Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 17
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
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(From the Collection of Hollingsworth Fine Arts)

ART AND ARTILLERY: This decorated artillery shell, the work of an unknown Hungarian artist, is among the pieces on view through May 31 in “From Swords to Plowshares.” Museum admission and special exhibits are free to members, corporate and business partner members, and children under 6 years old. The museum is located at 138 South Pine. On Sunday, April 5, along with Fonthill Museum, Mercer Museum, and the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works in Doylestown, the Michener will offer free admission and special activities from noon through 5 p.m.

Michener Art Museum
Destroying Destruction: Shrapnel, Shakespeare, and the Aesthetics of War Trash

Stuart Mitchner

I didn’t know that shrapnel was named after Lieutenant Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842) until I read C.K. Williams’s poem, “Shrapnel,” which was written in the second year of the Iraq war. Shrapnel was only 22 when he began working on his invention, described by the online Trivia Library as “a spherical projectile filled with lead musket balls and a small charge of black powder” set off by a time fuse that exploded the shell in midair, scattered the shot “over a large area,” and “laid low everyone in its path.” The contemporary version, as Williams reports, delivers a force of 700 tons per inch “in the microsecond after its detonation,” propelling the shrapnel at a speed of 2000 feet per second. After quoting the effects of “shrapnel throughout the body” of a ten-year-old “killed in a recent artillery offensive” in Iraq, Williams points out that Lt. Shrapnel was later awarded “a generous stipend in recognition of his contribution to ‘the state of the art.’ “ At that point in the poem, the reference to “art” delivers the poetic equivalent of tremendous force, if not quite 700 tons of it.

The edgy ambiguity of “state of the art” in the context of war is not easy to dismiss if you’re walking through “From Swords to Plowshares: Metal Trench Art from WW I and WW II” at the James A. Michener Art Museum, where you can see shrapnel modified and shaped to form a model bi-plane. You can also see a scimitar-shaped letter opener made from a piece of shrapnel that fairly glitters with its ugly history, assuming that it quite probably “laid low” someone who happened to be in its path. Stating the obvious, the raw material for these decorative souvenirs has a lethal provenance. It’s as if instead of confronting a red-tinted Andy Warhol print of the electric chair, you’re in the presence of the polished, embellished reality. Clearly this has little to do with art and everything to do with war, as you’re reminded by a British-accented voice droning on about life on the battlefield from the soundtrack of the continuously running documentary called War in the Trenches that follows you around the room.

While what you see at the Michener is called “trench art,” most of it was not made in the trenches but outside the combat zone by soldiers on leave or in POW camps or by civilian artisans. According to Trench Art: An Illustrated History by Jane A. Kimball (available for $65 in the museum Shop), POW camps actually held “artistic exhibitions” where these handicrafts were offered for sale to the public. You have to hope that the wounded or traumatized soldiers making rings or cigarette cases out of war trash were at least putting themselves right again in the process.

Needless to say, the destroyers of destruction represented in the Michener’s Wachovia Gallery have no names. There are anonymous Hungarians and Italians, Americans and Germans, Canadians and Australians.

A Mass Funeral

In Trench Art there’s a reference to how these “cruel destroyers of humans and landscapes” have been “transformed into objects of beauty,” while the literature accompanying the exhibit claims that it “testifies to mankind’s indomitable spirit” and “that soldiers, prisoners and artisans created objects of exquisite design out of the scrap heaps of war.” As true and uplifting as those sentiments may be, terms like “indomitable spirit” and “objects of beauty” sound a bit precious and naive when applied to material that testifies no less tellingly to mankind’s indomitable inhumanity.

Anyway, maybe there’s something to be said for draining, embalming, and symbolically diminishing the evil by putting pretty ornaments made from its leavings into glass-topped display cases in a museum. Picture it as mortuary art for a mass funeral, all this dead, gilded detritus of war, the stuff of destruction symbolically destroyed and laid out for viewing in a formal array of see-through coffins. My thoughts about “destroying destruction” were inspired by the phrase “death once dead” from one of those lines in Shakespeare that keep you company in times of stress. It’s from the closing couplet of the 146th Sonnet: “So shalt thou feed on death that feeds on men/And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.”


While the title of the show (also the name of a veterans advocacy group) is not meant to be taken literally, what you see here has little to do with “plowshares” or “swords.” You can’t till the earth with lamps, vases, bookends, ashtrays, and letter openers, and the “state of the art” on display comes not from swords but from artillery shells, most of them the same size (75mm and 77mm). Unfortunately the sheer quantity of vases and similarly sized and shaped objects results in an overall effect of polished brass monotony. Given all this contained uniformity, the quality of the exhibit relies to a great extent on special points of detail, background, and design. The information about countries and campaigns, however, is sketchy, though a phone number and prompts offer extra commentary.

Among the more interesting pieces I saw were the vase on which a poem is engraved in Hungarian (the last line of which is “Look into the future and you will see the past,” according to the telephone translation); numerous vases featuring female nudes, some crude, some elegant; a smoking box assembled from aircraft gauges, dials, including a plastic called Perspax from an aircraft windshield; and a big metal box in which a Mickey Mouse figure appears to be taking off Minnie Mouse’s blouse. Another version of Mickey is posed, waving, astride a rocket in a stirring display of mousekind’s “indomitable spirit.” There are silver-plated brass beer steins “from the battlefields of North Africa”; a tankard engraved with a map of the world; an Art Nouveau-style vase; numerous elaborate lamps, a cathedral fashioned out of chrome-plated bullet shells, and several bullet crucifixes.

“From Swords to Plowshares” is one more in a series of admirably thought-provoking Michener shows. In 2005 it was “Impossible to Forget: The Nazi Camps Fifty Years After,” and in 2007 it was the somewhat controversial display of Suzanne Opton’s extraordinary portraits of soldiers back from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the companion exhibition, “Fire and Ice: Marine Corps Combat Art From Afghanistan and Iraq,” featuring Marine Warrant Officer Michael Fay’s drawings and watercolors.

Whatever you may think of its appropriateness to the source material, the swords into plowshares idea has considerable topical resonance. The recycling of battlefield litter not only suggests the notion of “sustainability,” but gives it an antecedent in the homefront drives that collected scrap metal to make into weaponry, which after it has killed and maimed millions is transformed into something domestic and decorative.


In “Shrapnel,” C.K. Williams juxtaposes the shrapnel-savaged Iraqi child with a hospital scene from Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, where after suffering horribly as a huge hunk of shrapnel is removed from his leg, a soldier quips, “Run him under the tap, Nurse, I’ll take him home.” As a souvenir, you know. Or maybe he’ll make a letter opener or a paper weight of it, if he gets home alive.

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