"The Indelible Image: Photographs of War, 1846 to the Present," which goes on view today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is just about unbearable. Everyone should see it. Those who grin delightedly at the thought of bombs descending on Muammar Qaddafi, and pacifists and Rambo fans, and parents who provide their kids with rocket toys and cap guns ought to go and see it. It is not a show that preaches.
What it teaches is the truth, or some portion of the truth. Its 220 photographs are not war itself. They do not moan or stink. They are veiled by the beauty -- there is no other word for it -- that has earned them their inclusion in Frances Fralin's exhibition. They engage us from a distance; otherwise we'd scream.
One old and quiet picture Fralin has selected -- she does not know who took it -- shows a barefoot Filipino soldier kneeling in a ditch in a field of cracked mud. The caption reads: "Insurgent With Lower Part of Face and Right Shoulder Shot Away, Still Alive, March 13, 1899." Another Filipino, Wilfredo (Willie) Vicoy, 45, the veteran war photographer, was shot to death by rebels not very far away just four days ago. Their dyings must have been pretty much the same.
But war art has changed utterly.
Its poetry has thinned. The battle songs that Homer sang, and Hemingway's and Shakespeare's, now sound almost pretty. Today we hear instead rushed and anxious whispers, and explosions in the background, on the radio news. War's corpses are called corpses now; until World War I they were the fallen or the slain. War's imagery has altered too. The camera is responsible. The pictures it produces, those records of an instant, sometimes seem to be both in and out of time.
Some in Fralin's show depict war before the bullet. Almost naked warriors are preparing for a charge, carrying spears and shields; they were photographed in New Guinea in 1961. The mutilated body of Sgt. Wylliams, G Troop, 7th Cavalry, has been pierced by Indian arrows: He was killed in Kansas by the Cheyenne in 1867. Warriors must have seen such scenes ten thousand years ago.
Artists saw them too. We know that from their pictures. Images of soldiers bearing pointed spears were sketched in Ice Age caves, and carved in stone Egyptian tombs, and painted in the Renaissance by Leonardo and Uccello. But such pictures now feel stylized, emptied of immediacy. We look at at those Uccellos and think about Uccello. When we look at Sgt. Wylliams it is as if we were there.
The waste and pain and stench of war used to be a secret, except of course to warriors. During World War I, the British painters sent to France to record the battles there were told by the War Office they must not depict corpses. The newspapers were censored too -- in Germany, in France, in America and England, none dared show the dead.
That changed in 1943. Fralin quotes William Manchester's account:
"In Washington's new Pentagon building, officers studied the pictures of dead Marines on Tarawa, debating whether to release them to the press. They decided to do it; it was time, they felt, to shock the home front into understanding the red harvest of combat. The published photographs touched off an uproar. Nimitz received sacks of mail . . . and editorials demanded a congressional investigation. The men on Tarawa were puzzled. The photographers had been discreet. No dismembered corpses were shown, no faces with chunks missing, no flies crawling on eyeballs; virtually all the pictures were of bodies in Marine uniforms face down on the beach."
The Corcoran's exhibit includes scenes far more horrific: One taken by an unknown photographer in China during the Boxer Rebellion, circa 1900, shows the executioner Li Hung Chang showing off his sword and 14 severed heads. Seven naked communists, killed in Paris in the Commune of 1871, lie naked in their coffins. The show is filled with pictures -- from a dozen different wars and as many nations -- of the dead and dying. But that is not all it shows.
It also shows what might be called the camaraderie, the fun of war. Soldiers flirt and preen, officers play bridge, South Pacific GIs pose in grass skirts. It is a sunny day in 1911: Citizens in Texas, dressed up in their Sunday best, have come to a gazebo on our side of the Rio Grande to watch the Mexican Revolution being fought on the other shore.
A number of these photographs were made by amateurs, by soldiers, from America and France, Japan and North Vietnam. Many more were taken -- this is after all an art show -- by hugely skilled photographers whose well-known names we know. Mathew Brady, Felice Beato, Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Miller, Eugene Smith, Larry Burrows, A.V. Casasola, Dmitri Kessel, Lewis Hine, Penny Tweedie, Constance Stuart Larrabee and Gustave Le Gray are among those represented.
Frances Fralin's vision rules this exhibition. It is she who picked the show.
She sort of backed into the art world. Fralin, in the late '60s, joined the old Washington Gallery of Modern Art as secretary to its young director, Walter Hopps. She worked with him and learned. When Hopps was later named director of the Corcoran, Fralin went along. She has had some first-rate teachers there: Jane Livingston, John Gossage. She is now an assistant curator. She's become a skillful scholar. The catalogue accompanying "Washington Photography: Images of the Eighties," an exhibit she arranged in 1982, contained the best essay on Washington photography that has so far been written. The catalogue for her war show is among the strongest books the Corcoran's ever done.
Fralin's exhibition works on many levels. It is a history of wars and of war photography. It is an exercise in esthetics and in connoisseurship. It may even be itself a work of art.
Anyone who sees 100,000 photographs can learn to spot a good one. Fralin and her colleagues -- Jane Livingston, William Dunlap, Alex and Caroline Castro -- have seen at least that many. Anyone with access to the archives of the Pentagon, the Associated Press or Life magazine could have picked a war show. Fralin's might have been larger, smaller, different -- but there is scarce a picture in it that I would have left out.
It takes at least two hours to peer into these pictures. The effect is overwhelming, and yet the show is not a blur. Time and time again the images presented linger in the mind:
1867: A still life of a linen shirt pierced by bloody bullet holes; Emperor Maximilian of Mexico wore it on the day of his execution.
1861 and 1907: 2nd Lt. J. Woods Price of Co. F, 19th Virginia Cavalry, poses proudly with his pistol; 46 years later, now a white-bearded old man at a cavalry reunion, he picks it up again.
1891: A campsite on the rolling South Dakota prairies: The teepees of the Sioux stretch to the horizon. John C.H. Grabill, the man who took the picture, filled his work with quiet. The air is soft with wood smoke, the horses of the warriors are drinking at the river.
1907: A soldier's bed and locker, Fort Wood, N.Y. The photographer, unknown, made a shot composed as crisply as any Walker Evans.
1918: A German tank has hit a mine. The tank looks like some strange piece of fruit that's been cut in two.
1942, Aug. 24: A bomb has just this instant exploded on the deck of the USS Enterprise. Robert Frederick Read somehow snapped its picture. A second later he was dead.
1940s: The coastal waters of Japan. A U.S. submarine has surfaced. An unknown submariner has photographed Mount Fuji through the calibrations of his periscope.
1979: Rosario Church, El Salvador. Alain Keler has photographed a legend written by a mourner on the glass lid of a coffin. It reads: "I love you. I will never forget you. I will tell my daughter about you when she grows up and can understand."
1984: The last photograph on view, also from El Salvador, was taken by James Nachtwey. It is unforgettable. I will not try to describe it, except to say it summarizes war.
The Gannett Foundation, at the recommendation of the publishers of USA Today, put up $60,000 for Fralin's exhibition. Later it provided an additional $10,000 so the Corcoran would not have to charge admission for "The Indelible Image," which will remain on view through June 22.