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Christian Petersen and the Art of War

Published onJan 26, 2022
Christian Petersen and the Art of War
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Christian Petersen working on Christ with Bound Hands

Curatorial Statement

Christian Petersen (1885–1961) was artist-in-residence at Iowa State from 1934 to 1955.  In fact, he was the first artist to hold such a position at an American college.  He joined what was then called Iowa State College in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. The college was able to hire him in part because of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which included artists in its “stimulus package.” The president of the college, Raymond M. Hughes, was eager to bring a higher arts profile to his science and engineering school, believing that fine arts could create not only a more beautiful campus physically, but would be an enlightening intellectual experience for all students.  The New Deal’s first art program, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), enabled President Hughes to commission a major campus sculpture, The History of Dairying mural, from Christian Petersen and an extensive mural cycle, When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow, from Grant Wood.  When the PWAP ended after only six months, Wood joined the faculty at the University of Iowa and Petersen became artist-in-residence at Iowa State. Both new production of works of art and permanent employment of artists demonstrate the success of the federal support through PWAP.  Both Wood’s painted murals and many of Petersen’s sculpted murals remain where they were originally placed on the Iowa State campus in the 1930s.

Over the next 25 years, Petersen installed sculptures such as Fountain of the Four Seasons, Library Boy and Girl, and Conversations throughout the campus.  Much of his work dealt with college life and with productive, peaceful endeavors.  These themes, plus his shy and quiet demeanor, led to him sometimes being called the “gentle sculptor,” a play on the title of one of his most famous statues, The Gentle Doctor, part of the large installation Veterinary Medicine Mural now at the Veterinary Medicine College. Christian Petersen was not, however, especially “gentle” when it came to an aspect of college life that affected students as much during his lifetime as it does today. He was at full artistic maturity during World War II (1941–1945), and he witnessed the toll the war took on his students.  He was also fully conscious that the atom bombs, which ended that war, had taken humanity to a whole new level of destructive potential. He was particularly attentive to this issue when he learned of the role Iowa State College had played in the development of the bomb.

Petersen was not a pacificist, and he did not waver in his support of America. As an artist, he specifically sought to aid the war effort both in World War I and World War II. Yet, as he aged and as spirituality played a larger role in his thinking, he emphasized the tragedy and sorrow of war, not glory or victory. His work focused on war’s primary outcome: death and enduring grief. After World War II, he developed many ideas for memorials that honored the veterans or expressed the mourning of those left behind. One such proposal included the phrase “All the evils,” by which he meant the evils of war and the vicious acts unleashed by war. Petersen hoped to place large-scale war memorials on campus and elsewhere, but unfortunately none were commissioned from him. All the Evils… Christian Petersen and the Art of War explores his work on the theme of war from early in his career as he produced monuments for the Spanish-American War and World War I, through his sculptures about World War II, and then memorials to the dead and the tragic consequences of war.

~Lea Rosson DeLong

Christian Petersen working on War (After the Blitz War)

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