From “New World” to world power
Essay by Dr. Bryan Zygmont
The G8—the Group of Eight—was founded in 1997 as an international political forum where world leaders gathered to discuss pressing world issues. This group consisted of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the United States. In a world with almost 200 sovereign countries, this collection of nations were viewed as the economic and political superpowers of the day. And if such a group had existed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it is fair to write that the freshly created United States of America had not yet acquired enough standing on the world stage to have acquired a seat at this tiny but influential table.
And yet over the past 250 years, the American colonies have transitioned from being the mere foreign holdings of European superpowers, to being perhaps the preeminent superpower of our own day. This incremental shift—some taken enthusiastically, others more reluctantly—is, in many ways, the story of the United States itself. And like all of our stories—those of identity, geography, and economics, among others—this story can be both illustrated and told through art. From the colonial times until our own, art eloquently speaks to both who we are and who we have aspired to become.
Europe and the “New World”
An excellent early point of departure is James Wooldridge’s 1675 painting, Indians of Virginia. This oil-on-linen composition measures approximately 30” x 43,” and although Wooldridge completed it in 1675, the painting has a complicated history that has much to tell modern viewers about what people in the seventeenth (and sixteenth!) century thought about those they found living in the New World.
The story of Wooldridge’s Indians of Virginia does not begin in 1675, it actually begins about a century earlier. If Columbus “discovered” the New World during the closing decade of the fifteenth century, then it was during the sixteenth century that European nations turned their attention from discovery to colonizing these lands. On 9 April 1585, Sir Ralph Lane led an expedition that attempted to begin an English colony on Roanoke Island. Although now part of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, Lane—and his patron, Sir Walter Raleigh—named this land after their monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Amongst the 108 people who began the colony at Roanoke was John White, an English mapmaker and illustrator. Sir Walter had asked White to join the group in order to visually document the flora, fauna, and the indigenous people of the Tidewater area.
During his time in Virginia, White completed dozens of maps, drawings, and watercolors, and these images became amongst the earliest visual representations of the plants, animals, and people of North America. In this endeavor, White worked closely with Thomas Harriot, who aspired to communicate in words what the artist hoped to illustrate in pictures. When the wordsmith returned to England (either in 1585 or 1586), the artist and his art returned with him. By 1588 Harriot rushed to publish his imageless text A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. A less hurried edition two years later featured 28 prints by the Flemish engraver Theodor de Bry. These images were largely taken from John White’s in situ drawings and watercolors.
By including these engravings in his Briefe History, Harriot made White’s watercolors—once removed from the originals the artist painted—available to a comparatively large audience. Although it is unlikely that Wooldridge ever saw White’s original watercolors, there can be little doubt that he had a copy of Harriot’s text. Indeed, a visual analysis of Wooldridge’s painting shows that the composition is an interesting conglomeration of no less than six of de Bry’s engravings that Harriot had published some 85 years earlier. In addition to this transmission—a kind of visual “telephone game”—there is also the interesting idea of exclusivity. White painted his watercolors at the behest of Sir Walter Raleigh, the patron of the expedition. De Bry’s engravings were intended for a much larger audience. And then, not quite a century later, Wooldridge painted the Indians of Virginia for the Earl of Conway, whose grandfather was an early shareholder in the Virginia Company. This image serves as a kind of artistic tribute to his grandfather, even though his grandfather is nowhere to be found in it.
The exotic and the familiar
Who was to be found, of course, were the Natives Americans living in the Tidewater area. White the watercolorist—and by transmission, Wooldridge the oil painter—has reinterpreted the these people as a way to make them appear both familiar and exotic at the same time. The standing male figure in the central part of the composition is from de Bry’s third plate, “A weroan or Great Lorde of Virginia.” Although he wears unfamiliar attire, at least to European eyes, his exaggerated contrapposto mimics Late Classical Praxitelian sculpture and makes him immediately recognizable. The female figure to this right—taken from plate ten, “Their manner of careynge ther Childern” likewise depicts the foreign, but does so in a way that is accessible to an Old World audience.
Other parts of Wooldridge’s painting similarly speak to the exotic and the familiar. The figures in the lower left—lifted from plate 16, “Their sitting at meate”—shows communal eating, including a fish, several ears of corn, and an oyster shell. What appears to be a tobacco pipe—something that would have been quite recognizable to a Londoner after Raleigh introduced Virginia tobacco to England at the end of the sixteenth century. Other vignettes in the painting show organized religious activities, active settlements, and thriving agriculture. These all suggest that the New and Old Worlds share much in common; it was likely both exciting and new, and oddly familiar. In this way, Wooldridge’s painting—through de Bry’s earlier engravings—may have served as a kind of promotional material to encourage English men and women to relocate to Virginia.
Independence, expansion, displacement
If James Wooldridge’s Indians of Virginia is a view of Native Americans for the English, then, Thomas Birch’s Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie (1814) is a view of the English and the Americans with Native Americans as an unseen, but important, group. At first view this may appear to be a painting about a naval conflict between Great Britain and the United States, and while it is that, Perry’s Victory also has much to tell us about the rising position of the United States of America on the world stage, about westward expansion, and about the displacement of indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region of North America.
The War of 1812 is often called the second war for American Independence, as it again involved conflict between Great Britain and the country forged from its former colonial holdings in North America. One of the key points of contention in this conflict was the Great Lakes region of North America. This important area—filled with freshwater lakes, streams, and rivers—was vitally important to the profitable trade routes of the area. The United States—then still predominantly on the eastern seaboard—aspired to grow westwards. Great Britain—which still had extensive holdings in what is now Canada—hoped to maintain their mercantile superiority. And, of course, these areas were populated with thousands of indigenous people who had lived there for generations.
Depicting contemporary events
Battle of Lake Erie took place on the 10th of September 1813. Thomas Birch completed his painting that commemorated this great victory for the American navy less than one year later. Birch had completed a blockbuster image that depicted a nearly contemporary event. This was the early nineteenth century version of the newsreels that played before movie theater crowds during the Second World War, the nightly news that broadcast daily casualties during the Vietnam War, or the tallies of COVID-19 victims posted hourly on social media.
If the American Revolutionary War was a conflict (mostly, although not exclusively) of soldiers on the ground, then the War of 1812 was a skirmish of navies, and the naval battle that shifted the tide of this conflict was the Battle on Lake Erie. Perry’s painting chronicled this battle and can be divided into three overlapping bands. To begin, we can observe the surface of the lake; the white-tipped crests suggest it is a windy day. The low, pyramidal shape of the ships comprises the second band of the composition. Their billowing sails—even those that have been riddled with cannon shot—and the sweeping smoke from the cannon fire likewise suggest the day’s meteorological conditions. The rest of the composition is filled with clouds bathed in early-morning light (although the first shot of the conflict was not fired until almost noon).
The ship closest to the picture plane is the USS Lawrence, a 20-gun brig that was formally commissioned in August 1813 and named in honor of James Lawrence, an American naval officer who had been killed on 4 June. She served as the flagship for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Although the American flag still prominently flies, the sails have been riddled with cannon shot and the ship has clearly been disabled. In the midst of the battle, Perry transferred to the USS Niagara, the ship to the left of center along the horizon line with three flags hoisted upon the mast. Although smoke obscures our chaotic view, we can clearly see both American and British flags flying from a variety of ships. Some vessels remain seaworthy; others still appear to sink.
Although Birch does not make it immediately clear within this composition which side will be victorious—after all, the American brig in the foreground has been shot to shreds and has been abandoned—Perry and the United States Navy defeated their vastly more experienced British counterparts. At the conclusion of the battle, Commodore Perry penned to Major General William Henry Harrison—the future ninth president of the United States—what might be the most famous words in the history of American naval conflict. On the back of a used envelope Perry hastily wrote, “Dear General: We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop” With this victory, the balance of this conflict began to teeter the American way. Two important and related historical events resulted from the United States victory on Lake Erie, the British were expelled from the area, leaving their Native American allies in the Great Lakes area vulnerable to the westward expansion of the United States, a nation that was eager to expand beyond the eastern seaboard.
On the world stage
Birch’s painting, then, is about two things. It certainly chronicles a great American naval victory and heroized the commanding officer, Commodore Perry. It also eloquently speaks to shift in the position of the United States on the world stage. They neither won nor lost any land, but they had again faced a military and economic super power and had prevailed. But the naval victory this painting commemorates was also a turning point for the thousands of Native Americans who had lived in the Great Lakes area. With their British allies gone, the United States believed it had carte blanche to occupy these lands regardless of who might have already been there.
If Birch’s Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie celebrates the growing military might of the United States, then Chide Hassam’s World’s Columbia Exposition, Chicago (1892), painted almost 80 years later, depicts another kind of growth. During the second half of the nineteenth century, various countries hosted a World Exposition as a way of highlighting their advancements in art, architecture, science, and industry. These include Great Britain (1851 and 1863), France (1855, 1867, 1878, and 1889), Austria-Hungary (1873), Australia (1880), and Spain (1888). The United States hosted its first such event-called the Centennial Exposition in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence—in 1876. But it was the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 that most clearly announced the elevation of American art, architecture, science, and industry to the world at large. Hassam’s modestly-scaled painting is about more than just a pleasant vista; it is about the advancement of the United States and its sudden cultural maturity.
Americans in Europe
Chide Hassam was born in Boston in 1859 and worked as a freelance illustrator in the early 1880s, completing drawing for such prominent periodicals as The Century, Harper’s Weekly, and Scribner’s Monthly. In 1883 he embarked on a European Grand Tour to study the Old Masters; he visited (among other counties) Great Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain. He returned to the United States after this extended trip, but moved back to Paris in 1886 and studied at the Académie Julian, a prestigious private art school particularly attractive to aspiring American artists who could not successfully pass the French language exam then required for admission into the École des beaux-arts. Hassam was a quick study; he submitted four paintings to the art competition in the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889 and won a bronze medal.
By the time he returned to the United States, Hassam had fully embraced the impressionistic style then in fashion in Paris, and World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago (1893) is an excellent example of his mature style. Utilizing bright, vibrant greens, blues, and reds, he has sketchily depicted the lush grounds on the left and right side of the composition, and a path that begins in the middle of the painting and then meanders off to the right. A woman and small child rest on a bench while others promenade about the grounds. Some move towards the viewers, while others advance into the picture plane towards a building of vast proportions in the background.
The Great White City
The American-born but French-trained architect William LeBaron Jenney designed that gleaming white structure in Hassam’s World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago. Called the Horticulture Building, critics (errantly!) claimed that it held every variety of flora on earth. Although it is not evident from Hassam’s painting—and it might not have been immediately clear to the visitors at the time, either—Jenney’s building was not made of a permanent material such as marble, but was instead composed of temporary plaster and stucco. Indeed, almost all of the buildings in the so-called White City were made to be dismantled at the end of the exposition. But despite the temporary nature of these buildings, the most famous American architects from the end of the nineteenth century lent their talents to the exposition as a way to showcase the advancements of American architecture. These included Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan, and Sophia Hayden. From an architectural point of view, the World’s Columbia Exposition aspired to highlight all that the United States had to offer.
But it was not only the outside of these buildings that spoke to American accomplishments and advancements. The exhibitions inside those buildings also demonstrated to the world the ways in which the United States—young though it may have been when compared to its European counterparts—had reached a kind of artistic, cultural, and scientific maturity. Fourteen different buildings were centered around an enormous reflecting pool, and each of these structures highlighted a different branch of American ingenuity. For example, George B. Post’s Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building highlighted American advancements in literature, sciences and the fine arts. Notable American painters and sculptors who exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition comprises a Who’s Who of late nineteenth century American art, a lineup that justifiably bragged that the United States was proud of its artistic achievements. The artists who exhibited in the exhibition included (amongst dozens of others) Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, Daniel Chester French, Winslow Homer, Frederick MacMonnies, and John Singer Sargent. After six wildly successful months and more than 27 million visitors, the Great White City closed on 30 October 1893. Even if the United States had not fundamentally changed during those six months, its international reputation had.
If the infancy of the United States was the eighteenth century, and its adolescence during the nineteenth century, then it was in the twentieth century when it came in to its majority. As with people, so too with nations: the transition to adulthood can be a difficult time. In the two decades on either side of the year 1900, the United States was determining what role it wanted to play on the world stage. Did we aspire to remain focused on North America and to preventing European intervention there, or did we wish to expand our political and geographic influence, and become engaged in global affairs more broadly? This was a challenging question for the United States, and it can be claimed—with some justification—that World War I, the Great War, was the catalyst for the United States of American to shed its isolationist ways and become a geopolitical superpower.
But this transition was taken somewhat reluctantly. Historians point to 28 June 1914 as the beginning of World War I, for this was the day in which the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo. By August, almost every nation in Europe had mobilized their armed forces, lines were drawn, and preexisting alliances were set to be cemented in blood. On one side of this conflict—the Allied Powers—of France, Great Britain, Russia, Japan, and Italy (among a dozen others). While on the other, The Central Powers consisted of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Bullets were fired. Bombs were dropped. Torpedoes were launched. Mustard gas released. Between August 1914 and April 1917, millions died. And yet the United States stayed distant from what it perceived to be a uniquely European conflict.
On 7 May 1915 a German U-boat sunk the British passenger ship RMS Lusitania, part of the country’s unrestricted submarine warfare. This sinking of a civilian passenger vessel killed almost 1,200 people including 128 Americans. Yet not even this terrible event brought the United States into the great conflict. Germany complied with President Woodrow Wilson’s demand at halting the practice of targeting civilian vessels until January 1917, when it again began to target non-military ships as a way of starving Britain into submission. January 1917 also coincides with the infamous Zimmermann Telegram, a clandestine communique between the German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann and the German ambassador to Mexico. In a coded message, Zimmermann wrote that Germany was set to commence its earlier strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare against the United States on 1 February, and that Germany was prepared to offer Mexico the states of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico if they would declare war on the United States. On 28 February Wilson released this text to the media, and the anti-German sentiment that had been rising since the sinking of the Lusitania hit a full crescendo, and the United States finally declared war on Germany on 6 April.
Of course, many people had been calling for the United States to enter the war against the Central Powers for many months, if not years. Some artists—George Bellows was but one of them—picked up their paint brushes, their pens, or their burins to reaffirm the United States’ decision to join the Allied Powers in 1917. Bellows had studied with Robert Henri at the New York School of Art and was vaulted to fame towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth century as a member of the Ashcan School. Fame notwithstanding, Bellows volunteered to join the war effort in 1917 when we learned of the Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrage—commonly called the Bryce Report. In this account, James Bryce, the former British Ambassador to the United States, chronicled the debauched behavior of the German army. Partly factual but with a heavy measure of propaganda and misdirection, it was the release of the Bryce Report in the United States as much as the sinking of the Lusitania that ultimately brought the United States into World War I.
Art and war
It certainly inspired Bellows. The first section of Bryce’s report was titled, “The Conduct of German Troops in Belgium,” and the artist found much written fodder for his visual art within the pages of Bryce’s account. In 1918, Bellows completed roughly 20 lithographs, five large-scale oil and canvas compositions, and dozens of smaller drawings that chronicled the German army and atrocities they were alleged to have committed. In this, Bellows’ effort is not dissimilar to earlier artists who utilized their artistic talents to comment on war. Jacques Callot completed two print series commonly called The Miseries and Misfortunes of War (1633) that depicted the mayhem of the Thirty Years’ War. Francisco Goya had a similar goal in The Disasters of War series, a collection of 82 prints he made between 1810 and 1820 that examined Napoleon’s Peninsular War in Spain.
But whereas Callot and Goya had first-hand accounts of the atrocities of these conflicts, Bellows was in New York in 1918, a great distance from The Great War. As such, the lithographs and paintings Bellows made as a part of this series are very much from his imagination, and this fact drew some criticism. Joseph Pennell, a painter and engraver who himself made illustrations on behalf of the war effort, suggested that Bellows ought not have painted scenes he had not witnessed himself. Bellows quipped—convincingly so—that he was unaware that Leonardo “had a ticket to paint the Last Supper.”
Return of the Useless
The paintings, drawings, lithographs that Bellows made are less about visual truth and more about creating the visual pathos of war. Return of the Useless (1918) is a great example of this. Germany’s first offensive in World War I was the invasion of Belgium and many civilians were forced into labor camps. Bellows gives us a scene where those who were unable to work—too young, too old, too sick, too injured—are being returned. It is a painting that testifies to the pain and suffering of war. The majority of the image is given over to the red box car that has transported the figures. On the left side, a German soldier stands on a prone person and is about to strike them with the butt of his rifle. The soldier’s left hand is already covered with blood, and so too are the hands of the helpless figure who is about to receive his ferocity. On the right side, another soldier is about to strike a woman whose back is to the viewer while a man—already bloodied and terribly pallid—valiantly attempts to intervene. In the center, a young woman—wearing a white shirt—descends steps made from boxes. She has used her right arm to open the sliding door of the boxcar, but that arm remains elevated as if to shield her from the atrocities that surround her. A woman lies on the ground, and in the back of the car a mother holds her young child. A slightly more aged man embraces a girl on the left side of the boxcar, while another man—in deep shadow—sits on the far side of the car, holding his own head. The visual story that Bellows gives us is clear: the ruthlessness of the German army is indiscriminate.
A Second World War
History is a complicated matter, of course, and the United States of America was not immune own immoral behavior. Like in World War I, America was a reluctant participant in the Second World War. The conflict began in earnest on 1 September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. The United States was hardly neutral in the two years that followed. For example, the Lend-Lease policy—An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States—that began on 11 March 1941 allowed the United States to lend (but not sell) supplies to the war effort. Yet despite this commitment to supply warplanes and warships to Britain, France, and the Soviet Union (among other Allied countries), it took the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 for the United States to commit to sending troops to the European and Pacific theaters. Once that happened, the United States acted swiftly. Congress declared war on Japan the following day, and it declared war on both Germany and Italy on 11 December.
Declaring war on American citizens
In the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States government became immediately distrustful of Japanese Americans. Indeed, on the same day that War was declared on Japan—8 December—the United States also seemingly declared war on Japanese Americans (and Japanese citizens living in America) by freezing their bank accounts. Four days later—12 December—President Franklin D. Roosevelt loosened these restrictions and allowed Japanese Americans to withdraw up to $100 a month from their personal bank accounts. But things quickly took a turn. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on 19 February 1942. The importance of this document necessitates an extensive quote:
Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Executive Order 9066, February 19, 1942
American concentration camps
In Executive Order 9066 lay the germ for one of the more shameful stanzas in United States history: the forced imprisonment of American citizens in internment camps. In total, the United States opened ten of these concentration camps in seven different states between March and October 1942, imprisoning almost 120,000 men, women, and children whose only crime was being of Japanese descent. On 18 December 1944, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Ex parte Mitsuye Endo that the United States Government could not detain any citizen without cause. This, in effect, declared the illegality of Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Roosevelt was made aware of the decision before it was made public, and on 17 December he released Public Proclamation No. 21 which repealed his own Executive Order. Nine of the ten concentration camps were closed by the end of 1945.
Given the trauma this period of history caused to an entire group of American citizens, it is not surprising it has gathered the attention of visual artists. Roger Shimomura was born in Seattle in 1939, the year World War II began and two years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Both of his parents were born in the United States, yet despite this fact, the Shimomura family was relocated to the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho where they remained for about two years. Although he was but a young child at the time, these events had a profound effect upon his future art.
Superman, WWII, and Japanese Americans
Diary: December 12 1941 (1980) shows the ways in which Shimomura fused his post-World War 2 Pop Art style with traditional style of Japanese ukiyo-e prints. The subject is one that is wonderfully personal for the artist, for in this work Shimomura is creating a work that specifically references a diary entry his own grandmother penned on 12 December 1941 in which she referenced Roosevelt’s decision that day to allow Japanese Americans to withdraw $100 a month from their own bank accounts.
Thus, while we can presume that the young woman in the painting is Shimomura’s grandmother, she sits in a traditional Japanese home (despite the fact that she immigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century). She wears a kimono and sits upon a tatami mat, while her diary and ink brush rest on the desk before her. She is surrounded by rice-paper screens; one partially obscures her left side while the screen left of center shows the silhouette of a standing male figure. His hands are seemingly placed upon his hips, and there seems to be a cape that flutters in a strong breeze. It becomes clear, then, that this is not just any man. It is Superman.
There are at least two ways to interpret this depiction of the silhouetted Superman. The first is that of a kind of protector. Since his debut in Action Comics #1 in June 1938, the Man of Steel was made famous for protecting the innocent, defeating the bad guys, and promoting “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” But in the early 1940s, the covers of the Superman comic books made it clear that the enemy of Superman (and by association, the United States) was not just Lex Luthor (who first appeared in April 1940), but also the Axis Powers. For example, on the cover of Superman No. 17 (July–August 1942), Superman triumphantly stands, clinching a caricature of Adolph Hitler in his right hand and a caricature of Emperor Hirohito of Japan in his left. In the following issue (September–October 1942) Superman rides a red torpedo and the text reads, “War savings bonds and stamps do the job on the Japanazis!” The cover from the issue dated January 1944 (Superman #26) shows Superman about to ring the Liberty Bell with the head of a German soldier who wears a swastika armband.
It is clear, then, that Superman protects the United States from all enemies, both domestic and foreign. And given the the distrust of the United States government toward Japanese Americans, it is seems easy to recognize that the Superman in Shimomura’s painting is not here to protect the seated young woman; he is there to both menace and survey her. Her posture—she sits with her right hand supporting her head—suggests a kind of dreamlike state, and a lack of awareness of the powerful, shadowed figure who appears ready to read the intimate thoughts she is set to write in her diary. In doing so, Shimomura suggests Superman (and, by proxy, the United States government) believed that his grandmother was threat, a possible extension of Hitler, Hirohito, and the “Japanazis” around the world.
The United States had been a reluctant entrant into the two World Wars of the twentieth century. By the end of that century, however, the position that the United States held in world affairs had dramatically changed. The nation had become both politically proactive and reactive. An excellent example is when the United States swiftly responded to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990. This Iraqi military action did not directly involve American military or civilian interests (aside from the worldwide repercussions to the oil market). Yet, the United States—in conjunction with a United Nations coalition that involved more than thirty other countries—led a military operation to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait and restore their sovereignty. In less than a century, the United States had transitioned from hesitantly joining coalitions to creating them.
From the American perspective, the Gulf War consisted of two distinct phases. The first, Operation Desert Shield (2 August 1990–17 January 1991), involved the buildup of American and coalition forces in the Persian Gulf area. In the midst of this—on 29 November 1990—the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 678. This mandated that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein withdraw all troops from Kuwait by the deadline of 15 January 1991. When that deadline came and passed, the second phase—Operation Desert Storm—commenced on 17 January. The early weeks of this conflict involved attacks from coalition naval and air forces. After more than a month of such conflict, a large-scale (but brief) ground assault began on 24 February. The conflict came to an end on 28 February.
Yet months before—beginning in December 1990—Iraqi military forces had begun to place explosive charges on hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells, understanding, that motives on both sides of the conflict had little to do with the sovereignty of Kuwait, but rather it’s oil. In the days leading up to the Security Council mandated withdraw date, the Iraqis began to sabotage these oil wells. The oil fires hit an apex in the days surrounding the ground assault, as the Iraqi military implemented a scorched earth policy during their retreat from Kuwait. In total, between 600 and 700 oil wells were set ablaze. The last one was not capped until November.
Oil in the Middle East
Clearly, this was one of the greatest environmental tragedies of human history, and it gathered the attention of Sebastiao Salgado, a Brazilian photographer who was in Iraq documenting this disaster. The black-and white photograph Kuwait (1991) shows the repercussions of this environmental catastrophe. It is a strongly vertical composition; a man stands to the left of center, reaching up to a hanging element. Just to the right of center is the wellhead itself, and it forcefully shoots jet-black oil beyond the frame of the photograph. Three other men who are knee-deep in oil join that standing figure, and each has been so soaked in the viscous liquid that they appear to be bronze statues, frozen in time. The high value of the whites and grays in the foreground also reinforce that the earth has been thoroughly soaked, while gazing to the horizon line, we can see no less than three wells on fire. This very scene is likely happening at other places. Clearly, this photography documents an environmental catastrophe. But it also murmurs about the American involvement in a foreign skirmish and our increased role on the world stage.
The history of the United States—and of the American colonies before it—is a complicated story. From humble beginnings as the overseas possessions of foreign countries through numerous transitions leading to the United States being one of the true superpowers and a geopolitical leader. In between these endpoints was change, and growth. The United States of today is not the United States of a century ago, and though it is difficult to predict the future, it is easy to imagine that the United States of the future will be different again. Whatever it is that American will be in the future, it is likely that artists will chronicle and comment on those changes. In doing so, they will continue to shed light on the United States and its people.