'Seeing the Elephant'

Gallery Exhibition Explores the Many Sides of War

Charlotte Crawford '16

Years ago, before photography and zoos as we know them today were commonplace, there was a phenomenon known as “Seeing the Elephant.” The phrase referred to the duality of disappointment and awe upon seeing an elephant for the first time, after the animal had been constructed in the mind’s eye for so long that one’s expectations couldn’t possibly be met. Popularized during the First World War, the phrase was applied to humanity’s experience of war and violence. Assistant Director of the Brush Art Gallery Carole Mathey and Associate Professor of Art and Art History Melissa Schulenberg sought to embody the concept in a fall exhibition at the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery, “Seeing the Elephant: Artists Respond to Conflict and War.” 

Students and faculty gathered in the gallery for an informal discussion on October 5, to hear the curators and others speak about the provocative artwork. Schulenberg explained that the works represent several media and span a century, from World War I to the Iraqi conflict.

“Works that show the heroic aspects of war summon support for war, often through honoring those who made sacrifices,” Associate Professor of Philosophy Laura Rediehs said. Rediehs, who is also the coordinator of Peace Studies, added, “But war is horrific as well. A drawing by a child who lived in a war zone shows someone shot dead, but the child drew a big X through the picture after drawing it, as if to state a firm and clear ‘no’ to war. The artists who show the ‘elephant’ are asking us to reflect on the various meanings that war has in our world today.” 

Associate professor and Margaret Vilas Chair of U.S. History Donna Alvah spoke as well. She explained that the exhibition is a form of “peering into windows of different perspectives, feelings and memories of war, in the interest of taking a step back and seeing the more expansive consequences of war.”

âA.G.F.T.P.O.T.U.S.O.A. (A Gift from the People of the United States of America),â a screen print by Jesse Purcell (2002), was among the works in the Brush Art Gallery exhibition âSeeing the Elephant: Artists Respond to Conflict and War."