I’ve seen many diff’rent pictures
Of the devil down below
And he doesn't stand a show
With a certain devil I know
Let me introduce you to him
You'll be happy when I do
He's a devil dressed in blue
And a soldier through and through
-- Irving Berlin, 1917
Durham-based local artist Revere La Noue has seen many “diff’rent pictures” of the blue-hued, satanic character that is usually used to represent Duke University.
However, like Berlin, the young artist has another vision of the Blue Devil. It’s a vision rooted in history – the real history of Duke’s athletic mascot. His research has led him back to the horrors of the Great War and a small group of heroes from that conflict and how they inspired the young men who attended what was then Trinity College in the days immediately after the war.
It didn’t take La Noue long to come across the story that the Duke Blue Devil was inspired by the French Army’s Chasseur Alpin, a small troop of elite mountain troops that were nicknamed the “Blue Devils” by their German enemies.
But the more La Noue studied the original Blue Devils, the more impressed he became. He was inspired to create two works of art – a short documentary film and a print linking les Diables Bleus” with Duke’s mascot.
“I started researching who these guys were,” La Noue said. “What I learned was that, first of all, they still exist. They made a name for themselves in World War I defending the Alpine region. It wasn’t so much like they were this dominant offensive force, but they were extremely effective defenders – a small number of soldiers able to defend against a large number of attacking soldiers. They were very maneuverable in the Alpine regions, because they were recruited from alpine areas.
“I was like ‘Wow! We’ve got a real story here. We’re not dealing with a cartoon character anymore.’ So then I went to the French National Archives and the French Ministry of Defense and was able through those sources to get into their imagery and find some of the data that isn’t available in the United States. I found beautiful black and white photographs of these guys in the Black Forest and on mountaintops. These guys were pretty cool.
“The second half of the story is that they came to the United States to sell bonds and march in parades. What I didn’t realize until I got into first person accounts was that the draft-eligible American men really felt these guys were pretty impressive.”
That feeling was captured by novelist Zane Grey in his 1919 story “Desert of Wheat.” In it, he has a character describe seeing the Blue Devils march down Broadway:
I’ve knowed a heap of bad men and handy men and tough men and fighting men in my day, but I reckon I never seen the likes of the Blue Devils … Wild Bill, Billy the Kid, Geronimo and Custer – maybe the whole four mixed together in one might have made a Blue Devil.
Irving Berlin was inspired to write a popular song: “The French Blue Devils (the chorus of which is repeated above).”
La Noue believes the French made a very clever decision that made their contingent of troops stand out from competing elite units from Australia and Great Britain and other Allies.
“The French were the most inspiring,” he said. “They sent the guys with experience. These guys had bullet holes and real war stories. It wasn’t like who’s the prettiest … it was who’s the toughest.
“It seemed like America really fell in love with the heroic acts of these Blue Devils.”
Certainly, a large number of undergraduates at Trinity College (soon to become Duke University) did. In the days after the war, when the school was looking for a new nickname to replace the traditional “Methodists,” they waged a long battle to promote the name of the elite French troops – a campaign that finally found success in 1923, when the Blue Devil was officially adopted as the school’s mascot.
La Noue tried to tell that story in the five-minute documentary attached to this story.
Then, he set out to create a painting (that he could turn into a print) to depict the story – and re-define the image of the Duke Blue Devil.
“Sort of like one frame documentary,” La Noue said.
ATHLETICS AND ART
The local artist is uniquely qualified to attack the story in two mediums.
La Noue is a Baltimore native who was recruited to play lacrosse at Notre Dame. While there, he began to study film. But he separated his shoulder his freshman year and, while recuperating from the injury, spent his sophomore year in France, studying art.
When he graduated from Notre Dame, he went to Washington, D.C., where he worked in the documentary film world. He attended post graduate film school at Stanford, then worked in New York City, where he met his wife, another filmmaker.
“They say, ‘Don’t stay in New York City too long or you’ll get insular’,” he said. “The art scene in New York is a very aggressive environment. My girlfriend at the time – my wife now – and I started looking for alternate places to live where we could still be involved in the arts, but also get away a little bit from that dog-eat-dog world. Durham seemed to have a lot of promise as a rising art culture. We liked the idea that it was near several universities. Even though it’s a small town, Durham brings a lot of culture.”
La Noue still works as a creative consultant in the film industry, but he’s devoting much of his time and energy to his art at a studio in downtown Durham.
The Blue Devil project is not his first attempt to re-define a university’s mascot. He started with his alma mater.
“The idea there was one that came out of a real passionate need to fix a problem,” he said. “The problem was that I had this experience at Notre Dame where I was an athlete and I worked really hard as an athlete and then I had a double major. I’m proud of what I accomplished as a student. For me, Notre Dame was this very rich experience, but that was a function of a lot of hard work.
“Notre Dame has this tradition of blue-collar work ethic, which may or may not be what [outsiders] think of it now. That’s the one I knew and I experienced. And during moments of pageantry – football games and the like – the Leprechaun did not represent the larger, deeper meaning of the school.”
So La Noue created a work of art to express his vision.
“The image I made was my interpretation of what the Fighting Irish means,” he said. “I did that with very little expectation about how it was going to be received by the school.”
To his surprise, La Noue’s image came to be embraced by Notre Dame.
“It’s in the lacrosse stadium and it’s in the football coaches’ office and the president has given [the print] as gifts,” he said. “It hangs in maybe 50 offices at the school. So it went from this little idea that I painted in my apartment in Brooklyn to … this. There was an appetite for it, even if I didn’t know it.
“There were a lot of people who felt the way I felt – there was just no image for it.”
La Noue is hoping that his new Blue Devil image strikes a similar cord with the Duke community.
THE LEGEND OF THE BLUE DEVILS
La Noue will unveil his latest creation on the weekend of Duke’s 2012 football opener. He’ll host a pre-showing on Friday, Aug. 31, where he can meet with several small groups to reveal and discuss his work.
The first public showing will be Saturday, Sept. 1 – the same day Duke opens against Florida International in Wallace Wade Stadium. La Noue’s gallery at 308 West Main Street will be open to the public, free of charge.
“We’ll be open all day,” La Noue said. “The paintings will be on display and I have all kinds of archival footage of the Blue Devils. The film will be showing and I’ll have a bunch of the prints ready for sale.”
La Noue talked about the process of creating his final vision.
“My original sketch was more about the devil,” he said. It shows the head and upper torso a horned blue devil looking over the shoulder of a small soldier in blue.
“The feedback I got was that the devil was too scary, and also they had no idea who this guy was – ‘Why the guy with the rifle?
“So I realized I had some work to do.”
The final version of the painting depicts a squad of French Blue Devils in a forest at the foot of a mountain range. But that’s an overly simplistic description of the piece. It is an impressionistic work in the style of Monet or Renoir – artists who were fashioning modern art at the same time the French Blue Devils were battling the Germans in the Alps.
“When I tell the story, I emphasize that it’s legend and in a small way, I’m moving that legend forward,” he said. “There are no facts in the paintings … I take a lot of liberties, reminding people that this is legend. I’m not a military documentarian.
“There were those troops, but that was almost 100 years ago. As far as making a piece of art out of it, how can I make it … cool for lack of a better word? In doing that, I fused a lot of the mythological part of that. What if they were really devils? So there are just traces of horns here and this guy’s got fire in his hand.
“The uniform is true to form, but would they be all uniformed up in the middle of combat? Probably not, but this would be the way America experienced them. That’s my artistic liberty.”
La Noue wanted to find an artistic link between his French soldiers and Duke University.
“I took the architecture – because the Gothic architecture is to me that linking thing. These arches [which are prevalent at Duke] are called alpine gothic. The forest itself [in his painting] is reminiscent of the gothic architecture.”
La Noue’s painting contains hints of the familiar shape that tops many of Duke’s arches.
“This shape is called the tri-foil,” he said. “As you unravel these things, it’s kind of cool. The tri-foil is based on an oak leaf, but it’s also symbolizes the trinity, which was Duke’s first identity. So the tri-foil is throughout as the symbol linking the two.”
There are many other aspects to the painting that La Moue hopes the viewer will find and appreciate.
“When I make a painting, I like making something that people can like when they first see it, but also be able to move into and appreciate over time,” he said. “I’m not trying to re-invent a new style. I’m trying to establish something meaningful and thought-provoking that has an audience.”
ART/REVERE LA Noue
308 W. Main St. Durham, North Carolina 27701