Artists of Washington State During World War II

  • By David F. Martin
  • Posted 1/05/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8435

In 1935, a group of artists in New York City formed the American Artists Congress as a response to the growth of Fascism throughout the world. Three Washington state artists signed the original Call of the organization: Kenneth Callahan (1905-1986), Thomas Handforth (1897-1948),  and Barney Nestor (1903-1974). Several other regional artists would eventually align themselves with the organization and participated in their exhibitions. Like their contemporaries, some Washington state artists addressed themes of war in their work, either in support of the effort or through anti-war and pacifist imagery.

Art with Social and Political Content

When the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum held its National Membership Exhibition through the Portland Branch of the American Artists Congress in 1937, the roster included 31 artists from both Oregon and Washington states. Of the 68 works of art exhibited, five have titles that imply themes with social or political content: from Washington, Peter Camfferman (1890-1957), Tumult, 1936 and Morris Graves (1910-2001) Defiance as well as Oregon’s Albert Runquist (1894-1971) Law and Order and Arthur Runquist (1891-1971) Sitdown and Ethiopia.

The major venue for Northwest artists during that period was the Annual of Northwest Art put on by the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). The catalogues for the exhibitions held during the war-years lists only a handful of works that suggests political content. This may be due to the fact that some of the artists, such as George Tsutakawa (1910-1997), were actually serving in the armed forces. It is also very likely that the museum disdained violent imagery. Even those artists who did not serve sometimes created works that reflected their political beliefs as well as expressing their concerns for the working class and social inequity. However, very few appear to have depicted the physical horrors of war or if they did, they rarely exhibited such works.

Wrath of Gog

Of the four well-known artists associated with this region at that time, Mark Tobey(1890-1976), Morris Graves, Guy Anderson (1906-1998), and Kenneth Callahan, very few addressed these themes in their works. One exception is Callahan’s the Wrath of Gog, which he painted around 1942. Inspired by Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, ca. 1820, this gruesome apocalyptic nightmare is one of his only known works to allude to the horrors of war. It is not known why the others did not address these themes in their work. Tobey’s Bahai faith and Graves’s pacifism may have been partly responsible.

However, several talented Washington state artists did incorporate their political beliefs into their work. Two of the most noted were Abe Blashko (b. 1921) and Pieter van Dalen (1897-1975).

Abe Blashko

A Seattle native, Blashko began producing drawings that display a mature awareness of social injustice around 1935, influenced by works of art he had seen in books borrowed from the Seattle Public Library and magazines such as The Masses. His older sister Beccy, also an artist, encouraged him to draw while he was bedridden and recuperating from severe asthma for extended periods of time.

In 1938, at the age of 18, he became the youngest artist ever to have a solo exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. He exhibited 25 highly detailed drawings with strong, socially satiric subject matter often depicting the powerful, heartless capitalists in an unflattering manner while elevating the working class to an exalted position in society.

After learning of the murder of numerous family members in Poland, Blashko produced a series of politically charged color drawings that he titled The Ratmen. Dating from 1942, these works are among the most searing condemnations of Nazi atrocities ever produced by an American artist during that time. The Nazi soldiers are depicted as grotesque, mutant rat people inflicting torture and violence on their innocent victims.

The drawings were so graphic that they were not exhibited in Seattle until the 1990s. One of the drawings was reproduced in the national publication, American Artist in 1942 after the editor declined to reproduce all seven works that made up the series, fearing they were too controversial. Ineligible for military service due to his fragile health, Blashko supported himself at various labor-related occupations before moving to New York City in 1943 where he still resides.

Pieter van Dalen

Pieter van Dalen was born in Holland and came to the U.S. before World War I. He served in that war on a destroyer ship and produced comic strips for local Navy newspapers. Both Blashko and van Dalen’s work express similar concerns although unlike Blashko, van Dalen worked almost exclusively in oil. His reverence for the workingman is evident in his compositions, often reflecting a poignant social awareness. During the Depression, he worked with the Federal Art Projects in Seattle as an easel painter and mural assistant.

His politically charged works were not exhibited in regional venues like the Northwest Annuals at SAM, although his landscapes and less controversial subjects were accepted. His paintings sometimes depict corrupt dictators and politicians as pigs, wallowing in the money and power attained from the blood of the soldiers and laborers who were used as pawns in their evil schemes.

Soldier Art

Some Washington state artists actually served as soldiers in World War II and under extremely harrowing conditions managed to produce work during combat. Those extant works are generally smaller in size, as the artist/soldiers had limited access to art materials and often carried small sheets of paper and sawed-off brushes, pens and pencils that would fit into their fatigue pockets.

In 1945, The Infantry Journal, inc. produced a small catalogue titled Soldier Art to accompany an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The catalogue illustrates the 215 examples of works by national soldiers who produced works during the war. From Washington state, the following artists were included; Sgt. Catherine Evans Vasquez (1902-2006), Sgt. Rudolph Bundas (1911-2003), and S/Sargent Irwin Caplan (1919-2007), .

Rudolph Bundas and Irwin Caplan

Bundas and Caplan both became highly respected watercolorists and commercial artists in Seattle after the war. Bundas had trained at the Cleveland Art Institute before arriving in Seattle in 1942 where he was stationed at Ft. Lawton. He produced a series of murals for the Officers Club at Ft. Lawton comprising 23 canvases depicting the main military campaigns in the United States from the Indian Wars through the World War II. Unfortunately, these murals have been painted over, removed, or destroyed without record. He also executed several drawings of his fellow soldiers that depict their physical and mental anguish.

In addition to his activities as a painter, Irwin Caplan, won national awards as a cartoonist, creating “Famous Last Words” for the Saturday Evening Post as well as having his work published in major national magazines such as Life and Time. His wartime service influenced several paintings including The Sword & The Plowshare painted as a sergeant in the US Army in 1943. This moving, highly sensitive work depicts a young soldier dressed in combat uniform, longing for and protecting his rural Northwest home.

Jess Cauthorn

Jess Cauthorn (1923-2005), one of the region’s finest watercolorists, also worked as a commercial artist and became a beloved teacher for several generations of Northwest painters. As an 18-year old soldier, he produced numerous works while fighting in the war.

They document his activities from shipping out, going through combat and finally into victory. His drawing The Men Who Took Manila depicts himself in uniform as the second soldier in a line of four.

Robert Engard

Spokane’s Robert Engard (1915-2003), one of the state’s few Precisionist painters, produced several large-scale watercolors inspired by events he had witnessed as a soldier in the war. His highly skillful work depicting Spokane’s rural and industrial landscape was exhibited in regional and national venues.

After teaching lithography at the Spokane Art Center for several years during the Depression, he enlisted in the army in 1942. His Cathedral at Foggia depicts not only the physical destruction of war but by including the image of drying laundry hanging on a line, he illustrates the violent intrusion on the human activities of daily life endured by the local residents.

Another work, Atlas Mountain Spa, 1943 is an ironic albeit commanding view of a health spa in the Atlas Mountains at Bovhinifia in Algeria, Northern Africa. The spa had been turned into a makeshift military hospital and it was while recuperating from a serious injury in this hospital that he made the initial sketch on site, completing the painting in his studio in Spokane in 1947.

Danny Pierce

Painter/Printmaker Danny Pierce (b. 1920) is one of the leading figures in Northwest art. He has exhibited in major international museums, many of which have his work in their permanent collections. He was just beginning his career in the arts when he joined the army as a combat soldier and interrogator. During the war, he met his future wife, Julia Rasmussen of Kent, Washington, who was serving as an army nurse.

Pierce participated in the liberation of the concentration camp at Mauthausen-Gusen in upper Austria. For his services, he was awarded a Purple Heart, the Combat Infantry Badge, the Good Conduct medal, and a Bronze Star.  He witnessed these atrocities firsthand and made several on-the- spot watercolors of the devastated survivors. After the war, Pierce developed his impressive career as an artist as well as being an instructor at Hunter College (New York City), Seattle University, and the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. In 1959, under a Carnegie Grant, he founded the first art department at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. From his studio in Kent, Washington, he continues to make paintings, prints, and original books.

Women Painters

Women artists participated in the war effort as well. Many produced works that contained relevant subject matter, if not through direct combat. Male and female artists organized the Washington State Artists Council for Defense, offering their services in several capacities.

The Women Painters of Washington, an organization formed in 1930, held an extremely successful war bond auction at Frederick & Nelson’s department store in 1945 raising substantial funds. One of the founders, Elizabeth Warhanik (1880-1968) volunteered as an air raid warden and First Aid instructor as well as maintaining a large Victory Garden.

Ebba Rapp and Blanche Morgan Losey

Women Painters of Washington members such as Ebba Rapp (1909-1985) and Blanche Morgan Losey (1912-1981) produced several war-related works. Although she was a lifelong Pacifist, Rapp created a lithograph titled Victory For Freedom, which is in direct contrast to the numerous studies she made of peaceful animals, particularly lambs, that held profound spiritual symbolism for her.

Losey produced a powerfully suggestive watercolor titled Bombardier’s View. The composition incorporates a menacing observation of a vulnerable, bucolic Northwest landscape positioned in range as a possible target for oblivion. She also contributed a unique work for the War Poster Competition held at the Seattle Art Museum from July 8 to August 9, 1942 (and won by Irwin Caplan). Losey's design incorporates the use of Surrealist imagery and prefigures the later illustrations of the psychedelic 1960s music and anti-war posters.

Frances Blakemore

Frances Blakemore, nee Frances Wismer Baker (1906-1997) was a truly unique artist who had important ties to both Seattle and Japan. She was raised in Washington state and attended the University of Washington where she received her B.A. in Fine Arts in 1935. Known initially for her blockprints, Blakemore was included in the first exhibition of the Northwest Printmakers Society in 1929. She continued to exhibit her works locally and nationally even after her initial move to Japan in 1935.

She was commissioned by the U.S. Office of War Information’s Central Pacific Operation to produce propaganda illustrations for the war effort. These leaflets, called “Paper Bombs” were used as psychological warfare, dropped by the thousands over Japan. The leaflets were created to warn civilians to stay away from military installations and to instill fear and paranoia in Japanese citizens against their government’s actions. Spending the war years in Hawaii, Blakemore returned to Japan and along with her husband, attorney Thomas Blakemore, made substantial contributions to the restructuring of post-war Japan, both legally and culturally.

Spencer Moseley and Fred Anderson

Spencer Moseley (1925-1998) and Fred Anderson (1917-1991), both of whom would become important regional artists as well as faculty members of the University of Washington’s Art Department, created works that contain political content.

Moseley made several sketches of wartime Seattle and he caricatured the political figures of the day including Hitler and Roosevelt. Anderson’s powerful, elegiac lithograph titled Dirge creates a totem of struggling soldiers and civilians placed within a devastated landscape.

After the War

Many of the artists who had served in the war, returned to the Northwest and developed significant careers as artists and teachers. Those who addressed these themes without military service also deserve acknowledgment for their individual and unique contributions.

Throughout the ages, artists have reflected the times in which they lived. We have the opportunity to observe and learn from their insight and hopefully in our current political climate, we can still strive toward attaining a more tolerant and peaceful world.


Sources: National Membership Exhibition, Portland Branch, American Artists Congress, inc., Exhibition catalogue, 1937; "Soldier Art," Fighting Forces Series, Infantry Journal, 1945; Archive of Frances Blakemore, Michiyo Morioka (biographer), and the Blakemore Foundation, Seattle, Washington; Artists Against War and Fascism: Papers of the First American Artists' Congress ed. by Matthew Baigell & Julia Williams (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986); David Martin telephone interviews and correspondence with Hendrik van Dalen (son of Pieter van Dalen), May-July 2006; David Martin telephone interviews and email correspondence with Tobey Callahan (son of Kenneth Callahan),  January-March 2007; David Martin interviews with Abe Blashko, Rudolph Bundas,  Irwin Caplan, Jess Cauthorn, Robert Engard, Danny Pierce, Catherine Evans Vasquez (interview notes in possession of David Martin), September-November, 1996 at Martin-Zambito Fine Art in relationship to the exhibition, "Northwest Art During World War II" held in November 1996, at Martin-Zambito Fine Art, Seattle, Washington.

Related Topics:   Visual Arts | War & Peace

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