“I once wrote that Howard Brodie was the ultimate journalist. I still believe that.” Walter Cronkite makes no qualifications in a foreword he contributed for the book Drawing Fire: the Combat Artist at War. This collection of Howard Brodie’s writings and artwork spans the decades from World War II to Vietnam. Mr. Cronkite, along with many of the “Greatest Generation,” first became aware of the powerful artistry of Brodie’s work during the Second World War via the Army weekly, Yank magazine.
To me, a high school student in the latter part of the 1960’s, exposure to Brodie’s drawings on the CBS Evening News was the equivalent of a punch o the creative head, and, dare I say, heart. It was am era of notorious trails: Sirhan Sirhan, Charles Manson, My Lai, the Chicago Seven, and Watergate. There on the TV screen, regularly accompanying the court reports, were Howard Brodie’s on-the-spot drawings. Brodie’s virtuosity stood out as he made quantum leaps in substance and impact which brought pulsating life, palpable dimension, and insight to the personalities and events he portrayed. No doubt many people turned specifically to the CBS Evening News not only to follow the progress of the trials but for the sheer pleasure of marveling at the energy and expressive vibrancy of Brodie’s remarkable drawings.
Howard Brodie was born in Oakland, California, in 1915. With pride he lists his educational pedigree at Polytechnic High School in San Francisco, and then at the California School of Fine Arts, the oldest art school on the West. After a stint at the San Francisco Examiner, he worked as a full-time sports illustrator with the San Francisco Chronicle. World War II brought Brodie to national attention. He enlisted in the Army and signed on as one of over a hundred combat artist for Yank magazine, part of the “special forces” who chronicled the war from the enlisted man’s point of view. One of Yank’s best known artists, Brodie chronicled the combat horrors of Guadalcanal with sketchpad, sharp eye, keen memory, and rock solid drawing skills. Running out of his own supplies, Brodie happened upon Prismacolor was pencils used by the Navy for mapping purposes. Using these simple tools, he produced beautiful, strong, brilliant, and unforgettable images, a masterful blend of muscular spontaneity and compassionate insight. Literary giant James Jones, who was stationed in the same war zone, wrote the book WWII, that the drawings Brodie produced from Guadalcanal were a hit everywhere. Brodie went on to record many of the major campaign of the war in the Pacific and Europe including the Battle of the Bulge, where he was award the Bronze Star for “aiding the wounded, and coolness under fire.”
After the war, Brodie became a courtroom artist and worked for the Associated Press, CBS News, Life, and Collier’s. He remained close to the military and returned as a combat artist to Korea, French Indochina, and Vietnam. A passionate advocate against the death penalty, he has been witness to and depicted executions. The first was at the Battle of the Bulge, when German soldiers had infiltrated Allied lines posing as Gls. His drawing of a dead German soldier transcends the distinction between “enemy” and “friend” and becomes a universal indictment against premeditated killing.
Throughout his career Brodie has produced drawings of specific events that come to represent more than the image itself. His drawing of Bobby Seale, gagged and strapped to his chair during the trial of the Chicago Seven, speaks as powerfully and eloquently about the spirit of the tumultuous 1960s as the famous poster of Che Guevara. In addition to the drawing of the executed German soldier, there is Brodie’s famous “Moving Up” where three Gls on the march come to represent soldiers throughout time. They are exhausted yet relentlessly driven and grimly determined, with an almost dispassionate will to survive etched in their faces.
Brodie’s confidence in his ability is obvious, and his drawing skills are so controlled that even when his line quality is at its wildest. Most urgent, and expressionistic, he never loses the sense of structure of his subject. We know the story in the images remains most important. The great jazz master Lester Young once referenced to certain saxophonists as “all belly, no brain.” Technical prowess, no matter how impressive, without a sense of love and artistic spirit, ultimately adds up to little. Brodie’s interest and unquenchable curiosity comes from an expansive love that looks at mankind and embraces its contradictions and ironies, and finds value in even the most horrendous circumstances. He’s been a profound witness to this mad past century and has recorded in words and images the best and worst of what he’s seen and experienced. Brodie remains a great, generous spirit in spite of a temporary setback from a stroke he suffered several years ago while sketching troops on maneuvers in the Mojave Desert.
The artist’s work is in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the San Francisco Olympic Club. He has been commissioned to the draw on the movie locations when he worked with Gregory Peck in Pork Chop Hill, John Wayne in The Green Berets, and Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now. Most recently, film director Terrence Malick sought out Brodie for his visual knowledge of combat for The Thin Red Line. Brodie has been blessed with a long, happy marriage to Isabel, also an artist. They are parents both proud and close to their son Bruce and daughter Wendy.
Finally, be it at the San Francisco Academy of Art or at his ranch in central California, Howard Brodie has been an inspired and inspiring teacher to many students, supervising legendary drawing intensives, prodding budding artists to realize through their creative expression that “Love is the heart of life and art.”