This year we are pleased to honor Memorial Day with the opening of our newest exhibition, The Joe Bonham Project: Drawing the Stories of America’s Wounded Veterans . The exhibition aims to keep the dedication, sacrifices and indomitable spirit of our wounded warriors present and accounted for with more than a hundred drawings and illustrations created during the time spent patients at VA Hospitals throughout the United States.
Few things trouble us more than being exiled from life. We all have a natural fear, despite religious and philosophic reassurances, of death. In life, we contend with less physical, yet equally unsettling realities— prison, emotional estrangement, divorce and geographical separations.
In war there is a fate combatants fear as much as the prospect of death, injury and separations—having their humanity minimized and ultimately forgotten. In 1938 Dalton Trumbo wrote an existentially searing WWI novel, Johnny Got His Gun. Trumbo’s idea came from a newspaper account of a visit by the Prince of Wales to a Canadian soldier suffering from the loss of both all his limbs and his entire face. These same catastrophic wounds, the result of an artillery blast, are borne by his fictional protagonist, Joe Bonham. Only his mind, still sharp and clear, is left as Bonham struggles with the nightmare of being trapped in a devastated body.
As great art and literature often do, Trumbo’s tale prefigures Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ writings in On Death and Dying. In Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun we follow Joe Bonham from anger and depression to ultimate acceptance. Unfortunately, his clarity, his call to be put on display in a glass box for the World to see the very real consequence of war, goes unanswered, and he is doomed to spend the remainder of his life unsung, and out of sight and mind.
During WWI Henry Tonks, a surgeon by training and a drawing instructor at the famous London Slade School of Art, created a body of incredibly sensitive pastel portraits of facially disfigured British Tommies. The loss of one’s humanity, in the form of our greatest connection to others, our face, is explored in Tonks’ pastels of soldiers before, during and after reconstructive surgeries. In her essay, Flesh Poems: Henry Tonks and the Art of Surgery, Dr. Suzannah Biernoff relates how, at the main British military hospital treating catastrophic wounds, those patients with facial disfigurements were ‘the loneliest of all Tommies’.