War Imagery, Sympathy, and Repulsion: Gettysburg Professor Peter Carmichael Gives a Talk at the Gallery

Last Thursday, the Schmucker Art Gallery welcomed Professor Peter Carmichael to give the final gallery talk on The Plains of Mars exhibition. As a Professor of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, Carmichael’s talk focused primarily on early war photography––particularly that of the Civil War. He recounts his first experience with Civil War visual culture at nine years of age and how childish fascinations with places such as Disneyland were suddenly replaced with an interest in the Civil War. Naturally, Carmichael had a word or two to say on images of warfare.

At the beginning of the talk, Carmichael called our attention to two questions of interest: 1. How did people at the time interpret these artistic depictions of war? And 2. How do we interpret these images today? Then, people were fascinated with photographs of the Civil War as war photography was new to Americans. Author Susan Sontag writes in her book Regarding the Pain of Others that humans have always had an unexplainable attraction to images of death and carnage. Carmichael says photographs of Gettysburg or Antietam put people in contact with the Civil War. However, “this can be a danger as war photography develops,” he warns us, “[Because we want images that repulse us.” He also mentions that images must convey the terrors of warfare because we want them to make us sympathize with those in war. Goya’s prints in the exhibition are a perfect example of this: we like them because of their intensity and they remind us of what war does to people. Carmichael adds that images must depict the wastefulness of war, a concept we can visualize in this exhibition. They must not only achieve a visceral repulsion to wartime violence, but also must appeal to politics like The Death of General Wolfe.

A Detail of The Death of General Wolfe on display in Schmucker Art Gallery. 

In previous articles, it was mentioned that Bailey Harper and Melissa Casale said that this exhibition shows us that war is “human” and “timeless”. Dr. James Clifton, curator of this exhibit in Houston, says that these images are a mediate between fighting and viewers, as well as a protective barrier for civilians at the time. In this last gallery talk, Carmichael explains just why we as humans hold a particular fascination for images of war. In all, we like to be repulsed and we like to sympathize.

It has truly been an eventful semester for the Gallery and The Plains of Mars exhibition still has people talking. These prints from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century will be displayed until December 7th, so there is still time to see visit Schmucker Art Gallery and have a look for yourself!


By: Carolyn Hauk, ’21

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