Followers of Microkhan’s microblog may have noted that I’ve developed a recent fascination with World War II-era combat art, which was created as part of an official War Department program to depict the conflict in oils, inks, and water colors. Once the the war was over, the painting continued as the U.S. speedily developed its nuclear weapons program, most notably by conducting atmospheric tests in the South Pacific. Three Naval artists were commissioned to record the destruction of Bikini Atoll in 1946; their work is now collected here.
The artists captured not only the ethereal beauty of the mushroom clouds, but also the damage wrought upon the ships that were placed in the explosions’ paths. Notably lacking from the collection? Any sense of the human toll caused by the evacuation of Bikini Atoll. We only get one glimpse of an abandoned village, where intact longhouses stand adjacent to a fluttering American flag. And then a painting of American military personnel at play. Yet there is a hint of malice to these paintings, a sense that the artists knew that they were bearing witness to events that would have unforeseen repercussions. There is no triumphalism in these artworks, only quiet awe.