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War Memoranda : the Civil War, Walt Whitman, and Renewal

War Memoranda, a word and image exhibition featuring original photography, poetry, leafprints, and artist’s books by Binh Danh and Robert Schultz, draws upon the war poems and prose of Walt Whitman and upon the Liljenquist Collection of Civil War portraits held in the Library of Congress. 

The exhibition is scheduled to open February-May 2015 at the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, Virginia, and is occasioned by the 150th anniversary of the surrender agreement signed at Appomattox, Virginia, April 9, 1865; the 150th anniversary of the publication of Walt Whitman’s war poems in Drum Tap and the 160th anniversary of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1855; and the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. air campaign “Operation Rolling Thunder” in Vietnam and the introduction of the first official U.S. ground troops into the war (March 1965). Coincidentally, 2015 will also mark the 160th anniversary of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, celebration the first edition issued in 1855.

Full Exhibition Description

War Memoranda probes the question, “How do Americans remember war?” with soldiers’ portraits developed in the flesh of leaves, battlefield landscapes photographed using  nineteenth-century technologies, and war poems of intimate reflection reproduced in the  reflective surfaces of Daguerreotype plates.

“The real war will never get in the books,” Whitman declared, citing the “interior history” of “the actual soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways.”  Taking on this challenge, photographer Binh Danh and author Robert Schultz have drawn upon the poetry and notebooks Whitman jotted while tending the sick and wounded in Washington, D.C.’s hospitals and upon the magnificent Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War portraits held in the Library of Congress.  And in a final turn, the collaborators present memorials to their own wars—in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—applying the techniques and media employed by Whitman and the great Civil War photographers.  Merging past and present, War Memoranda evokes the secret, “interior history” of war.

Juxtaposition will be a key organizing principle in the articulation of the exhibition’s hemes.  To evoke timeless dimensions of war, portraits of Civil War and Vietnam War soldiers alike are developed in leaves, and memorials to Afghanistan and Civil War dead both are rendered in Daguerreotype photographs.  Similarly, cyanotype prints of the Antietam battlefield are echoed in intimate cyanotypes portraits of living young people, their eyes closed in memory and reflection.  Portraits of Whitman himself are rendered in leaves plucked from his own Camden House garden, just as portraits of young Civil War soldiers are rendered in leaves from battlefield “witness trees” that stood in the 1860s.  In short:  faces, landscapes, and memorials from across time are juxtaposed in evocative media to assert connections in a year of anniversaries.

Leafprint portraits of Vietnam and Civil War casualties make physically tangible Whitman’s central trope—the leaves of grass as “hints” of the dead—and Schultz’s poems use the circular movement of traditional forms (the villanelle, sestina, pantoum, etc.) to enact cycles of natural and historical recurrence.  Danh’s Daguerreotypes and cyanotypesecho the work of Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, and other Civil War photographers, invoking historical perspectives as they render contemporary scenes and living “witness trees.”

The Liljenquist Civil War portraits have been celebrated in a special Library of Congress exhibition, have been featured on the covers of national magazines, and were used to striking effect in the recent PBS American Experience program, “Death and the Civil War,” based on the book, This Republic of Suffering, by Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust.  Now, in War Memoranda, these haunting portraits are developed in the flesh of leaves, some of them plucked from plants growing from the fields of Manassas, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, or Appomattox.  In “Song of Myself,” Whitman’s leaves of grass were “the beautiful uncut hair of graves . . . dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths,” and in War Memoranda long-gone faces confront us again in nature’s renewals.

For Whitman, the land itself is a revivifying memorial.  In his poem “This Compost” he wonders at the purifying power of the earth that takes in death and sends back life, as when “[t]he resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves.”  Correspondingly,the leaves that hold the soldiers’ images in War Memoranda have grown out of contemporary American soil and fulfill Whitman’s prediction that the war dead will inhabit “every future grain of wheat and ear of corn.”  This is scientifically true, metaphorically arresting, and spiritually challenging.  Pursuing intimate history, War Memoranda contemplates American wars and choreographs moments of encounter with our national past and the people who lived it.