In art as in politics, the Stars and Stripes is a powerful symbol

July 04, 1994|By Helen L. Kohen | Helen L. Kohen,Knight-Ridder News Service

"Flag: A piece of cloth or stuff (usually bunting), varying in size, color and device, but most frequently oblong or square, attached by one edge to a staff or to a halyard, used as a standard, ensign or signal and also for decoration or display."

Oxford English Dictionary

To begin with, that whole bit about Betsy Ross stitching up the first American flag for George Washington is a myth. While it is true that Elizabeth Ross presided over an upholstery shop in Harrisburg, Pa., and she did run up flags for Pennsylvania's Navy, most reference books do not name her as the designer of the Stars and Stripes, which was adopted as the national flag in June 1777.

That done, the American flag began to show up in art as in life, from marine paintings of the late 18th century to Jasper Johns' familiar images -- flagships, one might say, of the Minimalist movement in art, possibly the most important movement of the second half of the 20th century.

Besides marine paintings, early representations of the American flag are found as applied art in porcelains and scrimshaw.

By the final quarter of the 19th century, arts and crafts shops on Native American reservations were stocked with handmade souvenirs decorated, more often than not, with flags.

The folk arts, where patriotism is a major theme, are especially rich in flag designs. The Rev. Benjamin F. Perkins, who built "The All-American Potty" in 1990, painted it and most of his other works with flags. But perhaps there is no more dazzling flag painting by a self-taught artist than William Doriani's 1935 "Flag Day" -- 33 flags on one canvas! Now in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art, the painting records a parade that stirred the emotions of this Russian-born painter.

The flag as symbol in artworks has come in for its share of controversy as well. "What Is the Proper Way To Display a U.S. Flag?" by Scott Tyler (a k a. Dread Scott) -- part of a 1989 group exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago -- caused a stir in the Illinois legislature that resulted in the loss of $64,999 in state educational grants for the school. The offense? Mr. Tyler's flag was displayed on the floor.

Particularly in such ambiguous contexts, flags act as stimulants to finely tuned moralistic sensibilities -- much as if they were religious banners. Which is odd: There is certainly nothing ritualistic about the process of flag-making: Manufactured on assembly lines, mostly in Third World countries and usually of cheap, synthetic materials, flags are made with about as much respect as T-shirts.

And, notwithstanding various attempts to the contrary, no federal laws or Constitutional provisions dictate the proper treatment of flags.

The design of the American flag, and what it stands for, of course, override such truths. Born in revolution, the Stars and Stripes emerged as an emblem of that revolt and its dedication to democratic principles. It continues to signify the twin spirits of patriotism (including political insurgency) and virtue.

Though it depicts neither an American historical event nor an American flag, no work of art better demonstrates this niche of flag painting than Eugene Delacroix's superb "The 28th of July: Liberty Leading the People," painted in 1830. The tricolor is at the top of the pyramid formed by the figure of Liberty, a rallying point for the activity taking place in the scene below and the focal point of the composition. This is the flag as military emblem, conveying 90 percent of the meaning of the picture and 100 percent of its emotion.

More often in art at the turn of the century and up to World War I, flags were used as decor in paintings, even in patriotic scenes. They flap away in a sun-speckled view of Paris by Camille Pissarro or hang stiff and frozen in a snowbound New York street scene by the American painter Childe Hassam. Miami artist Eszter Gyory continued this decorative tradition in a series of paintings made in 1991 that sometimes incorporated actual flags.

Marsden Hartley's abstract 1914 "Portrait of German Officer" moved flag painting into the modernist era. Actually a love letter to its subject, the work reduces the flag to a bundle of personal icons and public symbols. Hartley entrusts all meaning to the bits of flags and insignia with which he builds his design, allowing the German tricolor to stand in for the officer, his military rank and, by interpretation, the artist's affection for him.

Flags took on increased burdens in the wake of two world wars before mid-century and other wars since. Since the 1960s, they have stood for patriotism, the establishment and the status quo -- and for opposition to any or all of those. Protesting with the flag can be as gentle and meaningful as Marion Epting's "Alternative," one of several prints the artist made in the late 1960s on the theme of racial conflict. He uses the flag in one part of the work to represent idealized versions of America while the rest of the field shows the reality.

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