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There aren’t many cities in the world where you can kill time waiting for a movie by walking through world-class galleries. That’s just one of the perks of living in DC.

Lauren and I went to see Lincoln at our usual movie theater in Chinatown…somehow, she got the time of the show wrong. She said it was 2:30, in fact it was 3:45. Lauren was wrong about a time. Lauren is never wrong about a time. Apocalyptic omen number one.

Conveniently across the street from the theater is the Smithsonian American Art Museum. We had almost two hours to occupy, and they had a great Civil War exhibit I’d been meaning to check out. Not to mention, it’s a perfect preamble to the movie.

Albert Bierstadt Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California¸1865 Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of the Birmingham Public Library Photograph by Amy Vaughters, Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Albert Bierstadt
Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California¸1865
Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of the Birmingham Public Library
Photograph by Amy Vaughters, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

From the start the exhibit’s theme is elusive, it comes in understanding that the art is a reflection of the war…something clearly not understood by one patron who loudly asked, “Where is all the carnage. I thought this was the Civil War?!”

The first painting is Albert Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley. I’ve seen this painting in books and photos…but never in person. It’s absolutely stunning. I’ve been in that valley countless times, it’s a sight that evokes joy and awe and amazement (more on that in another post) and this painting meets its subject.

From there the exhibit unfolds with several more landscape pictures, all gorgeous and demanding inspection and, perhaps, some introspection. Notably, Frederic Edwin Church’s pieces. Two of his pieces really struck me: Cotopaxi and Aurora Borealis. 

In Cotopaxi a giant volcano in Ecuador is spewing out smoke and lava…fire and brimstone…in front of a red blood setting sun. A wide plain stretches before the volcano only broken by a waterfall in the lush green foreground. On the placard next to the painting, one person called the smoke reminiscent of the remnants of a cannon barrage on the field of battle. There’s certainly an interpretation here. Two figures stand in the lush foreground, helpless in the face of the coming disaster. re: The Civil War. The apocalypse of 1861.

In Aurora a ship sits helpless, trapped in ice above the Arctic Circle. The northern lights dance in the sky above. At first glance the painting is beautiful…but deeper inspection reveals a disturbing picture. The boat is marooned, but not on land. It, and its crew, are perpetually frozen in a lifeless and despairing ocean. The northern lights indicate not beauty, but signals of disaster. Again the placard offers additional insight. During the Civil War, the northern lights were seen as “a divine omen relating to the conflict.”

Frederic Edwin Church Aurora Borealis, 1865 Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Eleanor Blodgett Photograph by Amy Vaughters, Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Frederic Edwin Church
Aurora Borealis, 1865
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Eleanor Blodgett
Photograph by Amy Vaughters, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Clearly there’s a deeper meaning to both pieces…and I didn’t even get into the Yosemite painting. But what jumped out at me is the way art not only reflects but projects anxiety. In America the world was falling apart in the late 1850’s and early 1860’s. Civil War brought doubt and confusion. It was the existential crisis of not just a nation, but the ideal of republican democracy. And here in the first walls of an exhibit 150 years later these paintings communicate those feelings across time. (btw, I didn’t even get to Church’s Comet)

But outside these walls we see these paintings everyday. As we enter the waning hours of human existence, according to the Mayans, we’ve been projecting the anxieties of our world through our art. Think zombies…The Walking Dead. Think disaster…2012. Think hopelessness…The Road. Think rednecks and Mormans bent on taking over the world…Doomsday Preppers.

American society has always been operating on the brink of catastrophe. That’s what happens when the masses set policy. It’s unpredictable and often more reactive than proactive. So it’s no wonder we’re fixed on the end of the world. And it’s no wonder the evangelical prophecy of rapture grew from the progressive roots of the industrial revolution. Even the Second Amendment…it’s really just a preparatory clause for the breakdown of civilization.

It may be the Mayans, it may be the fiscal cliff, it may be North Koreans with ICBM’s or it may be Honey Boo-Boo. Any one of those reasons and more may explain why we’ve been sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for…well…something lately. I’m not here to predict if we’ll all be here tomorrow reading this post, I’m just pointing out the similarities in anxiety between two epochs in American existence moments before seeing a movie about how we overcame ourselves to go on to greatness.

By the way…the movie is awesome. Go see it. Spoiler: He gets shot and killed in the end. That happened just four blocks from where we saw the movie. I love this city. And I have faith that it’ll be here tomorrow.

P.S.  In that almost two hours I only made it about a quarter of the way through the exhibit. I’ll be heading back and writing more. If we’re not all dead.

Tags : Albert BierstadtapocalypseAuroraCivil WarDoomsday PreppersFrederic Edwin ChurchMaya civilizationMayanSmithsonian American Art Museum
Kris Ankarlo

The author Kris Ankarlo

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