After having done most of his great portraits, bestowing a distinct life on each of the women who sat for him, Sargent seems to have been looking for something else to do. He travels the world and portrays it in a number of different styles. There are paintings of Italy that seem like finished architectural drawings, the lines clear, the colors muted; there are busy portraits of people sitting in their gardens, a multiplicity of pastel colors presented in somewhat broader brush strokes than Sargent had previously used. But there is one painting that stands out among these lesser Impressionist influenced paintings, and that is “Gassed”, an elegiac tribute to those wounded by gas in World War I. This painting might seem a mere magazine illustration because the drawing of the figures is not exact and because it seems to convey more information than it does artistically inspired emotion, but that would be to underestimate it, as the Imperial War Museum in London apparently does not, exhibiting the painting under glass as a solemn reminder of the Great War. Sargent used his formidable artistic skills to create an iconic representation of that war.
Now it would seem that to create something distinctive about that war would not be that difficult and certainly film has done that. There is the war in the trenches and the portrayal of that reaches back to at least the Twenties, so much so that it is jarring to see the major battle in “The Big Parade”, the great silent movie about World War I, having American troops proceed down a hill through a wood to engage the enemy. The image of trench warfare reaches to Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” with its long tracking shot of Kirk Douglas walking through the trenches. Or there is the image of squadrons of biplanes that was started off in “Wings”, also from the silent era. But it is not just its subject matter, which are gassed soldiers, a sight that was never to be repeated in warfare until recently although expected to happen in World War II, that makes “Gassed” memorable. It is how Sargent painted it that gives the picture its emotional power.
The line of men in the center of the picture, the blinded and those temporarily blinded, all wearing bandages across their eyes, are leading one another by having an arm on the shoulder of the man in front, the men superintended by a medical orderly, constitute a frieze in that they are connected to one another but each one having his own story of injury to tell. One soldier’s arm is also bandaged; another lifts his leg too high as if there is an obstacle to walk over; another is turning off the footpath. These are the various agonies of war, as would befit their portrayal in a Greek raised relief. The line of the wounded also recalls the dance of the dead, which were the grotesques who marched in line, holding on to one another for support, while they were in the last stages of dying from the Black Plague.
Surprising, however, is Sargent’s use of light. The air is clear, not shrouded in the fog of battle, and so the men are clearly seen. The sun in the background, whether rising or falling, is an important part of the picture because the sallow light it sheds on the entire landscape makes the picture somehow supernal, an eerie light betokening some great catastrophe that has changed history, even though the whole point of the picture is to report realistically on what men in this particular distress, trying to recover themselves from their gassing, look like and how they act. Even the title of the paintings reveals that it is reportage. While most Sargent paintings are given the name of their subjects or the places depicted, here the title is a reference to an action so horrible as to outreach or transform the light shed on the world.
The color palette Sargent uses in this picture is limited. The men are portrayed in the same greenish yellow that also describes the terrain through which they walk. They look somewhat bronzed, as if the were already statues of their dead selves. They also move down a narrow path between lines of dead bodies perhaps to meet up to the right of the picture with a similar line of men proceeding down a different path on the way to the same local aid station. The soldiers are dressed in drab and rumpled uniforms rather than in shiny ones festooned with ribbons; they are not warriors going off to a glorious death but are victims who face a grim, slow and painful death even if some survive. So the picture is very painterly rather than photographic in that the alternative line of gassed soldiers seems there to balance the picture and give it directionality, the minimal of a story, while photographs would be more interested in the textures of the uniforms and the surroundings. This limited use of color reminds the viewer of another iconic painting of war. Picasso’s “Guernica” deliberately abandons Picasso’s use of very many colors in his portraits of the same time so as to get the granularity of a photograph, though I must admit I have never been much of a fan of that painting because it seems too much of an imposition of Picasso’s own vocabulary, the screaming bull, onto a subject so repellent in its own right and deserving the respect of more adequate representation.
Indeed, after Sargent, photography and film take over the field of visualizing warfare. The most iconic image of the Second World War is Jack Rosenthal’s photo of raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi. That image was restaged for the photographer so that he could get the figures to stand as he wanted them so that one soldier is partly kneeling and the others are successively more upright. It could have been a pose for a statue, and a statue is what it in fact became the model for. The other image of World War II that has become iconic is the emaciated inmates of concentration camps staring out through the barbed wire, that recorded by both British and American cameramen. That image is so deeply ingrained in the modern psyche that as soon as the photos of emaciated inmates at Bosnian Serb prison camps in Bosnia were released in 1995, everyone around the world knew immediately that concentration camps had returned to Europe only fifty years after they had been eliminated forever.
So Sargent is at the end of a tradition that reaches back to Goya’s “The Ravages of War”, wherein painting does not represent military encounters or generals either triumphant or dying, but rather what happens to ordinary people, their pain, their mutilated bodies, their anguish, as a result of warfare. That tradition does not stretch farther back to Poussin’s “The Rape of the Sabine Women”, which also seems to portray a monumental historic event. Those women may resist their fate and are subdued by the Roman men, but they are not displayed as if in pain. Their fates are necessary rather than evil, that it will soon be over, the women given over to their new lives. The babies on the ground are crying but not hurt. There are no dead people, as there are in other Poussin paintings. The point about being gassed is that it is not quickly over for its victims and that it has a lasting impact on the world. And Sargent seems to know the monumentality of what he depicts, there being not much else he has to say about warfare, this being the only war painting of his that we have.