On Feb. 4, 1976, the artist Mitchell Jamieson shot himself to death in his house in Alexandria. There was something in his art, in his masterful yet hideous drawings of Vietnam, that pointed toward his suicide. Jamieson the hero, Jamieson the victim, had become at last another casualty of war.
Vietnam scarred us all, but it gnawed at Jamieson and would not let him heal. He spent less than a month there in 1967, but until the day he died he could not and he would not stop remembering and drawing the horrors he had seen and those he had dreamed.
Historians in the army sent him there to draw. They were sure that he could take it, for he'd been to war before. Jamieson saw action, in Africa and Sicily, on Utah Beach and Iwo Jima, as a Navy combat artist during World War II.
He drew his fellow GIs then as martyrs and crusaders. By the time he got to Vietnam he saw them as the plague.
"Mitchell Jamieson: Two Wars," which opens today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is a searing exhibition. Jamieson, in retrospect, seems a finer artist than he did when alive.
In show after show, in drawing after drawing (he must have produced hundreds), he pounded us with images -- of pleading victims, grinning whores, Vietnamese soldiers castrated and crucified, and American warriors slavering like beasts. You did not have to like the war to resist his exhortations. "I hate it more than you do," his drawings seemed to say. He called these works "The Plague."
"I have long believed," he wrote "that the only strong justification for art in any period consists of its being central, not peripheral, to human experience."
In his Vietnam drawings all that might bring joy, the new green leaves, the lovers -- the peripheries of life -- are diminished and dissolved until there is nothing left except the central plague.
He pounded us with all his might, but the headlines and the marchers and the news clips on the tube were pounding on our brains as well, and to keep on living we had to keep them out.
The war is over now. Edwad J. Nygren, the Corcoran's curator of collections, knew little about Jamieson when he first saw the Plague drawings at Franz Bader's gallery. "I looked at them," says Nygren, "and I found that I was crying."
Jamieson had studied with the muralists in Mexico; he had worked for "Fortune," for this paper and the government; in 1948, he won $2500 from the Pepsi-Cola Co. for the "Painting of the Year."
The drawings that he made during World War II are strong with dignity and comradeship, tenderness and loyalty. By the time he went to Vietnam "to bear witness as an artist," the "spreading and profound spiritual plague" that tortured him already had closed in.
Once his art had honored the clarities and sunlight of Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper. What makes this show so painful is that as it started darkening, as it lost its color, his art grew ever stronger. As he suffered it improved.
Jamieson who taught at the University of Maryland, knew well his art history. The bodies of his Vietnamese are the statues of the Greeks; tortured, they seem crucified; when barbed wired swirls around a severed and impaled head it is a crown of thorns.
On perhaps his darkest drawing, done on strips of acetate, Jamieson has writte a quotation from Artaud:
And the plague is a superior disease because it is a total crisis, after which all that remains is death or an extreme purification .
Perhaps on his last day he was reaching out for both.