Felix de Weldon walkway (U.S. Navy photo by Lindsay Church)
By David A. Smith, Waco Tribune-Herald arts columnist
Aug. 21, 2014
At the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, there is a long hallway — actually a building in itself — constructed to connect a newer building that dates from the 1970s to the historic and beautiful grey stone Alfred Thayer Mahan Hall built in 1904.
The corridor itself has all the charm of an airport terminal save for one element: All along one wall are bas relief sculptures by renowned artist Felix De Weldon.
De Weldon was born in Austria in 1907 and came to America by way of London and Canada. He served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and became a citizen after the war. As a sculptor he’s best known for creating the massive Marine Corps Memorial, a work that reproduces the famous flag raising photograph from the battle of Iwo Jima and is installed near Arlington Cemetery across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.
The 12 sculptures here in the hallway are scenes from American wars, starting with two from the American Revolution and proceeding chronologically through Vietnam. Some are more than 5 feet wide and almost 4 feet high. They look massively heavy. (A couple are half as narrow but all are hung in heavy, boxy frames.)
They’re actually made of a resin instead of stone or clay and are lighter than they look. Altogether they lend the hallway a visually interesting element it would not otherwise have.
Walking alongside them, one inevitably realizes that the purpose of this art cannot be beauty. De Weldon is no slouch as an artist and the pieces are skillfully done, but “beautiful” is not the word that comes to mind. Instead, their purpose is inspirational, and also to convey a sense of historical context to anyone in their presence.
There could just as well be words painted on the walls that say something to the effect that “You are one element in a long historical procession. You may be an individual, but remember by being here you’re part of something far bigger and more important.”
But, as the cliché has it, a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this case art sends a complex message much more powerfully and subtly than do words.
As you walk along with the historical flow of the sculpture — maybe even more so as you’re pulled backward into time by walking in the other direction — you’re taken out of yourself. By reminding you that there is something more important at stake here than individual lives and that individuals just like you, the viewer, have given their lives in these conflicts gone by, this art guards against hubris, a concern of soldiers going all the way back to Achilles.
Just down the hill, the college’s oldest building now houses its museum, which includes among an impressive collection of historical artifacts, a good collection of naval art. Cannon muzzles flash, sails billow, and 200 years of naval heroes fix you with calm, serious eyes. Here is art serving the same purpose as De Weldon’s sculptures.
Novelist Salman Rushdie once commented that the cultural importance of art “derives not from its success in a ratings war but from its success in telling us things about ourselves that we hear from no other quarter.”
Those who come to study strategy at the Naval War College read many things and hear lots of lecturers. But it may be that from the art that they encounter in the halls and in the museum they learn the most fundamental truth about the profession of arms and their place within history.
Posted (with permission) by Daniel S. Marciniak
Article originally published at http://www.wacotrib.com/entertainment/accesswaco/david_a_smith/arts-powerful-naval-war-college-sculptures-teach-inspire-us-all/article_c21a9ad2-d6d1-5705-ac0f-1dbe8026ea95.html