Faces of the fallen
A new exhibit memorializes American war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan in portraiture
They are young and stoic, smiling and hopeful, proud and, above all, full of life: Lance Cpl. Brian Anderson, 26, solid and serious in dress blues, an American flag waving behind him; Spc. Julie Hickey, 20, her blond hair peeking out from beneath a floppy fatigue hat; Spc. Jeremiah Holmes, 27, kissing a cherubic baby; and hundreds of others in military dress and tuxedos, baseball hats and graduation caps, captured for all time in acrylic, clay, glass, oil, pencil, watercolor, fabric, and wood. They are the "Faces of the Fallen," a collection of portraits of servicemen and women who died in Afghanistan and Iraq that opened last week at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
"You always hear about the war in numbers--there were two soldiers killed yesterday, five today--but here you're really seeing the person behind the name and number," says Linnie Blankenbecler, who traveled from Harker Heights, Texas, to honor her husband, James, who died in Samarra, Iraq, on Oct. 1, 2003. Indeed, in a town of powerful tributes to those who've died serving their country--from the sheer volume of the 58,000-plus names inscribed on polished black granite at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to the 4,000 sculpted gold stars representing 400,000 lives lost at the National World War II Memorial--"Faces of the Fallen" is unique in that it draws on the long history of remembering the dead through the visual arts, says Carolyn Carr, deputy director and chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery. "Portraiture is a way of both honoring an individual and memorializing them," she says, citing as precedent Egyptian mummy portraits, Roman death masks, the posthumous memorial paintings popular in 19th-century America, and Mathew Brady's photographs of Antietam. Ronald Horne, author of Forgotten Faces: A Window Into Our Immigrant Past, a study of the traditional use of photo-ceramic images on tombstones, believes that such art fosters a unique human exchange: "Memorial portraiture brings the person back to life for that instant, inside of the observer, who sees the work and feels connected in a very genuine way."
Proof of life. Command Sgt. Maj. James Blankenbecler's portrait uses a photo of him against a blue background rimmed in silver stars, along with a portion of a letter written by his daughter Jessica that reads, "When you walk outside, the first star you see is me." For his wife, it's not only a beautiful work of art but a meaningful one: "I think it shows how loyal and dedicated he was to the military . . . and also that he loved his children and they loved him. I'm proud that other people will see that."
The inspiration for "Faces of the Fallen" came to Washington, D.C., artist Annette Polan after she happened upon several pages of thumbnail-size photographs of war dead in her morning newspaper. "I thought, 'Eureka, this is a portrait gallery, and I'm going to make it permanent, so that these men and women will be more than just passing glances,' " says Polan, who also wanted to express her opposition to the war by remembering the fallen. She recruited more than 200 artists from across the country to donate their time and creative visions to the project. Using published photographs, they produced 6-by-8-inch likenesses of each of the 1,327 soldiers who lost their lives between Oct. 10, 2001, and Nov. 11, 2004. The resulting exhibit runs the length of a semicircular gallery, with the works organized in order of the date of death. Simple blue silhouettes stand in where no image was available, including one to represent those killed since the show's cutoff date (the toll now stands at more than 1,600).