Monday, August 15, 2016

Exhibit's 'Toy Soldier' is a photographic 'delusion' of haunting Civil War portrait

Pvt. Edwin Jemison (Library of Congress)

Wait a minute – I recognize him.

I was scrolling through my personal Facebook feed recently and came across a post with the image of a young Confederate soldier.

You no doubt have seen the haunting face of Pvt. Edwin F. Jemison, a native Georgian who enlisted at 16 and died at 17 at the Battle of Malvern Hill in Virginia while serving with the 2nd Louisiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

The Facebook image I saw was of a 2003 artistic interpretation of Jemision entitled “Toy Soldier.” It was created by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, who uses what is called a playful and inventive approach in creating “photographic delusions.”

The text next to the work reads: “Struck by the profound sadness in a portrait of a child soldier during the Civil War, Muniz decided to re-create the portrait out of plastic soldiers.”


Last week, I paid a visit to the Muniz exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. I gazed at his interpretation of iconic images of pop culture: Mona Lisa in peanut butter and jelly, Che Guevara in black beans and Dracula in caviar.

But I spent most of my time studying “Toy Soldier” from a variety of perspectives. It is part of a triptych, or three panels.

The High explained Muniz’ concept: “He assembled a distorted version of the image on the floor and photographed it from an angle to correct the perspective. As a result, some toy soldiers appear vastly larger than others, though they were all the same size. The final work is presented as a triptych with depictions of a horse and an American Indian, recalling subjects common to toy figurines.”


I’ve been wrestling with the artist’s intent here, but perhaps the use of toy soldiers is an example of innocence lost – and regained.

The Civil War Trust has a video featuring a National Park Service ranger at the Malvern Hill battlefield. She details the brief service of Jemison, who enlisted within a month of Fort Sumter’s fall and served in the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. He was decapitated by Union artillery fire during a Rebel advance on July 1, 1862.

Jemison’s youthful face has graced magazine covers, books and other mediums, making him the “poster boy” of wartime innocence loss.

While there is a monument in Milledgeville, Ga., many believe his remains are among the unknown at Malvern Hill.


Muniz, the artist, is known for his interpretation of pop culture and celebrity. And it was fascinating to see what he creates out of a variety of objects.

“From a distance, the subject of each resulting photograph is discernible; up close, the work reveals a complex and surprising matrix through which it was assembled. That revelatory moment when one thing transforms into another is of deep interest to the artist.”

The Vik Muniz photography exhibit at the High Museum of Art runs through Aug. 21. Details here

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