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The Artist as Soldier: Howard Cook’s Self-Portrait in a Foxhole

In the summer of 1943, Taos artist Howard Cook (1901–1980) traveled to the South Pacific to serve as a correspondent in the U.S. Army’s short-lived War Art Unit. During his assignment, Cook produced hundreds of sketches documenting the daily lives of Allied soldiers working there; yet, one group stands out for its subject matter: the artist himself. Collectively titled Self-Portrait in a Foxhole, these works depict Cook taking shelter during an air raid and, together with his writings, offer an invaluable perspective into his interpretation of war through art. This essay explores Cook’s wartime oeuvre by examining the Self-Portrait group’s depiction of vulnerability. Through an expressionistic use of ink and paint and a compositional emphasis on his passivity, Cook offers a personalized interpretation of combat conditions that underscores his sense of exposure. Although his self-representation initially appears distinct from the more assertive soldiers in his other sketches, when viewed together, they collectively demonstrate Cook’s efforts to record a nuanced impression of the war, reflecting a broader tradition of exploring war’s deleterious effects on soldiers. More broadly, Cook’s oeuvre highlights the significance of the War Art Unit and the potential for more scholarship on this initiative.
Relevant research areas: North America, South Asia, 20th Century, Etching