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In 1944, Marion Greenwood held a red-drenched paintbrush to an easel in the operating room of Atlantic City’s Thomas England Hospital. “Neurosurgery” depicts a scalpel-wielding doctor and his assistants bent over a soldier. The eerie green of their medical scrubs forms a nimbus around the painting’s bloody center. Across the world, Anne Poor sketched bandaged men being lifted into planes on a Pacific airfield. One drawing features a soldier draped over a medic in a desperate, dance-like embrace.
Greenwood and Poor were war artist-correspondents in the World War II US Army Art Program, launched in 1943. The Army, the Navy, and the Marines collaborated with Life Magazine, Associated American Artists, and other organizations to send artists into battlefields, factories, and medical facilities to document the war. The pharmaceutical company Abbott Laboratories funded varied aspects of the programs, including Greenwood’s two-year stint in Atlantic City. The thousands of paintings and drawings these artists produced are charged with their emotional responses to war.
In 2000, Brian Lanker and Nicole Newnham drew attention to this neglected world with They Drew Fire: Combat Artists of World War II, a book and PBS film. In his introduction, Lanker expresses surprise that the government gave artists free rein to “tell an honest and often brutal truth about the nature of war.” A greater surprise for me was the absence of Greenwood and Poor — the only two women artist-correspondents in the US Army’s program — intrepid adventurers who repeatedly campaigned to be sent to the front. Poor was interviewed for the project, but she only appears as a name in the acknowledgements, not on the list of war artists.
Another “honest and often brutal truth” is that women’s experiences in the military have long been invisible. Empowered by the #MeToo movement, women have only begun to address this erasure as well as sexism in the armed forces.
Perhaps the authors neglected Greenwood and Poor because they didn’t literally draw fire. But this narrow focus on the battlefield obscures women’s contributions. Male dominance of art history only aids this neglect, argue Paula E. Calvin and Deborah A. Deacon in American Women Artists in Wartime: 1976–2010. Men’s portrayals of war, they write, “lionize the winners, trivialize the losers, and largely ignore the women from both sides of a conflict.” In Beyond the Battlefield: Women Artists of the Two World Wars, Catherine Speck offers another way to recognize women’s work: expand the “geography of what constitutes a war-torn landscape.”
Greenwood and Poor, like many artists, supported the war. But making art during World War II transcended Rosie the Riveter’s “We can do it” patriotism. As Adolf Hitler devastated Europe, he sold off or destroyed “degenerate” works by Picasso, Klee, Miró, Ernst, and others. To create was to fight fascism and reclaim the very fabric of civilization. Arguments for a just war of good versus evil, argues art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen, was a “mixed blessing” in its effects on US conduct in later wars. But at the time, she adds, it was “inevitable, even necessary.”
There were plenty of women eager to bring their artistry to the war effort. Greenwood wrote to George Biddle, Chairman of the War Art Advisory Committee, to recommend 20 women artists. Not only was her suggestion ignored, but two other artists initially included in the program, Lucia Wiley and Doris Rosenthal, were cut.
Based on my archival research into Greenwood’s life and conversations with Poor’s niece, Anna Poor, it appears that the two women never met. Yet their paths often ran parallel.
Greenwood, born in 1909 to a working-class Irish-American family in Brooklyn, was well known as a muralist and easel painter before the war. She entered the Art Students League at age 15. After a stint at Yaddo, she embarked for France at 19 with cash from a commissioned portrait of one of the artist colony’s founders. At 23, Greenwood became the first woman to paint a mural in Mexico, followed by a fresco project overseen by Diego Rivera in 1934–36. Returning to the US, she painted numerous murals for the New Deal’s Federal Art Project.
Greenwood repeatedly pushed for an overseas war assignment but landed instead in Atlantic City, where she powerfully captured the trauma of post-war rehabilitation. In “Speeding Recovery” (1944), two nurses attend to several men on crutches, another with his torso encased in a medieval-looking apparatus. Their downcast eyes and vacant faces bring to mind her earlier note to Yaddo director, Elizabeth Ames: “The world is a frightful mess.”
Greenwood was the only woman whose work was selected for the 1943 Art for Bonds exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Abbott Laboratories’ publication, What’s New?, also reproduced many of her war paintings. But the 1940s brought her widespread recognition unrelated to the war. In 1944, she won second prize in the prestigious Carnegie competition for her portrait of an African American, “Mississippi Girl.”
Greenwood, who said in a 1964 interview that she was taken with “the beauty of the different races of human beings,” represented diverse cultures in her work. After the war, she lived in Hong Kong with her husband, Charles Fenn, and then traveled widely on her own and for magazine assignments. Her portraits of people in India, Haiti, Trinidad, and Europe brought her numerous awards. She divorced Charles Fenn and later lived with writer Robert Plate, until her death at age 60 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Anne Poor, nine years Greenwood’s junior, came from a more privileged family. Her mother, writer Bessie Breuer, married painter Henry Varnum Poor when Anne was seven. She assisted her stepfather on WPA murals after studying at the Art Students League and in Paris. In 1981, Poor told art historian Sylvia Moore that she joined the Women’s Army Corps (WACS) in part to escape her “rather cloistered life.” Of her initial assignment at Lake Air Field, Arizona, she lamented, “They only wanted women to be in secretarial positions.”
After joining the WACS, Poor wrote that she “descended on the Pentagon” weekly, “determined to be assigned overseas.” Aided by her mother’s contacts, she was finally approved to join a B-29 bombing mission over Tokyo. She arrived at Laguardia Field on the appointed morning only to be told that the ship had no toilet facilities for women. Instead it was “Fort Totten for me,” Poor wrote in her diary. There, she met incoming planes to sketch the wounded onboard. The stench from the number of amputees was, she wrote, “overpowering.”
Poor persisted in her overseas quest and was finally sent to the Pacific. She seemed undeterred by affronts like a gender-confused one-day pass that described her as “an enlisted man.” In Manila, Guam and later, China, she used pastel and ink to render medical evacuations. In “Restraining psychotic at holding station, Guam” and other works, her rapid strokes vividly portray the drama and despair war engenders.
Poor’s work was featured in the 1942 Artists for Victory show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in 1944 at New York’s American-British Art Center. A corporal, she was the only woman and noncommissioned officer in a National Gallery of Art exhibition in Washington, DC. Though Poor later won awards for landscape painting, Sylvia Moore called the war art her “most singular achievement.” Poor never married. She taught at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture until her death in 2002. Like Greenwood, she remained passionately devoted to her work.
Though feminism was not likely in either woman’s lexicon, Poor and Greenwood pursued equality. For her first one-person show, Greenwood wrote: “American women are no different than those of Russia or China. In this war, they have learned the fight is theirs, too. I, as an artist, do not see why being a woman should prevent me from going to the front.” In joining the WACS, Poor said, “War is not pleasant, but if it is necessary, it should hit young women as well as young men.” Surely both women suffered as witnesses to the brutal aftermath of war. Poor also chronicled the restrictions she encountered in what she called “my battle with the army.”
Greenwood’s and Poor’s parallel contributions and courage in entering male-dominated spheres remain uncharted. We’re left to read their experience through their paintings and drawings — the hollow eyes and maimed bodies, moments of compassion as well as despair. And each undoubtedly tells an “honest and often brutal truth about the nature of war.”