in how the narrative of that drama has been transmitted for more than 150 years. Embedded in his eight panels of thickly layered and torn paper is a reproduction of Paul Philippoteaux’s 1883 panoramic painting “The Battle of Gettysburg,” which is still on view at the battlefield visitors center in a purpose-built cyclorama auditorium. The Gettysburg cyclorama is one of the few remaining 19th-century panoramas, and it offers a rare chance to see what was then a popular, highly commercial and fully immersive spectacle that gave visitors a three-dimensional, 360-degree painted view of the entire battlefield.
Using billboard-size reproductions of the Philippoteaux painting culled from the Internet, Bradford has created thickly layered palimpsests of paper, embedded with ropes and cords that create striations. In some places, these appear like the fluttering horizontal lines produced by an old television tube, as if we are getting a distorted picture beamed over fickle airwaves. In others, they look like geological layers, curving in response to tectonic forces.
Small details of the original painting, highly pixelated from the reproduction process, show through, though in a few cases Bradford allows what is supposed to be buried — the original Civil War painting — to come fully to the surface. In a panel called “Dead Horse,” one sees a haystack, cavalry and a dead horse, enlarged as a poignant detail that threatens to destabilize the abstraction with a powerful, representational and emotional focal point. In other panels, remains of the Philippoteaux are visible only if you put your nose to the surface of the work and search for colors and pixel patterns that differ from the rest of the palette and textures.
“I’m forcing the viewer to actually look at the ‘Grand American Painting,’ ” Bradford has said of his work. “What I’m saying is that that grand narrative never was; it always was a point of contention.”
The artist has been at work on this piece for about three years, during which time conflicts about race and racism (and in particular how the Southern memory of the Civil War is a proxy for racism) have turned violent. The nation’s first African American president has been succeeded by a president who refused to disavow white nationalists in the wake of protests in Charlottesville, Va., and has defended racist symbols of “Southern heritage” erected during the darkest days of the Jim Crow era.
In an interview with Hirshhorn Chief Curator Stéphane Aquin, Bradford sounds despairing: “I would say that it’s absolutely impossible not to be angry. With all the things we fought for — to be more in the center of the conversation, to be more in the center of power. . . . What we see now, though, is that we were escorted to the door.”
In one sense, Bradford is indeed forcing us to look at a “Grand American Painting.” Unlike the specially built panorama theater, in which viewers stood on a central platform and viewed the painting at a distance, Bradford’s work is right in front of us, and because we are told in advance that it references the Philippoteaux, it’s impossible to resist the impulse to search out remnants of the older work. But Bradford is speaking metaphorically as well, using the Grand American Painting to represent ideas such as the Lost Cause myth of the noble South fighting not for slavery, but only for its independence and dignity. But even that doesn’t quite capture the power of the metaphor.