I recently was able to tour the Angels & Tomboys exhibition at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, featuring depictions of girls in 19th-century American art. The introductory sign explains that the paintings “…reveal artists’ fascination with this subject, particularly after the Civil War, when the themes of home and its female inhabitants resonated with a traumatized nation.”
Reading that, my mind turned to films about young girls made after the wars that traumatized Europe in the 20th century. Did some European artists who lived through war also turn towards young girls as subjects for the same reasons?
During the wars, young girls would have been the most marginalized and least important players. Films made during the war and in the decade or so following focused on the heroic deeds of the young men involved. There are adult women involved as love interests, but never young women, and never girls.
After years of faraway adventures and of tales about those adventures, it would make sense for some filmmakers to long for “the themes of home and its female inhabitants.”
Two paintings in particular at the Crystal Bridges exhibition reminded me of scenes from these films.
The first is an oil painting by John George Brown called Crossing the Brook. Brown was an immigrant from England, who began painting in New York shortly before the start of the Civil War. I’ve paired it with an image from Mouchette, by director Robert Bresson. Bresson famously spent time as a prisoner of war during World War II.
William Merritt Chase’s Idle Hours immediately brought to mind The Spirit of the Beehive, by director Victor Erice. I chose this movie frame because of how it matches the painting compositionally, but virtually any still from the film would match the painting’s palette.
Erice was born the year he sets his film – 1940, immediately at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Chase was a teenager in Indianapolis during the American Civil War. He joined the U.S. Navy at Annapolis as soon as he was old enough – which was after the war had already ended – but quickly changed his mind and made a career in painting.
Our American and European reactions show similarities to each other in color, composition, subject matter and context. But, I believe the artists are doing very different things.
Brown’s and Chase’s paintings are soothing. They show an innocence either regained or untouched by war. They are protected by nature.
Bresson’s and Erice’s girls however, are assaulted by nature and by deranged men. They are traumatized. Mouchette lives in an abusive household. She runs into the woods and is raped by an epileptic fugitive. She commits suicide by drowning.
Ana in The Spirit of the Beehive is traumatized by a story not too unlike Mouchette’s. She watched the film Frankenstein, and sees a girl drowned by an imbecile monster in the woods. Later, she finds her own man in the wilderness; he is a fugitive republican soldier. She helps him, but he is shot by Franco’s police. She stops speaking, but a doctor assures her family the shock will wear off.
Now, we see the contrast. In the American paintings, we see a desire to forget the war. Reconciliation and harmony is possible, because even though the men may have been through hell, women have been left untouched. We can go back to the way things were.
In the European films, such a reconciliation to the world is unthinkable.
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.