How War Influenced Art

It takes a lot to draw the entire world into a war and with an event that impacts most of society, there is bound to be some ripple effects. So it’s no surprise that war has the power to influence the arts in dramatic ways. One of the key turning points was the First World War, which started in 1914 with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. In 1918 when the war ended, 9 million people were killed from over 25 different countries. Many people blamed the war on aggressive nationalism, the greed of colonialism and the quick rise of industrial technology. These ideals had been celebrated by artistic groups like the Futurists but after the war, art became more focused on the savage brutality that arose from it. War is the most destructive activity known to mankind and it purpose is to use violence to compel their opponents to submit and surrender. In order to understand it, artists have throughout history, used colour, textures and patterns to depict wartime ideologies, practices, values and symbols. In Germany, former soldiers dedicated themselves to presenting what they called the true nature of war in a work called Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. Instead of glorifying war, these works represented a dark, destructive and savage experience. Many artists dealt with World War I by focusing on the destruction that arose from it. But artists like Duchamp and the Dadaists explored the concept that the war was caused by the emphasis of reason and logic over emotions and humanity. Their response was to reject any sense of reason. Dada art was irrational and absurd, distrustful of tradition and devoted to artistic and political anarchy. Participants in war have even used the flotsam of battle as mediums for expression, carving into bullets, shell casings and bones. These often produced unsettling accounts of the calamity that overwhelmed them. Tools of cruelty turned to testaments of compassion. Art can be more effective than news reports in drawing international attention to the plight of ordinary people at war. “When you face an art form, it is not easy to escape death,” said the director of Sarajevo based Obala Art Centre, Izeta Gradevic.


The declaration of war typically triggers practical difficulties for artists. At the very least, it brings about a wariness for the economy that relegates the arts to a minor role in society. Economic sanctions would also often severely limit the availability of supplies. During the second Sino-Japanese War, for example, Japanese artists faced restrictions not only of paint but of materials such as silk, gold and mineral pigments. However, everything from excitable patriotism to down to earth curiosity has led millions of artists into the heart of darkness. Like their countrymen, many artists, writers and intellectuals initially welcomed the war for a range of reasons. Some because of their own nationalist sentiments, others a sense of patriotic duty while others had a desire to experience an ‘adventure’ they assumed would be over in a few months, if not weeks. We know now just how naive that mindset was. Others welcomed it over a mistaken belief that after what they saw as a necessary and final conflict, oppressive political systems would disappear and a more peaceful, spiritual and anti-materialist era would begin.


Some artists, like George Grosz, had long rejected militarism and the war in general but were conscripted into service anyway. Others voluntarily enlisted to gain some control over where they were placed while others enlisted enthusiastically to show their pride or be involved. There was a melting pot of mixed emotions when it came to art and the war but because there were such a large number of artists who experienced combat firsthand, either as soldiers, medics or war artists, many produced work either at the front of the lines or based on their experiences engaging in or witnessing combat. In response to the unprecedented turmoil and trauma resulting from the war, many artists reactions changed dramatically over a short period of time as feelings of strong nationalism, enthusiasm for combat and fame or even a first optimism for a better, more democratic future, morphed into despair, feelings of loss and betrayal and rage. These feelings were directed not only at the institutions deemed responsible but also at their complicity.


Some artists that got involved in the war effort were official appointees, sent by their governments to create a record of what was happening or to offer visual products to aid morale. Voluntarily engaging in active war service could allow artists to circumvent some of the restrictions created in wartime. In fact, governments often provided willing support to artists who threw themselves into the war effort, though many suffered severe injuries and even death on the front lines. As the New York literary journal The Knickerbocker tolled out at the start of the American Civil War, “ARTISTS! Remember that your elegant brushes are recording the history of a nation.”


This required artists to serve the interests of the collective. However, many struggled to resolve the tension between artistic freedom and censorship. Was their art supposed to bolster recruitment or demonize the enemy? Were they expected to be “official war artists” (as British artists were called during the First World War) or “official recorders” (as they were renamed during the first Gulf War)?


We must also not forget the fair amount of media-based work that arose out of the war, be that from posters and commissioned works by the government or other organizations to support the war efforts and charities. A large amount of propaganda also rose out of these needs. Most of the highly controversial works were actually created independently and produced and distributed as periodicals, postcards and posters in order to either boost morale or demean the enemy. Or both. Because of the industrial revolution, prints could be distributed widely and at a much lower cost than unique artworks, and these were especially effective at influencing public opinion.


The reality of war, however, is that at its core, art that focused around it meant that they had to convey the visceral horrors of battle. The search for an appropriate language to express the chaos and carnage that resulted from modern industrial warfare led to a re-evaluation of subject matter, technique, materials and styles. Artists also had to consider their responsibility as cultural producers. While some figures fell into more modernist approaches that drew from avant-garde experimentation, others embraced more traditional, figurative styles. There were even those who bridged the gap and moved between the styles for a variety of reasons. One of the more unique art forms to arise out of the wars were medical illustrations. Sketches and photography made during conflict could be used to diagnose pathologies, aid surgical practice and assess the progress of a disease and its treatment, as well as highlight the brutality that victims suffered.


There has also been a significant shift in the theme and mood of war art over the past two centuries. Prior to the twentieth century, war artists were more likely to depict heroic tales rich in religious imagery. 19th-century British paintings revelled in depicting the sumptuous battlefield landscapes with squads of men swathed across the hills. In France, artists revered the deeds of Napolean Bonaparte and his army. Figureheads were idealized and turned into monumental heroes in art. However, artistic bitterness escalated during World War I. War was described as unspeakable, godless and hopeless. Some artists even developed an overarching narrative for the young men at war. It began with an innocent young man, head high with feelings of honour and national pride and ending with disillusionment and sorrow. To paraphrase the essayist Elaine Scarry, “to see pain in war art is to have certainty — to see heroics is to have doubt.”


From World War II a new kind of art was required. It represented “authentic” combat experience that assaulted the senses of smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch. It saw artists visually representing the sounds of grenades detonating, the smell of explosives, the metallic taste of blood and the sight of human bone and tissue strewn across the battlefield.


In these instances, art is intrinsically political. Arno Breker, often referred to as Hitler’s favourite sculptor, once declared that art has nothing to do with politics, for good art is above politics. But that shakes all accountability from a man’s shoulders who’s work inspired many to join the Nazi armies. Art can create a narrative for war, a way of telling those still at home about the horrors going on, of moving outside of government propaganda. But even when not showing the human body in its most vulnerable state, war art contemplates the victors and the defeated, the landscapes in which they moved, imagined pasts, presents and futures. The dead also lives on in the hand of the artist and the eye of the witness. War art asks people to look closely, rather than looking away.