CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Martial art? Freedom small fries

This week I open a can of worms by raising the question most art writers would rather avoid: the dreaded "But is it art?" When it comes to what I consider visual art, I'm pretty broadminded (some might even say "lowminded")-for instance, I think tattoos can be art, low-riders can be art, graffiti can be art, etc. But factory-produced toy soldiers, even hand-painted and rare, do not make the cut.

Which is why I am baffled by the exhibition of "A Soldier's Life: Selections from the Charles J. Brown Historic Military Figures Trust" at the University of Virginia Art Museum. Granted, the 3,000 miniature pieces arranged in glass-encased tableaux have artistic aspects, and each may be technically unique due to the craftsmanship process. Nevertheless, they are not "originals" intended to capture or convey the creative invention of an artist's mind.

Gleaned from a 7,000-figure collection assembled over the past 50-odd years by UVA alumnus Charles J. Brown, most of the displayed lead miniatures come from the French manufacturer C.B.G Mignot, the successor to the Lucotte toy company, which began making lead soldiers after the French Revolution. Brown supervised the meticulous placement of each figure into groupings that roughly reflect historical periods, beginning with "The Known World, 2000 BC-1750" and ending with a "WWI Battle Scene."

The sheer number of pieces is overwhelming, and their arrangements are admirably energetic. Here ancient Egyptians carry a blue-canopied palanquin bearing a queen reclining on red bolsters, while on a nearby shelf Visigoths rush forward, shields raised.

The piece de resistance (pun intended) of the exhibition is an enormous recreation of the Battle of Waterloo in the center of the gallery, where swirling British, German, Belgian, and Prussian armies converge to end the Napoleonic War. 

Despite the military focus, little bloodshed or consequence is included in the exhibition, save for a bombed-out church in the WWI scene and an occasional field hospital. The only true violence is restricted to Louis XVI's and Marie Antoinette's tiny severed heads paraded on stakes by miniature French Revolutionaries (oh, and a morbid St. Denis presenting his own lopped-off noggin).

Two personal favorite items: the cut-away "French Cavalry Barracks, 1875," which is like a dollhouse on testosterone, and a U.S. Civil War Union soldier carrying a spotted pig.

But no matter how historically accurate and artful these miniatures may be, in the end, they simply are not art.

"A Soldier's Life: Selections from the Charles J. Brown Historic Military Figures Trust," is on display through May 21 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.