Monday, April 20, 2009


Gilbert Bundy (1911-1955) painted with a light and elegant brush.

Look at the graceful way he handles the bouquet of flowers on the table:

... or the foliage and chandelier in the background:

Bundy gained fame as a cartoonist in the pages of Esquire magazine in the 1930s. He painted delightful watercolors of the leisure class at play, specializing in millionaire sportsmen and glamorous show girls.

High society photos from this period show the handsome young illustrator out on the town, dressed in his tuxedo and escorting some beautiful young chanteuse to gala parties. Here we see Bundy in his studio with yet another gorgeous model:

Bundy fell in love with the right girl, married her and had a baby daughter. Life was sweet.

But when World War II came along, Bundy decided for some reason to leave it all behind and volunteer to work as an artist in the South Pacific for Hearst newspapers.

In 1944, Bundy was accompanying the Marine invasion of Tarawa when a Japanese shell exploded in his small landing craft. Bundy survived but was trapped beneath the bodies of four Marines. The wreckage of the craft lodged on a coral reef within range of enemy gunners. For most of the day, Bundy remained pinned beneath the corpses, drenched with blood, as enemy bullets and shells strafed the remnants of the craft. When it finally turned dark, Bundy freed himself and swam away from the wreck, taking his chances spending a night alone in shark infested waters rather than endure another day under fire. The Hearst newspaper reported, "He was believed dead for three days. His reappearance startled his Marine mates."

Bundy returned to the U.S. but never recaptured the joy in his pre-war art. On the anniversary of his ordeal Bundy committed suicide, thereby rejoining his fallen comrades.

Sometimes I think about how a sensitive, observant artist such as Bundy perceived such horrors. Of course, I also wonder what lured him to leave his loving wife and daughter in order to paint war to begin with.

Arthur Koestler wrote persuasively about why artists and writers chose to immolate themselves in the flames of World War II. They were not fearless patriots or fanatical believers. To the contrary, many believed that "to love one's country is vulgar, to love God is archaic and to love mankind is sentimental." Yet, some other force drew the artists toward their doom: "there is no escape, and he feels it; so he goes on trying at least to name the nameless force that destroys him."

In trying to "name that nameless force," Koestler wrote of his friend, the young writer Richard Hillary who became a fighter pilot and was shot down in the Battle of Britain. Hillary was burned beyond recognition. After months of painful reconstructive surgery, his face was horribly disfigured and his hands resembled bird claws. Still, some of the most beautiful young women in London pursued him. Rather than embrace whatever semblance of beauty that remained in life, Hillary pressured the air force into letting him fly again and the next mission ended him. Koestler wrote that Hillary
flies like a moth into the flame; and having burned his wings crawls back into it again.... Why then, in God's name, did he go back?.... [H]e was the only one left , and he had to go on paying the tribute [to his fallen comrades]. For the survivor is always a debtor. He thought he came back [to civilization] for the fellowship with the living , while he already belonged to the fraternity of the dead.
Hillary's motives, like Bundy's, were more psychologically complex than mere patriotism. He wrote that people who feel guilt for "imaginary debts" account for many of civilization's great accomplishments:
You could not expect healthy motives to lead to the morbid act of self-sacrifice. The prosperity of the race was based on those who paid imaginary debts. Tear out the roots of their guilt and nothing will remain but the drifting sand of the desert.
Art and war together in the same petrie dish can result in situations that are not always easy to understand, but which are worth investigating. I will offer a collection of such stories in the months ahead.