The Surreal World of ‘Vonnegut’s Odyssey’

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Black Heart, 2004. Silkscreen on paper. Photo courtesy of the National Veterans Art Museum. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., author of fourteen novels and numerous short stories, was also a prolific visual artist during his lifetime.  On display at the National Veterans Art Museum is Vonnegut’s Odyssey, showcasing over 30 of his silkscreen prints ― most of them exploring veterans returning home from combat. This exhibition features dozens of abstract illustrations and self-portraits that capture feelings of isolation when a veteran, such as Vonnegut himself, returns home after having served his country in combat. Presented together, these works reflect the connections between Vonnegut’s return home from World War II and Homer's epic of Odysseus's return home after the Trojan War. His work also examines how former serviceman and women struggle with combat-related health issues, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922 and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943. He was deployed to fight overseas in Europe during World War II and was captured at the Battle of the Bulge, becoming a prisoner of war until 1945. Central to his war experience was the bombing of Dresden where nearly 135,000 civilians were killed. Vonnegut and his fellow POWs survived the bombing in a shelter beneath a slaughterhouse, where they were housed. At the end of the war, he returned to the U.S. and was awarded the Purple Heart. His war experiences, particularly his witnessing the bombing of Dresden shaped his creative endeavors including his published literature and art work. After working as a journalist and publishing numerous short stories, Vonnegut established himself as an important voice in American literature with the publication of Slaughterhouse Five  in 1969,  a satirical novel about WWII. Shortly afterward, Vonnegut was also recognized for his drawings which often accompanied his writings. Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Tralfamadorian Polychrome, 2005. Silkscreen on paper. Photo courtesy of the National Veterans Art Museum. Vonnegut's drawings are characterized by his minimalist style of marker lines and his limited color palette.  There is also a sense of surrealism at play which allows Vonnegut to abandon reality and indulge in imagination and free association. Besides the theme of veterans returning home after combat, there are also several drawings of Vonnegut’s mythical Tralfamadorians ― the fictional alien race which he mentions in a few of his novels. This exhibition also features a desk with some of Vonnegut's original manuscripts from Slaughterhouse Five, along with a replica of the typewriter he used. Recently, The National Veterans Art Museum acquired the prints thanks to a donation by the Nielsen family in honor of the late artist, Faith Nielsen, herself a mother of wartime veterans. Vonnegut’s Odyssey  shows us that Vonnegut was not only empathetic toward the plight of fellow veterans who struggled to fit into society after serving their country, but was also a peace advocate who didn’t trust political and military institutions. The drawings cover universal themes because Vonnegut believed combat veterans shared the same narrative no matter if the they served in World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, or in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vonnegut’s Odyssey  will be on view through May 6. at the National Veterans Art Museum  (4041 N Milwaukee Ave). Admission is free. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Picture of the author
Thomas Wawzenek