RT REVIEW | WESTCHESTER
The Imprint of a Phantom Army
A Review of ‘Artists of Deception,’ at Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack
“Convoy Crossing the Atlantic, 1944,” by Arthur Singer, is among the artworks in the “Ghost Army” exhibit.
By SYLVIANE GOLD
Published: April 19, 2013
- Donald Rumsfeld was wrong when he told soldiers in Kuwait, “You go to war with the Army you have.” If you’re clever, audacious and maybe a little bit bizarre, you can deploy an army you don’t have — one created by artists, actors and sound technicians — to fool the enemy.
Collection of Nate Dahl
“Luxembourg City, 1945,” by George Vander Sluis.
Collection of Peter Dowd.
“Creative Cycling, Paris 1944,” by Victor Dowd.
The once-secret exploits of just such a force, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, are being recounted at theEdward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack in a lively and sometimes beautiful exhibition. “Artists of Deception: The Ghost Army of World War II” is an unusual melding of art and history, using vintage drawings, paintings, photographs and souvenirs to follow the 379 camouflage artists of this 1,100-man unit through the war.
There are, alas, none of their inflatable tanks or dummy artillery guns on view. And we don’t hear any of the accompanying sound effects or scripted radio exchanges. But we do see their fake insignia and well-used sewing kits. We do hear them recollecting their experiences in a short video. And we can admire the German grenade box that Ned Harris repurposed for his art supplies.
He and the other soldiers of the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion carried their paints and pencils to stateside training camps in 1943, to the English countryside where they massed for the invasion in 1944, to picturesque though battle-scarred areas of France and Luxembourg and ultimately, in 1945, to Germany. When not stage-managing mirages to give the Germans the idea that whole divisions were posted where they weren’t, these men, recruited from ad agencies and art schools and the like, sketched and painted and painted and sketched.
A dapper fellow named Bill Blass, who’d altered his uniform so it fit better, made fashion drawings. These add a bit of unlikely glamour to “Artists of Deception.” But for the most part, the works in the show depict the here-and-now of war.
We see earnest, still unfinished faces in portraits and self-portraits. (Do they look unfinished because they’re so young, or because their artistic skills are not yet fully developed?) We see the interminable stretches of down time — Mr. Blass absorbed in his reading, captured in ink by Bob Tompkins; groups of soldiers loitering on the deck of a transport in “Convoy Crossing the Atlantic, 1944,” one of several exquisite watercolors by the noted bird illustrator Arthur Singer. There are pictures of card games, of laundry hung out to dry, of G.I.’s just waiting around.
Boredom begets comedy, and there’s lots of humor in “Artists of Deception.” Jack Masey caricatured everyone in the outfit and created a kind of yearbook — he called it “You on KP,” although the selection in Nyack doesn’t include anyone peeling potatoes. It does include Mr. Blass wearing an ascot with his uniform, as well as several other sharply delineated characters. George Vander Sluis depicted someone known as “Sak” decked out as Sophie Tucker for one of the 23rd’s many entertainments. During a brief stint in Paris in 1944, Victor Dowd noticed a pair of comical bicycle riders and sketched them in pencil.
Yes, there was a war on, and the historians credit the Ghost Army’s phony maneuvers with preventing significant numbers of Allied casualties. But these young men were also on the adventure of their lives, and this exhibit has charming pictures of winding village streets and scenic panoramas — typical artist-abroad stuff. Mr. Vander Sluis’s watercolor “Luxembourg, 1945” renders the city’s unique topography as a jumble of vibrant hues. Alvin Shaw’s serene ink drawing “Metz, 1945” depicts the classic postcard view across the Moselle.
One landscape recalls a wintry night of guard duty, when John Jarvie spied his co-watchman, Keith Williams, apparently up to something. He found that Mr. Williams had secreted three tiny watercolor tabs in his watch fob and was busy recording the peaked roofs and banked snow before them with the chopped-off tip of a brush. The watch fob, the brush end and the painting aren’t in the show, but Mr. Jarvie’s later watercolor, “Belgium in the Snow,” is.
Although the 603rd was spared direct experience of the worst horrors of the war, its artists documented the aftermath in several renderings of a bombed-out church in Normandy, a destroyed bridge in Germany, and refugees at a displaced persons camp. Afterwards, they came home, some (like Ellsworth Kelly) to careers in the arts, some not.
Their story is told in more detail in Rick Beyer’s documentary film “The Ghost Army,”which is scheduled for broadcast on May 21 on PBS. It provided the impetus for the recent, very different exhibition at the Historical Society in Rockland County, and for the current show, curated by Mr. Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles. Ms. Sayles’s father, Bill, is among the 17 artists represented in “Artists of Deception,” and one of only five who are still around to remind us of the finer arts of war.
“Artists of Deception: The Ghost Army of World War II,” Edward Hopper House Art Center, 82 North Broadway, Nyack, through June 9. Information: edwardhopperhouse.org or (845) 358-9774.
A version of this review appeared in print on April 21, 2013, on page WE11 of the New York edition with the headline: The Imprint of a Phantom Army.
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