Dave Klemencic

Art. Music. Words.
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Artist of the Week: Kerr Eby

Kerr Eby was a Canadian-American artist and illustrator, known primarily for his charcoal drawings and lithographs depicting soldiers at war.  Born in Japan in 1890 to missionary parents, Eby served in the first World War  and covered the second as an artist-correspondent.  He generated many sketches on-site and from memory during World War I that were later refined and worked into lithographs and finished pieces.  These were collected and published in the book WAR, which can still be found today online and in libraries. (the VCU library has a copy)  These pieces are haunting not for their graphic content, but for the mood and atmosphere they evoke.


The image above, from Eby’s WWI work (and published in WAR) depicts a cloud that was said to follow the retreating column of soldiers for days.

Eby served in an ambulance crew and later as a camofleur, creating art independently.  He returned from the war deeply affected by the experience, and it became the primary subject of of his work for the rest of his life.

As World War II broke out, Eby attempted to re-enlist in the service, but was denied because of his age.  He began working as an artist-correspondent under Bell Laboratories, and traveled to the Pacific with the US Marines.  Eby landed in the amphibious assaults at Tarawa and Guadalcanal, and from there created some of his most powerful and stirring works.

While on Bougainville, Eby contracted a tropical disease from which he passed in 1946.

Much of his work can be readily found on the internet, and many of his best pieces such as “Ghost Trail”, seen above, were circulated in a collection of combat artists’ work sponsored by the US Army last year.

His drawing style is quite realistic, while still having a fluid, sketchy and organic quality.  It is clear in many of the pieces that great care has been taken to accurately depicting the men and materiel, and Eby doesn’t shy away from the gritty surroundings through which he passed. The later works seem to become ever more personal, with shocking close depictions of wounded and dead soldiers in the surf, those around them struggling to carry on.

Eby has long been a great influence on my work, for the sobering attitude he has taken towards war and his attempt to convey the seriousness of the subject.  The work seems to encourage thoughtfulness and reverence towards the high cost these men had paid, and an awareness that war is a terrible thing, not merely an exciting adventure.  While I have little in my own life to compare directly to as far as experience, I feel a profound respect for both the subject of war, the many servicemen who have given themselves to a greater cause, and Eby himself for creating and sharing his work with the world.

The tradition of modern combat artists is a long and storied one, from Winslow Homer’s works during the Civil War to the many active servicemen today that continue to translate their experiences into visual artworks.  This sort of work can be traced back to the very beginnings or art, and there remains a great respect for those who risk their lives to document the horrors of war.

Sources and links for more info about Kerr Eby:

http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USMC/USMC-C-Tarawa/index.html

http://www.history.navy.mil/ac/artist/e/eby/eby1.htm

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Posted in Art History 6 years, 5 months ago at 10:31 pm.

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