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PERSPECTIVE: The True Price of Victory

Posted on November 11, 2020 at 10:30 AM by Quinn Vandenberg

Three key areas of instruction have been required at Iowa State University since it accepted the provisions of the Morrill Act of 1862 (the first land-grant act). Agriculture and engineering have become the forefront of the University, their programs robust and commonly seen as the university's most-impressive disciplines. The third area required by Land Grant schools may be somewhat overlooked. To keep its Land Grant status, the government has required Iowa State University to maintain an officer training program for over 150 years.

Iowa State University's military science program develops leaders to fight in America's wars and military operations. College students enter the program, exiting as fully commissioned officers upon their graduation. With the military and education coexisting at Iowa State University, it is fitting University Museums possesses objects memorializing the sacrifice of men and women. Even more appropriate, is that University Museums most notable works of art on the subject of war were sculpted by Christian Petersen, Iowa State's artist-in-residence during World War II.

In the 1940s United States entered a total war against the Axis powers. The nation saw its attention completely focused on the conflict, and Petersen devoted his expression to memorializing the consequences of violent conflict. The College (now University) and the military were not independent entities, and Christian Petersen was aware of the cost World War II would have on the young men and women he educated and served. By the end of his career, Petersen developed a prolific catalogue depicting scenes of soldiers in violent conflict, memorials, and medals. However, the sculptures created in the 1930s and 40s received no patronage from the University; they were done by his own accord. In 1944, Petersen sculpted The Price of Victory (sometimes referred to as Fallen Solider).

The Price of Victory depicts a soldier in motion. His knees buckle and his hand clenches his sternum. He has just been shot – presumably mortally wounded. The soldier holds no weapon, but his one hand remains unclenched. It is possible a rifle has been dropped outside of the sculpture's frame. His head is not staring directly at the viewer or towards the heavens. Instead, his gaze is directed slightly downwards towards the dirt. When viewing the sculpture, it is easy to see his suffering and solemn facial expressions, but the soldier's attention is towards the ground in wounded grief. On a deeper level, all the soldier's joints seem to have an angular bend. The knees, the hips, the arms, the neck are not erect. A sense of motion is captured. The soldier is moving forward yet on the verge of collapse.

The Price of Victory is Petersen's reality of combat. It depicts no grandiose victory, no specific moment, no collective achievement. It is simply one man alone falling towards the dirt. War memorials are commonplace in world cultures and America is no exception. What makes The Price of Victory so unique?

According to Dr. Lea Rossa DeLong in All the Evils…. Christian Petersen and The Art of War, "There is no lack of stone and bronze commemorations which contain names of the dead, but statues of soldiers and mourning figures seem to have been produced in far fewer numbers than would be expected in that immediate postwar era. […] The scale of the conflict; the torture and slaughter of entire populations; the murder of women, children, and non-combatants; and finally, the atomic bomb: how was that to be memorialized? […] What human figure could be composed to encompass the tragedy and loss?"

Petersen's approach to the grim reality of war challenges us to see the larger picture by focusing on a nameless soldier. Who is the man depicted in The Price of Victory? There are thousands upon thousands of him. A large roll call of names, like those in Gold Star Hall (Memorial Union), reminds us of the people and their battles but provides no visual attachment. We cannot see their humanity and loss. A sculpture of victory, a flag being raised in freedom, reminds us of why soldiers fight, but not what they sacrifice in the process. The Price of Victory is aptly named. It reminds us of war's cost.

The Price of Victory was on exhibit at the Iowa State University’s Memorial Union before being removed at the request of students and faculty. Its depiction was deemed too gruesome for a prominent thoroughfare, an impalpable reminder of the toll of war. While its removal may evoke feelings of anger or resentment, there is some solace in knowing that violence and death is still offensive amongst the American public. Petersen took the requested removal as one of the highest complements in his artistic career. A common and casual viewing of the sculpture may also rob the scene of its impact and desensitize people to its true nature. Instead, The Price of Victory is brought out by University Museums to be displayed with certain exhibitions. Every reveal is a jarring reminder of American sacrifice in war – the true price of victory.

The Price of Victory by Christian Petersen is currently on exhibition in Who Am I? at the Christian Petersen Art Museum.

IMAGE ABOVE: The Price of Victory, 1944 by Christian Petersen (Danish - American, 1885-1961). Painted Plaster. Gift of Mary Petersen. Conservation funded by Stockman Foundation and Ellen and Bernard Skold. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM99.297

IMAGE BELOW: Artist Christian Petersen in his studio at Iowa State College. The Price of Victory sculpture can be seen behind him. Image courtesy of Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames, Iowa.

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