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It's hard to say how much Childe Hassam's The Fourth of July, 1916 unsettles me. Three days after the Allied offensive on the Somme began, we see in New York a great, blinding, patriotic, puffed-up flag orgy, the culmination of a day of festooning and bunting-ing, whilst the British and French were fighting forward at Thiepval, Mametz, and Montauban. This is a celebration of exceptionalism and isolation and independence unconnected with anything else. Expression without action. Three dozen expressions that amount to a stripey abstract.
And surely for many people it was that, and it seems somehow disgusting. But Hassam saw the orgy as a contribution. He saw the day as another Preparedness Parade. (The explicit subtitle: 'The Greatest Display of the American Flag Ever Seen in New York, Climax of the Preparedness Parade in May.' He doesn't make the chronology very clear.) These parades were held in 1916 and 1917 to raise awareness of the German threat in a neutral America recklessly off her war footing, and to raise money for those already fighting in Europe. They fascinated Hassam. They were the stretching exercises before the fight to come. When this picture was done, Fifth Avenue was the front line.
One is asked to believe that preparedness is a virtue and an end in itself. What else could anyone in that canvas have done but think brave thoughts and wave a flag out a window? Isn't that enough? The gesture is nothing and everything. For Hassam, it is everything. I have my doubts.
Hassam executed some thirty flag paintings before and during the war, but the timing (bad news from the front was making it into the papers) and setting (New York, my New York) of this picture, the very first one, draw me to it in embarrassment and curiosity. I look for unselfish patriotism where I'm told it's supposed to be, and I have to keep looking.