FROM READERS: Art and music bring Civil War history to life at MU

Monday, April 14, 2014 | 11:44 a.m. CDT; updated 4:35 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 17, 2014

W. Arthur Mehrhoff is academic coordinator of the Museum of Art and Archaeology at MU.

I had the privilege and pleasure of getting to know artist Dan Woodward during a Missouri Folk Arts Community Scholars Network workshop in historic Sainte Genevieve during early March of this year. A Missouri native like me, Dan takes particular pleasure in recording our vanishing natural and historical heritage. He believes strongly that artists need to keep the past alive by interpreting our important memories and icons.

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Listen to a KBIA interview with Stefan Freund, an MU School of Music faculty member, about his new Civil War Oratorio that will have its premiere April 24.

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His current art exhibition, “Impressions of the Civil War in the West,” (now showing through April 30 at the Texas County Museum of Art in Licking) depicts events that occurred during the Civil War in Missouri and neighboring states. He portrays actual locations and scenes as faithfully as possible, including several camp and battle re-enactments. Dan’s fascinating exhibition is one of several special events that help bring the Civil War in Missouri to remembrance.

In August 2013, the State Historical Society of Missouri opened a special exhibition entitled "Remembering Gen. Order No. 11," one of the most controversial acts of the Civil War, to commemorate its 150th anniversary. State Historical Society art curator Dr. Joan Stack, who curated the special exhibition (still open to the public), also published an important critical essay entitled “G. C. Bingham’s Order No. 11 and the Remembered Civil War in Missouri: Towards an Emancipationist Interpretation” about Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham’s monumental painting (shown below) of the same name. In her words, “Some historians fault the painting’s accuracy (e.g., Bingham includes Gen. Ewing in the picture), but such criticism ignores nineteenth-century artistic conventions and audience expectations.” Under her guidance we enter once again into Bingham’s 19th century American world.

George Caleb Bingham - Order No. 11 - Google Art Project

By combining formal analysis with new critical perspectives, Stack explains how Bingham’s stylized characters, cultural allusions and diagonal composition from the upper left to lower right leads the viewer through an American allegory: “The events pictured on the left lead to exile and desolation on the right.” The left portion of the painting shows us the fall of the old plantation order, a pillaged clock symbolizing lost time. The bearded patriarch, posed as the antique Apollo Belvedere, offers his eloquent but futile resistance. Several women, like the slave posed as a Renaissance Pieta holding her swooning mistress, offer their different types of support which had enabled resistance efforts to continue and succeed. As in Missouri life itself, the armed and threatening Federal officer now commands the center of the action.

Finally, Bingham directs our eyes to the lower right foreground where a freedman and young boy approach the crossroads to an uncertain future. Bingham adapted this image from Renaissance master Masaccio’s 15th century painting Expulsion from Eden, thereby linking slavery with original sin. President Abraham Lincoln used a similar comparison in his immortal Second Inaugural address, explaining the war as atonement for America’s original sin of slavery. In Stack’s emancipationist interpretation, the freedman symbolizes a new Adam while the young boy, the last figure in the painting, represents the new birth of freedom proclaimed in The Gettysburg Address. Stack concludes, “In the twenty-first century, many viewers may see the boy as the hero of Order No. 11, an embodiment of the struggle for emancipation that increasingly structures Civil War memory.”

Art, however, is not the only way in which Civil War memory is being restructured in Missouri. On Thursday, April 24th at 7 p.m. in Jesse Auditorium, I have the privilege of joining the MU Choral Union, University Singers and Columbia Civic Orchestra in the world premiere of The War amongst Families and Neighbors by MU music professor Dr. Stefan Freund. This powerful new composition brings to mind the dramatic and tragic events of the Civil War in Missouri, particularly here in central Missouri, that continue to echo through Missouri life. (I will also moderate a symposium at 3 p.m. that afternoon in the Whitmore Recital Hall with composer, conductor and performers exploring the work’s multiple meanings.)    

The Civil War in Missouri set the scene for a brutal play within a play, or opera within an opera if you will. Like much of 19th century American culture, George Caleb Bingham’s Order No.11 speaks in the language of opera, so The War amongst Families and Neighbors by Freund brings what Abraham Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory” full circle back to their 19th century cultural roots. His composition interweaves traditional folk tunes and new music to show us how an escalating spiral of reprisal devastated Missourians on both sides. Freund set Order No. 11 itself as a chorus, with Bingham's written reaction sung by the tenor soloist, using similar musical material in both to connect the order's commands and its results. He reflected, “I was struck not only by the immediate effects of the order, but also the way its memory lingered past the war, perhaps even to the current day.”

As we bring the Civil War sesquicentennial to remembrance, we perceive its unique, antique character but also its lingering connections to our own lives. We remain a "house divided" at a crossroads wrestling with race relations, the limits of federal authority, unrest and violence in hostile territories; perhaps we are even a fossil of a passing fossil fuel era. Through the resounding echoes of 150 years, the Civil War in Missouri still speaks to us and about us as the nation’s Reconstruction continues…

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

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