"The Civil War and American Art" is one of the first in a wave of regional creative projects about the conflict

As the 150th anniversary of the war continues, artists look for ways to re-examine this painful chapter in our nation's history and show its relevance to modern times.

March 23, 2013|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

The lone Union sentry stands atop Federal Hill, outlined against an ominous orange/red sky. In the distance, the tops of the Washington Monument and several spires rise above the city, as straight and determined as the rifle held in the soldier's left arm.

"Fort Federal Hill at Sunset, Baltimore, 1862," by Sanford Robinson Gifford, seems to speak volumes about the wrenching chapter in our history, a Civil War that, in so many ways, has never really been settled.

The Gifford work is among 57 paintings and 18 photographs in an absorbing and revelatory exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, "The Civil War and American Art." Its one of various cultural presentations going on in the region to commemorate the conflict.

This week, Arena Stage will give the world premiere of Tazewell Thompson's "Mary T. and Lizzy K," a play about the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and the freed slave Elizabeth Keckly, who became one of the finest dressmakers of the day.

Another world premiere, this one musical, is due next month at Gettysburg College — Avner Dorman's "Letters from Gettysburg," for baritone, chorus and percussion ensemble. It's provides a prelude to the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg this summer.

Much more arts activity will materialize over the next few years as a result of the National Civil War Project, a huge, multi-city enterprise aimed at spurring new music, dance, theater and dialogue about the war and its lingering legacy.

Center Stage, Arena Stage and the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center are key local participants in this project, which was inspired by Baltimore-based choreographer Liz Lerman. She is creating a theater/dance fusion called "Healing Wars," dealing with physical and mental battle wounds, slated to be unveiled in 2014.

"We are still struggling with the issues of the Civil War," Center Stage associate artistic director Gavin Witt says. "Some of the language of the Civil War is even back in vogue, with talk in Texas of secession."

The war's 150th anniversary, which started being observed last year and will continue through 2015, provides an extra impetus to reconsider every angle of this painful history.

The recent Stephen Spielberg movie "Lincoln" awakened fresh interest in the politics of it, as well as in individuals who had been more in the shadows, such as Keckly. (The timing of the "Mary T. and Lizzy K." premiere is coincidental; it was commissioned by Arena several years ago.)

And nearly every day brings a reminder that Americans remain divided over many of the things that tore at the nation in the 1860s.

"The reality is we're still fighting states rights versus federal rights," Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith said. "We're still fighting over rights, period — civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, now gun rights. Election rights were just discussed at the Supreme Court. The National Civil War Project is an opportunity for us to look back in order to look forward. And art is really one of the most beautiful vehicles for investigating the past."

Also involved in the project are George Washington University; the Alliance Theatre and Emory College Center for Creativity & Arts at Emory University in Atlanta; and the American Repertory Theater and Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

With institutions from the North and the South, the project is "a confederacy of very different entities," Witt says, "but not in conflict. We are acting in concert to examine a common topic."

Pieces already in the pipeline include the local premiere of a bittersweet music-theater work by Paula Vogel called "Civil War Christmas" due at Center Stage in November. The company is also seeking out a British playwright (to be named) to create a work that looks at the war from the British perspective of the era.

While awaiting these and many other products of the National Civil War Project, the exhibit at the American Art Museum offers the equivalent of a searing, epic play or intense symphony. Although there are many familiar works here, they have not been seen together in such a gripping context.

Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at the museum, breaks new ground here by shining a light on the way artists in this country were profoundly affected by the war, from the build-up to Reconstruction.

The show, which travels to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in May, includes a striking emphasis on members of the Hudson Valley School of mid-19th century American landscape painters — men like Gifford, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church.

They were famed for depicting the country as a paradise. "But if we were the New Eden, then Cain killed Abel at the First Battle of Manassas," Harvey said.

The curator set out to demonstrate how artists reflected the cruel ways the war changed perceptions.

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