The theme of war as horror and catastrophe arose in art in the nineteenth century, but really captured it in the next century. The art of the twentieth century is permeated by the trauma of war and focuses on living it – even in such seemingly peaceful works as Edward Hopper’s Midnight Midnight, it comes to the fore. Weekend tells how the pictorial language of war and its understanding in art has changed
Peter Brueghel the Elder
One of the first paintings about the military trauma in the history of European painting – “Magpie on the gallows” by Bruegel. It was written in 1568, a year before the artist’s death and a year after the brutal suppression of the Dutch uprising by Duke Fernando Alvarez de Toledo. There seems to be no war here: a peaceful landscape, merry peasants who pay no attention to the empty gallows. This, of course, is not a psychological sketch of indifference to violence, but an allegory, one of Bruegel’s riddles, combining the proverb “the road to the gallows leads through merry lawns” and the common image of the magpie as a gossip. The gallows here resembles an impossible figure, like Penrose’s triangle – reshaping the geometry of the world and creating a hole in its very center.
Until the beginning of the 19th century, wars were bloody, but not mass. They affected a relatively small part of the population: the professional military and those who were unlucky enough to get in their way. Everything was changed by the Napoleonic era. It was Goya, with his sensitivity to nightmares, who was the artist who found a way to capture this change. He worked on a series of etchings “Disasters of War” for 10 years – from 1810 to 1820, but it was published only in 1863 – 35 years after the death of the artist. For the first time in the history of European art, the war here appears not as an orderly, even terrible, action, but as a chaotic massacre that erases all differences, crushes people, turns them into monsters and their food. The world of Caprichos turns from fantasy into documentary reality. A picturesque interpretation of the same experience is in Goya’s two late monsters, The Colossus and Saturn Devouring Her Son.
Vereshchagin is both the main battler and the main pacifist in the history of Russian art. Distinguished by his fighting courage, he revealed to Russian culture the fact that war is not a glorious feat, but destruction and death – death is not heroic, remaining for centuries, but anonymous and inglorious. About this – “The Apotheosis of War”. The painting is the center of meaning of the Turkestan Series, created after the artist’s participation in a Central Asian company in the late 1860s. Among the realistic sketches is an allegory that translates modern, politically rational military maneuvers into another chronology – the story of a thousand-year-old senseless massacre. On the frame of the “Apotheosis”, as is well known, is the dedication: “To all the great conquerors – past, present, future.”
German Expressionism and Post-Expressionism
German Expressionism was not born of war, but was ready for it in its own way. It was based on a sense of the world disintegrating, capable of turning into a universal catastrophe every second. In 1914, a catastrophe occurred, and Germany was at its center. Many of the movement’s leaders died in the war, others became distorted and began to reassemble the expressionist language, purifying it of avant-garde exaltation, getting rid of romanticism to see the gaping reality. It was post-expressionism that first came to mind when talking about the art of military trauma: the mourners of Kate Kolwitz, the grotesques of Max Beckman, the caricatures of Georg Gross, the nightmares of Otto Dix. The echo of this wave also affected the Soviet art of the 1920s, it is noticeable, for example, in “War Invalids” by Yuri Pimenov.
The most famous painting expressing the horrors of the war of the twentieth century is, without a doubt, the monumental Guernica, created by Picasso after the destruction of the Spanish city of the same name by the Luftwaffe in 1937. In it, in The Weeping Woman (1937) and The Massacre of Korea (1951), Picasso laid the groundwork for the visual language of the mid-century antiwar movement – the language of non-testimony – Picasso, unlike many colleagues, did not participate in the First , nor in the Second World War), but moral indignation, high pathos – the language of avant-garde and classical at the same time, understandable to intellectuals in the West and East. The symbol of this universality is his “Dove” (1949), which became one of the main symbols of the movement for peace around the world.
One of the most famous, quoted and parodied paintings of American painting “Midnight” by Edward Hopper at first glance has nothing to do with the war – a typical Hopper urban melancholy: alienated people immersed in a joint absence. In fact, it depicts a specific moment: the day when the Americans learned of the attack on Pearl Habor. This is a rather personal work: the couple sitting behind the counter of a New York diner – Hopper himself and his wife Joe. “Midnight” is a statement about the numbness caused by the ongoing but still invisible war, a threat that penetrates the air, paralyzing, but has no external manifestations.
Almost the entire postwar avant-garde, which abandoned strict forms and explored rage and chaos — American abstract expressionism, French Tashism, the Dutch Cobra, the Japanese Gutai movement — was born of World War II experience. Jean Fotrie largely opens this search. In 1943, the artist who participated in the resistance was arrested by the Gestapo. He managed to break free and hide in a hospital for the insane in the suburbs of Paris. The Nazis carried out executions in the woods near the hospital. Fotrie did not fall victim, but he proved to be a powerless witness. There, in the hospital, he began a series of “Hostages”: almost abstract heads and torsos, with difficulty protruding from the matter – paint, chalk – and drowning in it. The language of war found by Fotrie is, in a sense, the opposite of Picasso’s language: no high rhetoric, no images, the materialized impossibility of words.
Francis Bacon never made direct statements about war or anything else, but his paintings were often seen as a reflection of the human condition after the catastrophe of World War II. First of all, we are talking about “Three Etudes to the Figures at the Foot of the Crucifixion” – a picture created at the very end of the war, with which the mature Bacon begins. One of his first triptychs is emphatically inscribed in the history of world culture, with Christian and ancient subtexts (Bacon’s witnesses to the crucifixion – at the same time the fury of “Oresteia”), and decisively breaks with it. Man is no more, there are new, still incomprehensible, terrible and pathetic creatures – bodies as casts of affects: violence and suffering, rage and apathy, which are indistinguishable from each other.
Iri and Tosi Maruki
All Japanese post-war art is defined by Hiroshima’s experience, but the Maruki couple have a special place in this vast array. Iri himself from Hiroshima, three days after the atomic bombing, he and his wife Toshi came to the city to look for surviving relatives, they talked to eyewitnesses, watched, helped bury the dead. Five years later, the first of the Hiroshima Panels appeared. They have been working on a cycle of 25 things for more than 30 years. Interfering with allegory and documentary, nightmarish realism and abstraction, Maruki’s cycle is similar to Goya’s Disasters of War, only every thing here is huge. Maruki has found a special language for military trauma: the European graphic tradition in which Toshi worked is fused with Japanese mascara, the master of which was Iri, but this meeting is not a harmonious dialogue of cultures, but a nightmare of explosion.
The thawing harsh style lasted for two things: a return to revolutionary pathos and the memory of the Great Patriotic War. One balanced the other: the trauma of the war prevented an overly optimistic picture, creating a flaw in the world that guaranteed its authenticity. The two main classics of the trend, Helium Korzhev and Viktor Popkov, have different experiences. The war is literally imprinted in the bodies of the inhabitants of the Korzhev world: immortality, incompleteness unites them, becomes the basis of all ties: love, work, solidarity. For the melancholic Popkov, loss is more divisive. His red widows passing from picture to picture are ghosts for ordinary modern people, and those are the same shadows for the most inconsolable widows. The view from the grave becomes a literal reception in Popkov’s main anti-war work “He does not envy them” (1962).
Former Luftwaffe shooter Josef Boyce was Germany’s leading artist in overcoming military trauma. Unlike the leaders of European post-war art, Boyce’s plot was not the horror of testimony or the nightmare of collective guilt, but salvation and transformation. His personal myth played a key role: Boyce claimed that after the crash of a plane shot down by Soviet artillery, he was rescued by Crimean Tatars, wrapped in felt and smeared with grease. These two substances, felt and fat, along with other elements of the myth (honey, first aid kit, deer, hares) went from work to work. The whole Boyce art gallery – installations, drawings, performances, manifestos, social sculptures (like the project in which Boyce and like-minded people planted thousands of oaks in Kassel) – is an attempt to offer the same saving rebirth and renewal to anyone who wants it.
The American anti-war movement, with nationwide protests against the Vietnam War, has largely shaped the generation of intellectuals to whom Martha Rosler belongs. For those walking with daisies and carnations to the heavily armed police, the Vietnam War was here and now, not somewhere in a parallel world, far overseas, as an American citizen who indifferently watched television newscasts believed. In a series of collages “War with Home Delivery” (1967-1972), Martha Rosler, adopting the tactics of the greatest master of political art of the Weimar Republic, John Hartfield, literally confronts two realities that do not match in the minds of people: the perfect American house with a brochure and footage from battlefields.
The Atlas Group (1998) is part of The Atlas Group, a project by Lebanese artist Walid Raad to hide under a fictitious group of documentary archivists who allegedly compiled a collection of strange evidence of Lebanon’s civil war. It is well known that Valid Raad was eight years old when the war began, and he saw with his own eyes how his native Beirut turned from a flourishing Mediterranean city into a Piraean ruin. Everything else is fiction, where the line between truth and fiction is very shaky. Raad claims that, like all Beirut boys, he ran outside after each explosion to pick up shrapnel and shell casings stuck in house walls and tree trunks, but, like an unusual Beirut boy, kept a diary, photographing the sites of the explosions. The harvest is a collection of these photographs: potholes on the buildings are covered with scattering of colorful confetti, drawings appear through the images, but not architectural, but military-engineering – these are schemes of shells and ballistic missiles that wounded the city’s body. The colors of the confetti symbolize the 17 states and military blocs that directly or indirectly participated in the Lebanese civil war – Beirut, the embodiment of Middle Eastern cosmopolitanism, and built, and, as it turns out, destroyed the world.
Aslan Goysum was born in Grozny in 1991, and the Chechen generation, which had war and refugee camps instead of childhood, gained a voice in his art. The series of book objects “Untitled” (2010s), where a book, wounded and mutilated, pierced with nails, shot by shells or sewn on a living thread, seems to be a metaphor for the human body, is usually interpreted based on the artist’s childhood experience. However, the political connotations of these things, sometimes plastically straightforward, sometimes aesthetically refined, when the letters coming off the page, as if trying to escape from their captivity, are much deeper: the trauma of many generations, the empires destroying the culture of the conquered people. – after all, private and national libraries and archives are burning not only in wars, but also in the endless imperial reforms of writing and history.
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