War and Peace in the Arts

David M Hart. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 6. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Depictions of violence have been part of human culture for millennia. What began as an effort of early humans to come to terms with the awe-inspiring power of weapons to kill their prey, and thus sustain human life, or ward off danger (for example, the cave paintings of Altamira, Spain) has evolved into a complex social code to help us try to make sense of total war, which industrialization and the modern nation-state made possible during the twentieth century.

The Military Leader

The most common image of war is that of the military leader, typically depicted on horseback or in a chariot, leading his troops into battle, and vanquishing the enemy. Before the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a king or an emperor had to be a skilled military leader in order to seek, obtain, and maintain political power. Thus, depictions of his military successes were an important means of demonstrating to his subjects and would-be challengers the king’s legitimacy as a ruler. These images were displayed on the bas reliefs of public buildings and temples, and as statuary in public places where as many people as possible could see and admire their achievements. Such images were also created for private viewing, usually to remind the ruling elite of the king’s power and legitimacy. Paintings commissioned by the king or emperor would show the leader in various idealized poses as brilliant battlefield commander or god-anointed ruler.

The Heroic Soldier

The second most commonly depicted individual in war art is the heroic soldier. In the Western world the characteristics of the archetypal hero were defined in Homer’s ninth-century epic poems about the Trojan War, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Homeric hero, as personified by Achilles, was courageous in battle, loyal to his friends and comrades, and quick to anger. He suffered grievous loss, sometimes even death, and was curiously attracted to the thrill of battle but was equally appalled by its horrifying consequences. In the visual arts the Homeric heroes were repeatedly depicted in the red and black figures of painted Ancient Greek pottery. The image of Ajax carrying the body of Achilles is particularly poignant as it reminds the viewer that death often accompanies heroic actions on the battlefield.

More commonly the hero has been depicted as the protector of society who symbolically defeats the enemy as snake or dragon, as demonstrated by the innumerable depictions of Saint George, who was adopted as the patron saint of England in the fourteenth century. Or the hero is depicted, often on horseback, leading his troops into battle with firm conviction of the high moral purpose of the battle about to be fought, as when William the Conqueror leads his troops into the Battle of Hastings (1066) in an early piece of war propaganda, the Bayeux Tapestry.

It was sometimes acknowledged that to be a hero one had to be a little bit mad. To willingly face physical harm or death and to be able to urge one’s fellows to do likewise and to lead them into battle required a sense of commitment that might appear to verge on madness. Albrecht Dürer caught this in his copper engraving Knight, Death, and the Devil(1513), where the steadfast knight, accompanied by his loyal dog, looks intently forward, trying to avoid the distractions of Death, who brandishes his hourglass, and of the Devil, who leers at him.

Two countertypes stand in contrast to the model of the heroic soldier: the heroic female soldier, or “warrior queen,” and the antihero. Many warrior queens who led nations but not armies into battle wished to show themselves the equal of their male counterparts, at least in works of art. A coronation painting of Empress Catherine II of Russia (r. 1762-1796) shows her on horseback, in uniform, holding a sword but with armed troops almost hidden in the background; Maria Theresa of Austria also wanted to be painted on horseback but, although she brandishes a sword, she wears robes, not a military uniform, and sits side-saddle.

Actual warrior heroines like the ancient Briton, Boadicea, are depicted riding a chariot (a bronze statue by Thomas Thornycroft, 1902) or standing on a slight rise above her troops exhorting them to battle; Amazons were depicted on an equal footing with Greeks in art; Joan of Arc is often depicted wearing full armor but kneeling in prayer or standing with a battle standard, and less frequently on horseback. In India, the Rani of Jhansi, who led men into battle against the British in 1858, is depicted on horseback and brandishing a sword.

The Robin Hood of legend was the classic antihero—an aristocrat who donned the garb of ordinary peasants and took up their cause of opposing taxation and other feudal obligations while an absentee king fought in foreign wars. Courage and resistance are among the hallmarks of the antihero. John Simpson Kirkpatrick, an Australian soldier who served in the Gallipoli front (Turkey, 1915) in World War I, demonstrated his courage not by killing the enemy but by rescuing the injured, often under fire, and bringing them back to the first aid stations on the back of his donkey. The image of “Simpson and his donkey” became a potent one in photographs, posters, and, later, statues. It was used both as propaganda for Australian recruitment and as an antiwar statement of how one man turned his back on the killing and sought to save life.

Civilian Casualties in War

Jacques Callot’s series of etchings The Miseries of War (mid-seventeenth century) was the first attempt to depict the impact of war on civilians. Callot’s finely detailed etchings of war-ravaged Lorraine during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) show pillaged farm houses, burning churches, and the raping and killing of peasants by marauding soldiers and deserters. But this is not a thoroughgoing antiwar perspective; rather, it shows what happens when legitimate authority temporarily breaks down and soldiers become an ill-disciplined rabble as a result. A good Catholic and monarchist, Callot concludes his series with the just punishment and rewards meted out by the absolute monarch according to God’s will, no doubt—the wicked soldiers are hung en masse and the well-disciplined officers get their monetary rewards and promotions.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) achieves a more consistent anti-war perspective in his graphic depiction of the horrors of guerrilla warfare in Spain under the occupation of Napoleon’s troops (1808-1813). His adoption of enlightened ideas of reason and the natural rights of man meant that Goya regarded as a crime and a disaster what others had accepted previously as inevitable, namely the killing of civilians. The particular circumstances of the guerrilla war in Spain brought this aspect of war into particularly sharp focus. His series of eighty-three etchings, The Disasters of War (1810-1814; published posthumously because of their radical perspective and graphic depiction of atrocities), documents the horrors committed by both sides—the Spanish people fighting a foreign occupying army and the French rooting out “terrorists” in order to bring the ideals of the French Revolution to an apparently unwilling populace.

In the twentieth century the widespread use of the camera made possible the depiction of the impact of war, especially total war, on civilian populations in much greater detail: whole cities reduced to rubble by “carpet bombing” during World War II; a naked Vietnamese girl running toward the camera with her napalm wounds exposed; a room full of human skulls in Cambodia. In the early twenty-first century the small and cheap digital camera made possible the graphic depiction of the treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison camp. Among the outright pornographic is the iconic image of a hooded and cloaked Iraqi with arms outstretched, Christlike, with wires from his extremities hooked up to some source of electricity. The camera is able to capture and reveal two extremes of war’s impact—the personal and individual suffering that war causes, and the panorama of mass destruction—but the middle ground seems to be missing.

Photographic images that have become closely associated with the Holocaust are pictures of rooms full of victim’s shorn hair, spectacles, shoes, empty suitcases, and boxes of gold fillings extracted from inmates’ teeth—the by-products of the industrialized process of killing human beings and recycling their property. In camps like Theresienstadt, art work by inmates was sometimes officially commissioned or tolerated by the Nazis as a useful diversion. In other camps, making sketches or drawing was strictly forbidden, and inmates were severely punished if they were caught. Yet, many did make a visual record of their experience in the camps, and some returned to the topic in paintings they made after the war ended. The themes dealt with by camp artists include portraits, images of daily hardships, images of death and dying, and gallows or black humor. The art produced in the Nazi camps is extraordinary testimony to the will to survive of human beings and to the deeply felt need to document human experience.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States in World War II also gave rise to new images of war. The image of the mushroom-shaped cloud produced by the explosion of an atomic bomb is now universally recognized. What is less well known is the art produced by the people on the ground who lived through the explosion. In 1976 the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, NHK, collected images drawn by survivors of the atomic bomb blast. The pictures (published in Unforgettable Fire), all drawn by amateur artists, provide a moving and very different set of images of atomic warfare. A number of images that appear repeatedly in their work include bloodshot and bleeding eyes; people walking about naked; and people walking about with what appear to be rags or cloth draped over their bodies but which are in fact sheets of burnt skin that have peeled away. Many walked with their arms outstretched, held away from their body in order to prevent the burnt flesh from rubbing. In Japanese culture, this is the way ghosts walk. The atomic bomb victims had been transformed into living ghosts.

In spite of the camera’s success in capturing the experience of war in the twentieth century, perhaps the most powerful and best-known depiction of innocent civilians in war is Pablo Picasso’s mural Guernica (1937), inspired by the bombing of a Basque town by German fighter bombers serving with the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. In a complex, triangular structured painting Picasso depicts burning houses surrounding a square, a woman calling out a warning to others, a mother holding her dead baby, a woman running from the mayhem, a fallen and broken statue of a warrior, a stabbed and screaming horse. In spite of the fact that much worse atrocities against civilians were perpetrated and depicted in the second half of the twentieth century (or perhaps because of it), the power of this painting still shocks nearly seventy years after its creation.

The Ordinary Soldier in Battle

Like civilians, the ordinary soldier was largely invisible in war art until the nineteenth century. Only when mass conscript armies of citizens took to the field after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had revolutionized the nature of warfare did artists and photographers begin to take notice. The emergence of mass circulation newspapers, the technology to cheaply reproduce sketches and photos, a reading public interested in the fate of their fathers and sons on the battlefield, and a growing liberal concern for the welfare of the ordinary soldier, were also contributing factors.

During the American Civil War, artists like Winslow Homer (1836-1910) produced a steady stream of illustrations of battles (usually not personally witnessed but reconstructed afterward) and of the life of the ordinary soldiers in their camps. Many of these camp illustrations show the boredom of soldiers with nothing to do while they wait for the next bloody battle. Photographers like Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy H. O’Sullivan revolutionized the depiction of war with their images of the dead littering the battlefield, or of the execution of rebels by hanging.

World War I produced a number of gifted war artists whose visual record of the war is significant. Among these is the German graphic artist Otto Dix, who served from 1914 to 1918 and saw action on the Western Front. His most interesting work consists of a set of fifty etchings simply called Der Krieg (1924; The war) and some oil paintings, especially the disturbing War Triptych (1929-1932). Iconic images of World War I include the desolation of the landscape caused by the incessant shelling and the digging of trenches along the Western Front. In Der Krieg Dix shows how ordinary soldiers dealt with these appalling conditions—they became one with the earth in both death and life. In death their bodies were literally consumed by the soil and the worms (the worm-riddled Skull); in life they spent their lives covered in dirt and living in holes and trenches dug in the earth (Feeding-Time in the Trench). The only hope for life seems to be the flowers and worms that grow out of the craters and skulls of men. In the War Triptych Dix takes the traditional Christian image used to portray the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and applies it to the front-line soldier in the trenches.

The experience of ordinary soldiers who were captured by the enemy was largely hidden from public view during World War II and did not surface until well after their release. Cameras were forbidden, of course, and those prisoners who were caught keeping diaries or making sketches were severely punished. Nevertheless, some prisoners of war (POWs) were able to keep their diaries and sketches and publish them after the war. British soldier-artists such as Ronald Searle and Jack Chalker, captured after the fall of Singapore in 1942, were sent to work building the Thai-Burma railways as slave workers for the Imperial Japanese Army. In their art they document the brutal treatment the POWs received as many of their comrades were worked to death. They produced images that have a number of similarities to those produced by European victims of the Nazi Holocaust—emaciated, sick bodies lying on flimsy beds and brutal captors with batons and rifle butts ready to beat them. Of the 60,000 POWs who worked on the railway nearly one third died. Not surprisingly, their anger at their treatment tinges their art with racist depictions of their oppressors.

Bringing War to an End

The formal ending of a state of war is commonly achieved by means of a surrender, armistice, or peace treaty. For the losing party there is no pleasant way to accept defeat. For the victor, there is an opportunity for propaganda, as a number of works of art demonstrate. The seventeenth-century Spanish painter Diego Velasquez was commissioned by the Spanish court to contribute to a series of victory paintings during the Thirty Years’ War. His Surrender of Breda (1634-1635) shows Justin of Nassau handing the keys of the besieged Dutch city of Breda to the marchese Spinola in 1625 after the city had endured a terrible ten-month siege. Both men have their hats off, as equals might greet each other, and the Spaniard has his arm on the Dutchman’s shoulder in a conciliatory gesture. Given the impact of a siege on a civilian city such a gesture might seem somewhat inadequate, but it was how the Spanish wished to be seen in victory.

A less generous depiction of a surrender, but no less propagandistic, is a popular Japanese woodcut that shows the Russian surrender of the fortress of Port Arthur to the Japanese in 1905, also after a long siege. The Japanese officers stand with their hats on under the shelter of a tent that flies the Japanese flag. The Russian officers stand humiliated in the snow outside the tent with their hats off submissively, waiting to sign the surrender papers. The battle is significant because it was the first time an Asian military power had defeated one of the great powers of Europe. Thus the Europeans had to be humiliated as well as defeated.

The humiliation was returned forty years later, when the Japanese formally signed surrender documents on the deck of the U.S. battleship Missouri on 2 September 1945. The official American military photograph shows the Japanese party literally surrounded by Allied personnel as they approach the signing table. Immediately above them and to the side, dozens of American enlisted men sit on the ship’s giant guns with their feet dangling over the side. They will not show any respect by standing for the Japanese delegation. Directly overhead, at the moment of the signing, 400 B-29 bombers and 1,500 naval fighters flew past, drowning out all words. The surrender was total, unconditional, and utterly humiliating.

The American painter Winslow Homer took a different approach to the end of war. In The Veteran in a New Field (1865), a Northern veteran has taken off his jacket and canteen and put them to one side. He has taken up a scythe and begins to harvest a field of wheat. We can imagine that, like the Roman leader Cincinnatus (b. c. 519 B.C.E.), who left his farm to assume the dictatorship of Rome and defend it from its enemies only to relinquish that power and return to his farm, this veteran has turned his back on war and taken up peaceful and productive agricultural labor. The image brings to mind the biblical verse: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).