Dunn’s WWI exhibition overwhelms writer

Dunn's WWI exhibition overwhelms writer By Bob Karolevitz I don't normally promote an event or a particular attraction in this column which I try to keep sort of light-hearted � but this is a rare exception.

On Armistice Day I participated in the opening of the Harvey Dunn exhibition of his World War I paintings at the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings, and I was overwhelmed.

The works of the late great Dakota-born artist � on loan from the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution � are not only stirring reminders of man's inhumanity to man, but the showing is especially appropriate at this time of national tragedy.

I was on the program because some 30 years ago I wrote Where Your Heart Is, the biography of Dunn. Although the book is now out-of-print, it tells how the 34-year-old illustrator of note joined seven other carefully selected and talented artists on the battle fields of Europe to depict on paper and canvas the war as it really was.

They were all commissioned as captains in the Army Engineers and were assigned to General John J. Pershing's American Expeditionary Force in France to sketch and paint the Doughboys' participation in the international conflict. In Dunn's own words, their job was to record "the shock and loss and bitterness and blood of it."

They had just one restriction. They were not supposed to paint portraits of generals or to glorify them.

Harvey Dunn was a big man � at least six feet, two inches tall � and he carried a large scroll-type sketch box with him as he roamed the front lines and shell-torn villages at Seishprey, Cunel, in the Argonne Forest and along the Marne River. He went where the war was, and his drawings show it.

I have long been impressed by his much-reproduced sketch of a soldier labeled The Machine Gunner. My father � from what I was able to get out of him before his death � was a machine gunner in a tank "over there," so I have been personally attracted to that particular piece. But all of Dunn's paintings � of street fighters, No Man's Land, of captured Huns and stunned refugees � reveal the intensity of the time.

Maybe you don't know about Harvey Dunn?

Many South Dakotans are familiar with his prairie scenes, especially the painting titled The Prairie Is My Garden. They know little about him personally.

He was born on a Dakota Territory homestead along Redstone Creek in Kingsbury County south of Manchester on March 8, 1884. As a youngster he spent so much time drawing pictures on the blackboard of the one-room Esmond Township school that it was said the teacher had to hide her chalk box to conserve her supply.

Although his father wanted to keep the strapping boy on the farm after he finished the equivalent of nine grades at Esmond, he made his way � with his mother's blessing � to Brookings where he enrolled in the preparatory school at South Dakota Agricultural College. There he came under the tutelage of Ada B. Caldwell, a talented young art teacher, who, after two years of high school-level classes, wisely knew she could help him no further.

She recommended that he go on to the Chicago Art Institute. Once more his father thought he should be thinking about making a living and not making pictures, but his mother disagreed. In the Windy City Harvey worked as a janitor and studio aide to earn his tuition as he reveled in the opportunity to draw and paint without being interrupted by agricultural chores.

He even posed nude for a sculptoring class to make a few bucks � but he quit abruptly when a young lady, on whom he had a brief crush, enrolled in the course.

There's much, much more to the Harvey Dunn story: how he was accepted at Howard Pyle's School of Illustration at Wilmington, Delaware; his marriage to his wife, Tulla, with N.C. Wyeth as their best man; and how he opened his own studio and became a much sought-after illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's Weekly, Scribner's and Harper's during the heyday of magazines.

And then came World War I!

Dunn volunteered his services, and the result was the paintings now on display at the South Dakota Art Museum. They're forceful � and they'll be there through March 25, 2002.

Go see them!

© Robert F. Karolevitz

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>