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"Flamingo Capsule," by James Rosenquist (1970) is not the superpatriotic image of the Flag as portrayed by 19th century artists in the current exhibition at the Allentown Art Museum, "The American Flag in the Art of Our Country." This exhibition continues in Allentown through Nov. 14. 

And Now... A Bicentennial Salute to the Flag in Art 

Nessa Forman [[image]]

The American Flag - we salute it, pledge allegiance to it, sing to it, fly it from homes and tall buildings, celebrate its Stars and Stripes with a holiday, stick miniatures of it in our lapels. It is more venerated and honored than the American eagle, images of Ms. Liberty, the Liberty Bell, or even the grand old man himself, Uncle Sam.

An exhibition about "The American Flag in the Art of Our Country," was as inevitable as firework displays bursting in air on the fourth of July.

The Allentown Art Museum, 5th and Court sts., Allentown, took up the banner, saluting the Bicentennial with a 150-work art show, surveying 200 years of flag images in art.

"With all due modesty, it's a fascinating exhibition," says Allentown Art Museum director Richard N. Gregg. To a large extent, he's right about the show which opened on Flag Day and will run through Nov. 14.

The American Flag, born during the Revolutionary War, has gone through some 27 official changes, beginning with the 13 stars and stripes in 1777 to the present 13 stripes and 50 stars in 1960. The reasons the flag appears in American art are as varied as the 27 official flag varieties, and even some of the non-official varieties. Most are documented in one form or another in this show.

In the 19th century, the Flag waved triumphant on whirligigs (wind toys), metal weathervanes, coverlets, jewelry, china and advertisements for tobacco and medicine. It was a decorative and associative element, central to the composition, as it is in a polychromed, wooden, flag-swathed, child-figure of "Winter," from the Philadelphia studio of sculpture William Rush. It flew from needlework paintings of Washington triumphant, entering New York City.

The Flag was there in Emanuel Leutze's representation of Washington Crossing the Delaware on Christmas Day, 1776. Leutze painted the picture in 1851-52, some 75 years after the event. And the Flag in the painting wasn't in the event at all because Congress was to adopt the red, white and blue symbol six months later. But to Leutze, the notion of having Washington Cross the Delaware without his country's Flag didn't fit the victorious spirit and composition of the painting.

The anonymous 19th-century artist saw the Flag as an element of loyalty, freedom, unity, safety and progress, and the kind of do-or-die patriotism of Barbara Frietchie. It is a tattered, but well-loved Flag that Frietchie holds as she shouts the lines from Whitman's poem to the rebels:

"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, But spare your country's Flag."

The Yankee soldier used the Flag too as bunting, arcing across a chandeliered ceiling of the "Ball of the 5th Corps, 1st Division Near Beverly Ford, Virginia," in 1864. This use, documented in an on-the-spot sketch by Edwin Forbes, would be prohibited today by more recent laws.

Old Glory also played secondary, incidental roles in paintings where a touch of color, or historical fact, not personal fervor, was the guiding reason.

Winslow Homer's scene at Camp Benton would be just as complete without the Stars and Stripes way, way in the background. That goes for John Lewis Krimmel's "The Pie Man" and the cast iron and glass Jenny Lind mirror.

The Flag is something else again for the 20th century artist - a formal, pictorial element that speaks more of art than narrative.

The American Impressionist, Childe Hassam, painted it again and again. New York's Fifth ave., festooned with flags for Liberty Loan Drives, Home Defense parades, and visiting dignitaries, in 1917 and 1918, produced the stimulus, which coincided with his aim, to capture the fleeting moments of color and light on canvas.

More recently, Jasper Johns took the repetitive image of red, white and blue and looked at it in terms of purely formal and decorative arrangements, changing that common symbol into double images, after images and making us see anew the power of color, design, texture and artifice.

Some of the more recent Flag images are questioning devices, conceived in doubt, not in my-country-right-or-wrong patriotism. Ther's Charles Bragg's "Flag Factory," in which a voiceless man meticulously sews a star on a Flag, making us question what the Flag really stands for. Frank Littos' "Gun Carriage," complete with Flag-draped coffin, delineates another use for the Flag.

The Allentown exhibition is, its director Gregg said, "a fascinating" one. It is not a history of the Flag in art, displayed chronologically.

However, that little something extra is missing here, which could have made it into a very powerful show - that's signage, amplifying the visual images with short, but meaningful commentary. The initiated may know or be able to figure out why a certain object is included in the show, but others may want to know why the Flag in a certain picture is different from all other flags and what does its inclusion in the exhibition say about the country and its Flag art.

At Philadelphia Museum of Art

Bulletin Art Editor

A 19th-century carved eagle.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, like the Allentown Art Museum, is singing the nation's symbolic praises, with a small exhibition of "Eagles, Flags and Heroes: Signs and Symbols of Patriotic Pride."

The exhibit includes 70 prints, photographs, drawings, posters, newspaper cartoons, ceramics and decorative arts, dealing with symbols of America.

The exhibition was promoted by a gift of 12 commissioned contemporary Bicentennial prints. The giver is the Lorillard (tobacco) Co. The gift is called "Spirit of Independence."

The problem here is one of receiving a lump gift: some of the works are excellent, such as the print by Will Barnet (although, what his image has to do with the spirit of independence is a mystery). Some are good images such as the one by Red Grooms. Some are not up to snuff such as the humorless print by Marisol.

The major part of the exhibit is a small, tight (but not inclusive) survey of the changing images used to symbolize America, from the bald eagle to the figure of Columbia (or Miss Liberty) and the Flag: themes that have been dealt with in depth in earlier Bicentennial shows across the nation.

This, still, is a good little theme show, put together by Ann Percy, associate curator of prints. Ms. Percy had a head start, because the Lorillard prints were given, and some 40 objects and images on view were gleaned from the already published Philadelphia Museum's 1976 engagement calendar (now out of print), "With Patriot's Pride." In a sense, the show was a matter of filling in.

The most disturbing aspect of the show is its location: ground floor corridor gallery near the director's office. A corridor, off the beaten track, is one of the most distracting places to hang art as well as to view it. This spot is usually reserved for children's art or community art ventures, shows the museum doesn't particularly want to publicize, not a theme exhibition which tries to make a point or two.

During the Museum's recent reconstruction, the print department's special exhibition gallery was incorporated into the all-inclusive, temporary exhibition gallery. The print department, the most active, as far as acquisitions go, and the department which oversees the largest number of objects in the Museum, has no showplace in the new reorganization scheme.

That is a disgrace, with all due respect to those who argue that you can hang an interesting show anywhere and it will still be an interesting show.

However, the real questions are: what has the print department done to be so slighted? Isn't there a spare room for print exhibitions anywhere? Isn't there anybody on the Board or the Print Committee who will speak up for the print department?