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Article originally appeared at EBSQ
contains graphic images
War: A Brief Look at its Affect on Art & Artists
"The American people need their artist now – to charge them with the grave responsibility of spelling out their anger, their grief, their greatness, and their justice…."
- Francis Brennan, director of the office of War Information Graphic Bureau, in 1942.
Throughout history war has been a strong subject matter for artists. While all art in one form or another, communicates the emotional mind-set of its creator, War is no exception. Because it stimulates such strong feelings, it also tends to incite strong reactions from the artists who deal with it as a subject matter. In our recent history we are forced to deal with war arriving in our back yard, as never before, giving us a unique interest toward the subject. And it would do us well to take a brief look at what artist before handled the subject matter.
The name Picasso is synonymous with twentieth century art. Picasso created "Guernica" in response to the Spanish Civil war. It is perhaps the best-known work attributed to an artist expression of the affects of war. Showing a nightmarish world where brute force appears to triumph, the distortions, the agonizing expressions, the grotesque deformities of the figures, expresses unbearable pain. The work presents stark monochromatic ads to the overall feeling of hopelessness, the three-part organization of the composition suggesting a medieval triptych altarpiece. And the lighter triangle in the center recalls the pediment of a Greek temple – ironic comments, perhaps on civilization as a whole.
We have long known that our surroundings have a affect on us and our creative endeavors. But how much of an affect did war have on Picasso? When interviewed in 1944 by an American War correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, Picasso is quoted as saying:
"…..I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done. Later on perhaps the historians will find them and show that my style has changed under the war’s influence. Myself I do not know."
Controversy surrounding the work, partly because of the numerous stories surrounding Picasso and the mural, the variation depending upon who was spoken to: Following the fall of Paris, Otto Abetz, Hitlers agent in the city, visited Picasso’s studio, where the artist was still living. He saw a sketch of Guenerica on the wall and asked the artist, "Did you do that?" "No," Picasso replied, "You did."
Kathe Kollwitz, a woman that is one of the best known artists of this century. Was capable of a strong direct style expressing her deep social conscious and her hatred for war, those feelings were strengthened with the death of her son in 1914, and then again with the death of her grandson in WWII.
ARTIST AS SOLDIER
During World War II more than one hundred members of the armed services were called into service to draw and paint daily along with fighting along side their comrades. It has been said that to paint something gives it a sense of permanence or importance, beyond photographs and newsreels. During WWI and WWII artist could record color that the photographer could not. They also could edit it to create the desired affect that he camera could not possibly capture. The later is even today a reason for many artists to paint instead of photograph an event.
They for the most part, were official war artists; men who were asked to observe rather then fight. Nearly all of them survived. Others, among them painters of promise did not. At the time George Biddle, original chairman of the War department Art Advisory Committee 1943 sent to overseas art units a memo that included the following statement:
….."Try to omit nothing, duplicate to your hearts content. Express if you can – realistically or symbolically – the essence and spirit of war. You may be guided by Blake’s mysticism, by Goya’s cynicism and savagery, by Delecroix’s romanticism, by Daumier’s humanity and tenderness; or better still follow your own inevitable star."
Apparently this was not what government over Biddle had in mind for the Artist to be doing. So much so that the memo that the quote above was taken from and comments concerning, "a necessary freedom for artist", all played a part in getting the program cut. One can only assume that one major reason had to of been their fear of what/how the artist may portray their experiences in their work.
Most Americans are familiar with the strife that was created in our own land due to the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War. During which artist used the old, and very familiar, image of Uncle Sam to convey their message to the people.
Perhaps the work of Pete Kennard was what they feared? Although his work is contemporary, one can reason that he is not alone in his ideals concerning war and its affect on the human race. With the image below being created as a response to the First gulf war and President Bush’s comment that, "time was running out for a settlement in the Gulf"
It is now seen by many to be a cliché to say, "Ordinary people, whether civilized or soldiers, suffer most from war and its effect." Although it has been known and noted through the ages, it has actually had little affect upon human consciousness until rather recent times. A growing concern for the dignity and worth of the common man has tended to alter the traditional lack of sympathy to his fate in war. And the use of images as a protest against war has been used often.
PHOTOGRAPHY AND WAR
We can not overlook the growing use of the camera over the last century as an enormous impact on mankind’s attitude toward war. Beginning with the American Civil War photography was used as resource to capture images of the history of war. Although it was limited in its ability to capture movement, it nonetheless captured many situations that before would have not been possible. Since then, photography has been taken for granted by most, Even though the Sept 11th, 2001 attack and collapse of the world trade centers in New York were the most photographed event in the history of photography.
Photography has shown us more, than even most soldier’s experience. The literal, black and white images hold the possibility to be even more ability to communicate then many paintings. And with the technology today we can view images of battle as they occur. How many of us were mesmerized with the live coverage of the recent Gulf War? Only time will tell the amount of censorship that may come into play, perhaps in part due to the ability to transfer information instantaneously.
At the time of this writing the gulf war has not yet been completed, and we await the return of all our service men and women. The true impact of this war on our art may not be known for years. But we can be sure that in some way or another they have been affected, but as Picasso stated perhaps it is best we leave it to the future historians to discover.