Any discussion of war art has to begin with Goya and his series The Disasters of War. As part of this series, Goya created 82 prints depicting the atrocities of wars between the French and Spanish. Print after print depict the horror and the grossness of war in mutilated bodies, women and children screaming, men pillaging, killing, lying dead, naked, helpless. The horror of war is universal just as the pain and suffering of the living is. What is not universal is the representation of war, the way we look at war and depict changes with each generation and since time immemorial war has inspired generations of artists affected by the crisis and cruelty that war brings out in its highest form.
Let us explore below the evolution of the representation of war
The Surrender of Breda, Diego Velasquez
There is no gore her, no blood. The focus here is not battle here but on reconciliation. At one level it is just another propaganda painting; Velasquez the court painter of Philip IV, paints in patriotic fervour depicting the generosity, compassion and royal grace of the Spaniards led by Philip IV. It celebrates a rare Spanish victory without depicting any of the vast destructions that this was caused and the economic troubles and loss of life that it brought for Spain itself.
The Death of General Wolfe, Benjamin West
This painting depicts battle of the Seven Years’ Scene fought between Britain and France and commanded by General Wolfe. In his death, General Wolfe became an iconic national hero. In this painting too there is no gore and blood and mutilated bodies of war. The painting even though depicts a battle scene, the fighting remains in the far background doomed by dark clouds. In the fore ground is General Wolfe dying in valour and grace resembling a Christ-like figure. West romanticises war and dying for the nation and rejects the realism of representation.
Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David
This portrait was commissioned by the King of Spain to form a collection of gifts that were given to Napoleon in order to re-establish diplomatic relations. The painting shows an extremely idealised picture of Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps. In reality the crossing was made during fine weather and Bonaparte had been led across the Alps by a guide behind the troops on a mule. This painting positions him as the leader who led his troops during bad, windy weather amidst dark clouds foreshadowing danger. Once again realism is rejected to depict courage and valour for the sake of propaganda.
The Third of May 1808, Francisco Goya
Part of the collection of gifts given to Napoleon was Goya’s portrait of the King and Queen. It is ironic therefore that just after eight years Spain was at war with France and Goya set out to commemorate Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s army. This painting is revolutionary in both content and intention as it breaks away from earlier convention of representing war. With no precedent, it is conceived as the first modern painting. Goya depicts the war in the middle of action with all its gory bloody details, the horrors of it visible in the mutilated bodies and in the faces of the crouching and hiding men.
Fifteen years down the line, depiction of war had changed. Now artists like Jean Louis André Théodore Géricault depicted the wounded and exhausted and defeated soldiers of Napoleon returning from Russia. Along with a focus on the physical and mental trauma of the soldiers, artists also began to pay attention to the innocent civil casualties of war.
We are Making a New World, Paul Nash
With the First World War came a new surge of war artists. These artists worked in demanding conditions, painting at night in the dark. One such artist is Paul Nash whose paintings are the most iconic works of the war that was fought to end all wars. We are Making a New World is an ironic title to a painting that depicts the landscape of death and despair. Leafless tree trunks, mounds of earth constitute that abandoned landscape and the hope lies in the rising sun of the new day.
While works of this generation of artists depict the senseless destruction of war they also consider it as a necessary evil alongside questioning the kind of world they were entering into. Artists now concentrated entirely on the brutality of war. These anti-war artists refused to be drafted and demanded peace.
Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas, Otto Dix
Otto Dix, a German artist went to war a patriot but came back horrified and dejected. His prints gathered in Der Krieg or The War are dark and violent in their execution and depict the recurrent nightmares that Otto Dix had of his time spent in the trenches. He went on to have a difficult relationship with the Nazi government during the Second World War as he continued to criticise war and paint for peace.
Around the same time the craziness of war led to the emergence of Dadaism, an anti-war movement that protested against a society that was pro-war.
Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the First Epoch of the Weimar Beer-Belly Culture, Hannah Hoch
The German Dada artist’s work depicts at best the anti-war sentiment that the Dadsists held. In this work there is chaos, madness, destruction of humanity, death and sorrow. It belongs to a world gone mad. It is also one of the few artworks on war by women that became iconic. Women in war figured only as victims. Neither did they wage wars nor paint them. Most female artists of the period painted relief work done by nurses during the period or female workers who took the place of their male counterparts called away for military service.
Guernica, Pablo Picasso
This painting in gray, black and white by Picasso is considered worldwide as the most tragic and moving painting with an anti-war sentiment. This mural of large dimensions depicts a room in which a woman grieves with a dead child in her arms, the horse shrieks as it has been pierced through by a spear, people screaming, dying and suffering illuminated by the bulb in the shape of an evil eye populate this canvas of horror.
This painting is said to garner a more emotional response from the viewer than realistic photographs of war scenes. With the Second World War photography became the dominant form of representation. War journalism had emerged as distinct field and war photographer fled to war scenes. Robert Capa, a distinguished war photographer famously said, “If your photographs are not good enough, you’re not close enough.” Photographs of this period archive scenes of death, brutality, victory, flag raising etc but one of the most iconic photograph to come out of this period is that of a soldier kissing a nurse at the Times Square celebration of the end of the Second World War.
This photograph came to stand for peace, love and harmony and the end of destruction, death and fear. However in human society conflict and war never really end and continue to haunt us even in the twenty first century. Each new generation has developed its own language to depict war and so have the late 20th and 21st century artists who have experimented with various mediums like video art, graffiti and installation to expose the horrors and brutality of war.
Measures of Distance, Mona Hatoum
Hatoum is a Palestinian artist who was forced to exile from her country when civil war broke out. Visiting London as a student she could not return. Displacement and identity as linked to war are significant to her works. This video work is layered. In the background is the video of her mother taking a shower, layered on top is Arabic text and as the video plays Hatoum reads out letters she received from her mother in her days of exile. The intimate and voyeuristic video is an attempt to criticise the intrusive nature of war in private spaces like homes and how it breaks them up.
This said in the 21st century we see war and violence everywhere around us. Be it in Palestine, North Africa or Ukraine, terrorism or the war on terror, artists have protested against war since the times of Goya making art their form of protest, sensitising the masses against the brutality of war and also representing their sufferings and fears. Graffiti artists like Banksy, “Make Art Not War” posters by street artist Shepard Fairey or political cartoons by Joe Sacco all criticise the violence in contemporary society using images from popular culture.