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Gaze into Warbride

War Bride (1940) by Clarence Holbrook Carter

Oil on Canvas

Viewed at Carnegie Museum of Art

(January 5th, 2015)

     Clarence Holbrook Carter’s painting, War Bride, which is exhibited in the Carnegie Museum of Art, is a representative work that conveys meanings related to both reality and fantasy. War Bride intends to show the audience the dramatic conflict between humans and machinery in the revolutionary era of modernity. As it indicated in the Practice of Looking, modernity was based on an ideal of the liberal human subject as a self-knowing entity (Sturken 95). Through my research about War Bride,  I aim to explore how the different elements and visual details in the painting work together to demonstrate a sense of modernity and pain and how it engages the audience’s perceptions and positioning about themselves in the modernity social context.  


     As a painter, Clarence Holbrook Carter has been representational with themes of both Social Realism and Surrealism in a majority of his works (“Carnegie museum of art” 1). However, what is significant about the painting is the decade that it was created. The painting was drawn in the year 1940, which was a decade of turbulence when World War II took place.  Major conflicts between countries emerged with the dramatically fast-growing urbanization and industrialization. The experience of modernity, which was shown as people embrace the industrial materials such as steel, modern technology, and the aesthetics of the machines, were indicated by the realism of huge and shiny machinery in the painting (Sturken 97). The conflicts that happened in the war decade were shown by the drastic contrasts between the woman in the white wedding dress (who signified humanity and emotions) and the mechanized metal wheel rollers (which signified machinery and ruthlessness). While the light colors of the white wedding dress and the woman’s light skin significantly contrasted with the dark color of the lifeless machines, the connotative meanings that were conveyed underneath the colors are a sense of threatening and dread that all people have in front of the significant conflict between the fast developing machinery and humanity during that decade, and even today.


     As philosopher Bruno Latour argued, in the process of modernity, “we have inherited a world of hybrids, entities that combine human, technological, and object forms…we live through associations between bodies, machines and nature”(Sturken 100). The concept of hybrid humans and machines in modernity is shown in the painting by the relationship between the bride and the metal wheel roller. The underlying meanings of modernity were shown by the concept of the hybrid of human beings and machines in the painting with multiple connotations. The white color of the wedding dress, symbolizing pureness and virginity, can be interpreted in different ways with the red glow at the end of the path. The red glow, on one hand, can be the representation of the “red carpet” of a sanctified path, while on the other hand, can be the symbol of blood. The bride in white dress is on the path to marry with the cold machine, even though she may be destroyed by it. Thus, the red color at the end of the path, conveying both fear and the desire of the bride, represents not only her union with the machine, but also self-destruction. The white colors of the bride, black colors of the machine, and the symbolic red in the painting relate with each other to communicate a drastic confrontation between the soft, organic human body and cold, metallic machines in a fearful and dangerous atmosphere.     


     The process of looking at the War Bride is also a process of self-identification and positioning for the audience because the painting intended to make them fantasize themselves in the place of the person on the canvas, and imagine themselves being threatened by the giant metal roller. Carter also demonstrates the “movement” of the path by applying linear perspective, which further engages the audience to be aware that they are actually part of the painting.  The two giant, horizontal cylinders in front of the bride work together with the two extending edges of the path, which together make the bride look like she is walking towards the metal rollers. Thus, the dramatic existing contrast between the bride and the metal roller becomes more intense because of the demonstration of movement on both the bride and the rollers. The movement of the rollers and the bride getting closer to each other gives the audience an opportunity to engage with the painting and become a part of the painting. Because of the audience’s position of being behind the bride and the movement of the roller, they might imagine themselves as followers about to step into the danger zone of a conflict with machinery.


     Gender is also a crucial aspect when gazing into War Bride. In the history of art, women seemed to be the objects in the painting as male audience “gaze” by imaging watching the women for pleasure, until the 1970s and 1980s when artists began to push the boundary of gender and sexuality in their works (Sturken 128). Clarence Holbrook Carter’s War Bride, as a painting in 1940, from my perspective, can be an early work that crosses the boundary of gender and engages in both male and female’s gaze. The bride in the painting faces the audience with her back instead of her face, so the audiences are automatically defined as “followers” of the bride. While the bride figure in the painting engages male audience’s gaze as they imagine themselves being the bridegroom, who also steps on the red carpet with the bride in the painting, the painting also evokes female audience’s sympathy towards the bride. Based on French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, “gaze is a part and parcel of a desire for completion of oneself through the other”, so the painting engages female audience’s desire for completion as they remembered or imagined themselves walking on the red carpet as a bride.


      Bizarre combinations, dramatic contrasts between different colors and shapes, and the demonstration of movement all work together to compose the ideological meanings of War Bride. As Travis Linn indicated in the book “Images that injures”, “we accept, reject, reshape the new information in such a way as to preserve our existing perceptions” (Linn 26). The pleasure in looking might be strongly tied to our different cultural and sexual identifies and preferences, and different fantasies created in our minds. We use images to create fantasies about identities of ourselves, which lead to various interpretations of one painting. While the abnormal combination of a bride and machine may represent marriage, it can also carry the meaning of destruction. The atmosphere that the painting conveys can be full of fear and danger, or it can also be holy and pure. Although War Bride was painted in 1940, it makes me, as a viewer in the modern time, think about the relationship between human beings and technologies in the modern world. Clarence Holbrook Carter gives the painting an opening theme for its audience to think about on their own road towards the machinery, even in the twenty first century after several decades from when the work was painted. The value of images is that they continuously interact with people and provide new ideas to them without being changed and despite of the passage of time.







                                                                                    Works Cited


Lester, Paul Martin. Images That Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996. Print.


Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture.   

      Oxford ; New York: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.


"War Bride." Carnegie Museum of Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.










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