This exploration of Art and War will take an overview of the various connections between war and art; then look at the work of some artists who were, officially or incidentally, portrayers of war activity between 1914 and the present day. It is not intended as a comprehensive list of artists who have made works relating to war. Nor is it a history of war art. One theme will be how and why war-related art has been made, and who the audiences may have been.
In and around times of war, art can be made for a number of purposes. The artistic urge to record or comment may be driven by motivations around celebration, memorialisation, propaganda, information, and moral stances that can be pro- or anti-war. The work of the artist throughout various wars has been to describe events. This has, at times, been extended to call into question the purpose of war, the nature of society and to reflect on the human condition.
There is a long history of art and war. Grecian friezes were sometimes a record in stone of heroes and battles; the Bayeux Tapestry was a post-event record of events leading up to Battle of Hastings in 1066. Invasions, battles and key leaders have been variously recorded in paintings, stories, tapestries etc within the cultures of Saxons and Vikings. Court art was used to memorialise turning points such as Agincourt. Most of the early war art in UK collections relates to the (late C15th to mid C19th) period from the threat of the Armada invasion; through the Napoleonic Wars and Peninsular War; to the dominance established at Trafalgar and Waterloo; and on to the continuing land excursions in the Crimea as part of shifting global power relations.
These are often paintings of commanders: Drake, Nelson, Wellington, glorifying the winners. As seen by the recent calls for the removal or protection of statues, these are always open to some later reassessments. The other common format is to show war through pictures of campaigns, often through scenes of massed armies in grand landscapes but sometimes more specific or personal eg a cavalry roll call before the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Often these paintings were done well after the event, by people who were not present at the point of the action but there was also a more immediate approach of artists, by one means or another, getting themselves to places where the conflict could be directly observed, providing first-hand vignettes of life on the battlefield.
Artists had different reasons for being in the First World War. There were artists who were sketching the war but whose main activity there was as soldiers. CRW Nevinson served in the Red Cross and painted a medical field hospital scene. Paul Nash served with the Artists’ Rifles and, in 1917, fell into a trench and cracked a rib. He returned to the UK and exhibited paintings of blasted trees, barbed wire and cratered earth – the harsh realities of life at the front: still in the tradition of landscape painting but of a very bleak landscape. Early in the war, the British government didn’t support the idea of official war artists. This changed when artists who had been serving as soldiers returned home and exhibited paintings based on their war experiences. In 1917, arrangements were made to contract or commission artists to produce art works as a record of events, or to be used for information purposes or as propaganda. World War 2, similarly, had its established war artists including LS Lowry, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eric Ravillious, Graham Sutherland, David Bomberg, Christopher Nevinson, Augustus John and Stanley Spencer. Several other countries each had their own sets of official war artists, producing their own versions of the war.
War, of course, is more than frontline conflict. In modern war, whilst soldiers are away fighting abroad, the war can still be impacting on the Home Front. Art from this perspective can be of air raid wardens, women workers, air raids, soldiers coming home or going back from leave, and so on. During World War1 several women artists were approached via Imperial War Museum commissions to capture these aspects of war on the Home Front: In an Ambulance (Olive Mudie-Cooke); Christmas Day in the YMCA Canteen (Clare Atwood); Bus Conductress (Victoria Monkhouse); Women’s Hospital (Norah Neilson-Gray) or A Machine Shop Making Shells (Anna Airy).
Even when painted some years after the event, by people who had not been there, a lot of war art since 1900 has sought to depict the realities of people’s experiences rather than project some idealised version. War artists, official or nor, have generally wanted to let viewers know what war was like. However, some scenes in works of art were not exactly what they at first seemed. There were varying degrees of truth and falsity in their representations. Some war artists were sent out as reporters by media organisations. They operated as Press embedded in military units and had varying amounts of independence. Most of these press-sponsored artists were photographers, expected to get good action pictures. In the early days there were technical difficulties getting photos clear enough to publish because of the fast-moving nature of battle and the relatively slow camera shutter speeds. This sometime led to restaging, reimaginings and re-enactments. In the American Civil War , there was a fashion for showing the aftermath of battles. In a number of cases painters and photographers dragged objects, debris and dead bodies into shot to make more impact. Similarly, in a photograph of the Crimean War (The Valley of the Shadow of Death – showing the wide pathway up which had charged the Light Brigade) cannonballs were later strewn across the roadway for a more dramatic effect. A number of famous pictures have later turned out to be far from what they proposed. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s picture of the raising of the first flag on a hilltop after the battle of Iwo Jima is a US Marine icon. In fact, the first flag had already been raised but was judged to be too small to be seen from a distance, so a staging of the raising a larger second flag was set up some time later. It was this picture that was circulated, but keeping the ‘first flag’ tag. A few weeks later in the war, as Russian soldiers entered Berlin, a similar shot was staged using a makeshift Hammer and Sickle flag raised over a captured building. This shot was made more dramatic in the darkroom back in Russia and was used as propaganda. Some other falsities were created for promotional or propaganda purposes. A well-known scene of soldiers going Over the Top in the First World War was actually filmed well behind the front line, complete with smoke and rolls of barbed wire, to be shown as newsreel to audiences back home. Some, equally iconic, photographs were later claimed to be deliberate misrepresentations. A famous one is Frank Capa’s picture of a Spanish Republican soldier falling just at the moment of being struck by an enemy bullet. It was later claimed, however, that the photograph was of a soldier who slipped after missing his footing, and that the soldier in fact died much later, shot whilst hiding behind a tree. The photo was real enough – just of a quite different event, much more mundane than the one described. More recently, as technology has advanced, there is greater scope for digital manipulation of images to give heightened effect to a purported realism, or to create totally new ‘realities’.
Jeff Walls, a Canadian artist, took this further – moving away from any pretence at realism to create alternative narratives. His approach since the 1970s has used large-scale digitally-enhanced, elaborately-orchestrated tableaux. His Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986) was made in 1992 ie long after any real event. Its style recalls the once popular painted battle scenes. There is a deliberate posing of the figures – reminiscent of the style used in Civil War art but also that used to create dramatic effect in Gericault’s Raft of the Medua. In Wall’s version the dead soldiers are turning into vampires as their belongings are picked over by Mujahadeen.
Post conflict, the artistic focus tends to be on what was lost: War Memorials; Holocaust Memorials, Peace Gardens etc. Art related to these has taken very different forms in different places and at different times.
The World War memorials tended to be set pieces of soldiers, or angels, stressing the named individuals lost by each town or occupation.
Rachel Whiteread used her cast approach to create the Vienna Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial (1997). It was based around a cast of an absent library of books, linked to Jewish intellectual tradition, and with references back to book burning. It was absence, but done as a reminder to the present and created high profile controversy.
In the early 1980s, the Vietnam War was fresh in people’s minds. Veterans lobbied for a memorial. This was not as straightforward as with other wars. Returning soldiers faced anti-war sentiments (partly because of well publicised atrocities). The competition to make a suitable memorial to go on the Mall in Washington was won by Maya Lin with her Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982). Lin rejected having heroic figures. She went for something that was a memorial to 60,000 deaths, to those returning injured, and to repairing the social divisions that the war had created.
It was large, imposing, and visitors were invited to walk through it – as much a piece of land art as a standard memorial. Its polished surface inscribed with simple long panels of inscribed names put an emphasis on words rather than action-images. Walking down a dip, the polished surface reflected living visitors as much as dead service personnel, before people emerged back up into the light of day. Initially it was not well received by those who saw it as cold, formal and focusing on individuals rather than the group. There was no soldier figure to highlight the purpose. (Another, Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers was in that mode and was later put nearby). Its minimalism was seen by some as representing ‘less’, as if the Vietnam dead were not so ‘worthy’. At the same time, it was described as being ‘a memorial of our own times, one that could not have been achieved in another time and place’. Although it was controversial at first, it is now highly visited.
A very different Vietnamese memorial exists. Towards the Complex – For the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards (2001) by Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba is a short film in which Vietnamese divers go to the ocean floor in waters off Nha Trang, Vietnam. They stay there briefly, pedalling bicycle taxis that used to be emblematic of Vietnam, before coming back up for air. The waters in the area still have mines left from the US blockade. In the work there are hints of people fleeing and of Vietnamese Boat People. It is a memorial to the who stayed and those who left; those who died and those who remained.
These two art works arose out of the same war, are very different, but both are intended as reflections as much as celebratory memorials.
War has always been part of broader political manoeuvrings and art has sometimes had a background role in these. The Cold War was fought partly through art being directly co-opted into it – art as propaganda – or by proxy, with an assumed freedom of Abstract Expressionism being set against Soviet realist conformity. War has also had its more direct effects on art itself.
World War 1 interrupted a number of developments in art. The internationalism of some art movements was temporarily suspended, a number of close working partnerships were disrupted (eg Picasso/ Braque), and more than three hundred known artists were killed. Apollinaire –a writer and friend to many artists at the time – described this as a generation of artists who ‘knew death better than life’. Some artists no longer saw how traditional methods could continue to be appropriate. There was experimentation with new approaches to their work. Percy Wyndham Lewis (who defined himself as Vorticist) painted A Battery Shelled in which the humans are reduced in scale to resemble machine-like, ant-like beings. The Great War was seen as mechanisation of war. Leger wanted to reconcile this apparent merger of machine forms and human forms within his work which tended towards building figures from cylinders, spheres and cubes.
Things continued to exert an Influence on art post World War 1. How could there be art after all that horror? After the war, art partly merged into creating memorials. There was also a retreat into irrationalism – eg the 1920s Surrealism (mostly in Paris) – and a cohort of artists wanting to change the established order (eg Magritte, Miro, Dali, Ernst). War gave a new realism to post-war developments in Germany, in the work of Max Beckmann, George Grosz and Otto Dix. Later, in the early 1960s, Germany similarly wanted an art that could draw a line under the country’s recent history and which also rejected Soviet Realism. There was a re-examination of the country’s expressionist tradition and a reworking of it, in the light of the war.
Art has sometime had an ambiguous relationship to the idea of warfare and conflict. Some Italian Futurists glorified war as ‘the only hygiene of the world’ – part of a mechanised progress for a better future. In general, though, art has been used to promote a deliberate anti-war message. One of first paintings to confront the brutality of war was Goya’s The Shootings of May 3rd 1808 showing a scene resulting from an uprising in Madrid against the invasion by Napoleonic troops. Goya’s use of the formal lighting of the main victim gives the scene a vividness, showing an ordinary person caught up in an act in which he was a powerless victim. In the later Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, a generalised horror of the bombing of a civilian Basque town by German troops, to test the resilience of the inhabitants, led Picasso directly to produce his Guernica (1937). Much later, and not directly as part of a particular war, Peter Kennard, in his own work, used collage and photomontage to create political messages eg a copy of Constable’s Haywain but with cruise missiles as the cart’s load; and in collaboration with Cat Picton-Phillips, in Photo Op a montage of Blair taking a selfie superimposed on a background of burning Iraqi oilfields.
All of this calls into question the purpose of art in times of war. In the Vietnam conflict, for example, was it sufficient for the artist to simply document events? Leon Golub embraced representational painting as a means to ‘get at the real’. He observed soldiers, both in combat and at rest as well as making use of mass media images. His Vietnam ll (1972) had parts of the painting cut away, (as wounds etc), allowing real space to be part of it. Don McCullin was a noted photographer of the same conflict. He certainly got into the thick of the conflict and recorded the reality of events. At the same time, he produced some of the most iconic images showing the effect that the fighting was having on those involved. Images such as his helped to shape public opinion about the war.
Art, technologies and war have their interconnections. Different wars have each brought their different new technologies and have created different ways of artistically commenting on these. The mechanised Great War was represented by some in terms of content (eg the Tank charcoal drawing by Muirhead Bone) or changes in style (as we have seen with Leger or with Lewis). Contemporary warfare can be less openly visible. It can be remote, against hidden enemies and unseen threats. The most advanced technology in these wars has been that of armed forces and access to understanding the impacts of this technology has relied on access to officially approved images. New contexts have produced new art. A few examples are below.
Some war artists were embedded in the military operations in Afghanistan and somewhat traditionally captured the routines of war eg Matt Oak (Ops Room; The Road to Basra). Paul Seawright wanted to engage differently than by standard photojournalism. He took pictures of empty minefields, creating images of a pastoral landscape that was at the same time lethal, and inaccessible. Steve Mumford used drawing rather than photography. He drew what was happening, as it happened, in conflicts but also back at camps. His intent was to portray his impressions of individuals, in quite personal contexts. These approaches, and those of many other artists since 1960, are at a far remove from the more historical depictions of heroic commanders with their massed armies.
Some artists have engaged with the technology-as-weapon aspect of recent warfare. Harun Farocki’s Eye/Machine (2001-2003) was a video that linked the processes for the automated production of weapons to the use of computerised image-based guidance systems of missiles. Omer Fast’s video about unmanned aerial vehicles, 5000 feet is the best (2011), is a mix of documentary, interviews, and editing. Soldiers stationed at their TV consoles are every bit engaged in war and become every bit a part of a war artist’s subject.
Steve McQueen created art as a result of a visit to Iraq as an official war artis. One work was Private Scott ‘Casper’ Kennedy Died 28 June 2007, aged 20 which was part of his Queen and Country series. It consists of 160 vertical drawers each containing a sheet of facsimile postage stamps with a family-chosen photograph of a British soldier killed in action. The artist sees it as unfinished until the stamps are officially adopted and appear on letters, showing his commitment to art as a social tool that can be used via everyday objects. It is a very political work but one that retains an intimacy of approach.
Mark Wallinger’s State Britain (2007) was equally overtly political and won the Turner Prize for him in 2007. It is a detailed, almost exact, reproduction of peace activist Brian Haw’s anti-war protest against the Iraq War. The original had been set up outside Parliament. The introduction of an anti-terror law prohibited protests within one mile of parliament building and most of Haw’s original encampment was confiscated by police. Wallinger’s gallery version had a line through the middle marking the one mile distance from parliament.
Forensic Architecture is an investigative agency, based at Goldsmiths College, that was put forward for the Turner Prize. They have pieced together evidence from a variety of sources to investigate contentious social events. Their data investigation techniques, of buildings and places, has been used to look into human rights violations, state conflicts against citizens, and the mechanics of Russia’s incursions into Ukraine.
In summary, art and war have had shifting and complex relationships. Art has attempted to record war, comment on war, depict the lives of those involved, take sides, and memorialise those involved. By the early C21st, art has also tackled other forms of conflict, issues of civil liberties, and questions about art and politics. Artists continue to be asked to engage with active warfare and with the social legacies of recent wars, including finding different sorts of remembering. They have done this in different ways, from different perspectives, and with varying degrees of reliability. In doing all of this, it is understandable that art has itself been changed by the effects of war.