Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Art versus War

Art and war represent opposite poles of history and society: the creative versus the destructive, the human versus the inhuman, yet throughout the history of so-called ‘civilisation’ art ahas been dominated by society’s rulers (“The class that controls the means of material production control also the means of mental production” – Karl Marx) and consequently has been used since the pharohs and the ancient greeks to glorify war and it’s victors. Occasionally this tradition has produced a masterpiece such as Paulo Ucelo’s The Battle of San Romano (c. 1450), which celebrates Florance’s triumph over it’s nearby rival Sienna. But what distinguishes this painting is it’s superb combination of form and colour and it’s pioneering development of perspective, not it’s depiction of war.

In the main, however the glorification of war has resulted in an abundance of mediocre hackwork: countless kings on horseback pretending to be about to fight; innumerable ‘heroic’ commanders dying nobly. Victorian Britain specialised in imperialist art – spectacular cavalry charges mowing down the natives and such like – most of it painted badly.

In the 20th century the pattern changes and art, serious art at least, develops much more as a critic and opponant of war. But before discussing this we must go back to the early 19th century to the first, and perhaops still the greatest, of all anti-war artists, Francisco Goya.

Goya’s great painting The Third of May 1808, shows the execution of Spanish peasant insurgents by the occupying French army. The firing squad, whose shoulders are hunched and faces obscured, appear anonymous and ruthless. The central peasant figure, is bathed in light and flings out his arms in a christ-like gesture. All the sympathy of the painting is with the peasant victims.

Even more powerful are his series of private etchings The Disasters of War, which depict scenes of hand to hand fighting and atrocities from the ensuing peasant guerilla war, some of which Goya probably witnessed personally. With almost unbearable honesty Goya shows us the hanged and garroted, the castrated, mutilated and impaled – the true horror of war, observed close-up – as never before or since.

Goya’s anti-war art remained an isolated case for a hundred years. War was not a central theme in the major art of the 19th century, but a relavent and important development did take place. From about 1848 onwards the best artists (Corbet, Manet, Cezanne etc) detached themselves from state and aristocratic patronage and turned to what might be called radical avantgardism – Impressionism, Symbolism, Experssionism, Cubism, Futurism and so on.

This prepared the ground for the real turning point in art’s relationship to war, namely World War One. Several factors combined to produce a wave of anti-war art across Europe. First there was the sheer scale of the slaughter. Mass conscription and the appaling death toll of up to 16 million meant that the war touched the lives of everyone in society in a way that was historically unoprecedented. One consequence of this was that numerous artists and poets were called up and so experienced the war at first hand with a number of them being killed in the conflict e.g the French poet Apollinaire, the Italian painter Boccione, and the English poets Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen.

The perculiarly dreadful nature of trench warfare with thousands of lives sacrificed for a few yards of wasteland meant that any halfway realistic depiction of the war looked like anti-war propaganda. A good example of this is Henry Tonks’ Studies in Facial Wounds. (1916). Tonks, an art school professor, made a series of pastel drawings of soldiers with facial wounds for medical purposes. The portraits are so horrific as to by themselves constitute an indictment of the war. Finally there was the fact that there existed a determined opposition to the war armed with a fierce and cohearant politcal critique of the whole enterprise. This opposition – Lenin, Luxomburg, Liebknicht, Maclean etc – was tiny and isolated at first but rapidly gained support as the war dragged on and this could not fail to influence the artists.

The result was such a rich legacy of anti-war art that no justice can be done to it in a short article. The sorrow of war widows, the grimness of the trenches, the terror of bombardment and the suffering of the gassed and maimed were all dramatically depicted by artists as varied as Kathe Kolwitz, Willy Jaekel, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Christopher Nevinson, John and Paul Nash, John Singer Sargent and many others. Some of the most powerful work appeared in the aftermath of the war. I will mention just three examples. Without showing a single corpse or casualty Paul Nash encapsulates all the horror of the war in the multilated trees and tortured earth of his ironically entitled landscape We Are Making a New World (1918). Otto Dix’s Scat Players (1920) shows in close up three ex-serviceman playing cards – a soldier, sailor and airman – each hideously maimed and scarred. George Grosz invokes not only pity but also rage and directs it at the capitalist class responsible for the war in his savage satire These War Invalids are Getting to Be a Posivive Pest.

Of course it was the revolt of ordinary soldiers and workers, above all in Russia, that led the struggle against the war but there is no doubt that these artworks together with the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and others, played a significant role in imprinting a negative view of the war in the public imagination.

World War One also produced a revolt by anti-war artists which took a completely different form. In neutral Zurich, near where Lenin was at the time, were a small group of extreme avant-gardists – Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Kurt Schwitters, Richard Huelsenbeck and others. Disgusted an enraged by the disaster engulfing Europe they turned against the “culture” and “civilisation” which they believed had produced the catastrophe. They endevoured to produce an art that was “anti-art” and “anti-culture”, that would provoke, mock and undermine the bourgois cultural establishment. They gave it the nonsense name “Dada”. Dadaism was a glorious failure. It could not have been otherwise. The bougoisie was shocked but not shaken and the war machine continued remorselessly, no more deflected from it’s path than a charging elephant by the bite of a gnat. Nevertheless dada did have an important long term influence on the development of art, paving the way for Surrealism and feeding into the work of Marcel Duchamp. It is also interesting to note that this period saw the production of the one great painting of the 20th century that could be described as enthusiastically pro-war – but of course it was a very different war. El Lissitsky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge was in support of the red army’s defence of the Russian revolution. This is one of the outstanding works of the great flowering of revolutionary culture in Russia before it was strangled by the death hand of the stalinist dictatorship. In the inter-war period, European culture, like European society, tended to polarise between far right and far left. The majority of visual artists tended to support the left and anti-war art merged with anti-fascist art. There are two outstanding figures: John Heartfield and Pablo Picasso. Heartfield was german artist who adopted an english name during the first world war as a protest against anti-english propaganda. He was a communist who did much of his work for AIZ (Worker’s Illustrated Gazette). His major contribution was the development of the technique of photo-montage, the combining of several photographic images to produce a new art image. This technique is clearly particularly useful for art with a direct political message and has often been used subsequently (see below). Heartfield’s principal target was Hitler and he produced devastating posters such as Hither Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk and Million Stand Behind Me.

However he also created two especially powerful works which though certainly anti-fascist have a much more universal anti-war resonance. The first is the famous image of a dove of peace impaled on a bayonet. The second depicts five war planes high in the sky; from their tails flow five smoke trails which form five boned fingers and then merge into the palm of a skeletal hand. On the ground below lie the bodies of the dead and beneath them the caption Das Is Das Heil, Das Sie Bringen.

Picasso, of course, made Guernica, the most celebrated anti-war painting in history and probably the most famous painting of any kind in the 20th century. Provoked by the distruction of the basque town of Guernica by the Luftwaffe in the spanish civil war (the first instance of arial bombing of civillians) it is a symbolic response rather than a naturalistic representation of the event. This led to some debate at the time as to whether a social-realist rendering would have been more accessible to the masses, but this question seems to have been settled by history: no realist painting has reached half the people that Guernica has. The symbols deployed by Picasso – the bull, the mother with the dead child in her arms, the screaming horse, the fallen soldier with his broken sword – have a universal character. They make the painting not only an immensely powerful protest about a specific war crime but a protest against the horror of war and man’s inhumanity to man in general. Considerable use was made of Guernica in the recent campain against the Iraq war: “No To War” badges were made of the mother and dead child image and a british socialist newspaper reproduced Guernica across it’s front page in response to the destruction of Fallujah.

In contrast to World War One, World War Two produced little war or anti-war art of quality. One reason for this was simply that there was no artistic freedom either in stalinist Russia or in Nazi occupied Europe. Many of Europe’s leading artists fled to America but in Britan and the USA most artists supported the war, because of the nature of the Nazi enemy, and this inhibited them from depicting it’s awful reality. After 1945 the tradition of anti-war art was at least partially revived. Picasso’s association with the communist led peace movement led him to produce many variations on his theme of the dove as symbol of peace, images which are still used by today’s peace campaigners, and a major painting Massacre in Korea which echoed the hunched firing squad of Goya’s Third of May.

WHAMM! (1963) By the american pop artist, Roy Lichtenstein, was a huge blow-up of a comicbook image of a US fighter blasting an enemy plane. It was politically ambigious but was at least open to the interpretation that it was an ironic expose of debased gung-ho american attitudes to war, and was adapted to make this point by campaigners against the first gulf war. Also Andy Warhol made a frightening image of an A-bomb mushroom cloud with devil’s horns. In Britain in the 70s and 80s Peter Kennard revived Heartfield’s photo-montage technique to produce powerful images in the cause of peace and nuclear disarmament, most memorably through the incorporation of cruise missiles into John Constable’s famous landscape The Haywain. Both the painters appointed as Britain’s official war artists for the Gulf and Balkan wars, John Keane and Peter Hausen respectively adopted a critical stance (though personally, I dislike Hausen’s work). The current war in Iraq has generated an upsurge in grass roots anti-war art in Britain (the only country I have detailed information about) in forms ranging from the conceptual (a tank of mixed blood and oil) to sculptural charicatures of Bush and Blair. Even Tracy Emin, whose normal themes are autobiographical and sexual, has made some anti-war pieces. And, again in the tradition of John Heartfield, Leon Kuhn working closely with the anti-war movement has used photomontage to pillory Bush and Blair. His most telling image depicts Bush as a dog flying through the air like a B52, with Blair dragged behind clasping his leash and the caption “Mad Dogs and Englishmen…” (from the famous english song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Midday Sun”).

For the best part of a hundred years the struggle against imperialist war has been absolutely central to the international struggle for a better world. What this brief, and massively incomplete, survey shows is that visual art along with all other art forms has a small but significan role to play in this struggle. Art has the power to move, to inspire, to educate, to win hearts and minds, to express pain and focus anger. Of course, by itself, the greatest art is far from enough, or Heartfield and Picasso would have defeated Hitler and Franco. But every political movement needs it’s artistic wing with politics and art feeding into each other to their mutual benefit.

Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808 (1813)
Francisco Goya This is Worse from Disasters of War (1812-13)
Paul Nash We are Building a New World (1918)
Otto Dix The Skatplayers (1920)
George Grosz These War Invalids are Becoming a Positive Pest (1920)
El Lissitsky Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920)
John Heartfield This is the Salvation, Which They Bring (1934)
Pablo Picasso Guernica (1937)
Pablo Picasso Massacre in Korea (1952)
Roy Lichtenstein WHAAM! (1963)
Peter Kennard “The Haywain”
Leon Kuhn Mad Dogs and Englishmen (2003)]

This article was written April 2005, for publication by the Centre for Socialist Studies in Egypt.

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