Alternative Facts: War Art in a Post-Truth World
To those who benefitted, empire, global trade, the balance of power, religion and immense wealth defined the world in 1914. Seething within these seeming certainties lay an incendiary mix of poverty, nationalism, bellicosity, entitlement and a desire for change. If the First World War destroyed certainty, in 1918 it left in its wake a fragile jigsaw puzzle of ever-evolving and disappearing nation-states, borders and political alliances that, interspersed with further devastating conflicts such as the Second World War, remains the troubling status quo to this day.
Countries like Australia, Britain and Canada were slow to free themselves from the conviction of their secure imperial status. Following the outbreak of war in 1914, and confident of victory, in the latter two cases, their official war art programmes envisioned memorial art galleries in their capitals that would house often-massive commissioned battle pictures in the styles of earlier eras. These, the programme’s organisers’ anticipated, would depict their countries’ military prowess and heroism. The many thousands of paintings that roughly accord with this viewpoint are now housed in national museums—the Australian War Memorial and the Imperial and Canadian War Museums, respectively. As a result, for many, war art is history painting.
The authors of this timely volume’s essays offer us a more complex, nuanced and multinational perspective on the past 100 years of war art than that presented in these inevitably monolithic institutions so closely associated with national endeavour. They show us that the art of conflict has also extended to private as well as public drawings, graffiti, films, monuments, murals, photographs, posters and textiles, many very personal, subtle and even ironic in meaning. Furthermore, the authors explain in theoretically well-grounded prose that throughout the period since the First World War, there have also been as many ways of visualising conflict and its consequences as there have been wars. Indeed, war art has successfully adopted, adapted and contributed to the evolving art historical canon in an epoch of immense political and technological change.
From America to Australia and from Britain to Canada, if you want to understand and remember battle as a complicated and contradictory undertaking, look to contemporary art, these essays explain. From Croatia to Egypt and from France to Germany, if you want to visualise war from multiple perspectives, let the art of the marginalised and little documented guide you. From Ireland to Korea, from Latvia to Lebanon and from Lithuania to Poland and Portugal, if you want to interrogate the reality and materiality of war, seek out an artist of little fame or fortune who has experienced it. Several authors argue that alongside the artist as activist, war art itself evinces a disturbing agency of its own even in the face of censorship. Indeed, if visual expression can hold a mirror to the global history of war and shed light on conflict’s sometimes absent presence, it can also reflect and deconstruct the destabilising emotional effects of war on our post-truth world.
Originating in propaganda and a lexicon of alternative facts first used to devastating effect in the First World War, conflict’s visual discourse, legacy and memory in the twenty-first century, as this revealing volume attests, is now as polemic, revisionist, selective and subversive in both its form and exegesis as its antecedent. Furthermore, in the Photoshop era, the witnessed event, as we learn, can be deliberately reimagined, repurposed and interrogated even while the material processes of its production fall subject to the law of unintended consequences, with unanticipated and sometimes traumatic results. In conflict’s successes and failures, for its victors and vanquished alike, this important book makes the case that war art consistently has been prescient. More than 200 years after he etched grief and killing into the copper plates that comprise his Disasters of War series, Goya’s critical eye on war remains today profoundly relevant. So, too, does the past century of war art synthesised in these pages. Facing a troubled and uncertain future in an era marked by an astonishing communications revolution, climate change and beset by the cruellest of wars worldwide, we can only hope that what our era’s artists have to say about this time will survive for future generations to write about and share and prove to be our own eye on war. Dr Laura Brandon CM
The inspiration for this volume was a major international conference, ‘War in the Visual Arts’, held in Cork, Ireland, in 2013 and generously supported by History of Art, Prof Geoff Roberts and the School of History at University College Cork. I am very grateful to Dr Mary Healy for her advice in preparing the volume, to Alan Drumm for his work in the initial stages and to Simon Urbanski for his assistance with translations. I wish to acknowledge the inspiring work of my doctoral supervisor, Dr Sabine Kriebel, and her patience with me during the earlier stages of production. The input of the numerous contemporary artists whose work is included here is greatly appreciated, as well as the support of the Imperial War Museum, Tukums Museum of Art, Getty Images and the Historical Museum of Krakow. The guidance, patience and support of the editorial team at Routledge New York, particularly Isabella Vitti and Julia Michaelis, has been immensely important. I wish to express warmest gratitude to Dr Laura Brandon for generously writing the foreword to the collection, but also for her inspiration and words of wisdom. Finally, I am particularly indebted to Dr Flavio Boggi, History of Art at University College Cork, and to the National University of Ireland for their support and generous funding towards this volume. The book would not exist without the scholarship, professionalism and dedication of all the contributors who entrusted me with their work and from whom I have learned a great deal. For their belief in this project, I am truly grateful.
Though imbued with the stamp of history, which attempts a reconstruction of events, memory is more firmly endowed with the essence of lived experience. The store of memory traces is vast, as are the perspectives that bestow these traces with meaning. Naturally, the transference of memory, through visual means or otherwise, from that lived to that recorded as cultural memory, is dependent on interpretation, the degree to which memory can be traced, or indeed manipulated. The construction of the memory of war through the image, the focus of this collection, is ardently complex, its affective charge and meaning impossible to gauge, differing from one individual to the next. Aleida Assmann, revealing the close association between cultural memory and the arts, dwells on the immanent, mnemonic charge of the image:
Pictures fit into the landscape of the unconscious in a way that is different from texts: as a boundary between the picture and dream is blurred, the picture is transformed into an internal “vision” that takes on a life of its own. Once the border is crossed, the status of the picture is changed from being an object of observation to an agent of haunting.[i]
For example, the register of Czesiek Mika’s simple drawing of an eagle scratched onto the wall of a Nazi holding cell in Pomorska Street, Krakow, days before his murder, precipitates a response inexpressible in words (Figure i). In drawing one of the most broadly identifiable symbols of the Polish nation, Mika defiantly registers his presence, in that moment and now, in a system that deemed him unworthy of life. The very richness and intricacy of these traces, from Mika’s example to those of extreme propagandistic bombast, albeit open to the imperfect dialectic of remembering and forgetting, as Pierre Nora remarked of memory, makes visual culture vital to the study of the memorialisation of war.[ii]
Figure i. Czesław (Czesiek) Mika, Mika Czesiek does not despair because he will die for his homeland, 4 January 1945. [Mika Czesiek nie rozpacza bo zginie za Ojczyznę, 4. 1.45]. Drawing on the wall of a holding cell at the former Gestapo headquarters, Pomorska Street, Krakow. Mika Czesiek died before a firing squad during the last mass execution in Krakow, 15 January 1945.
Photograph, the author, reproduced by kind permission of the Historical Museum of Krakow at Pomorska Street.
Although no single volume could possibly account for the multiplicity of perspectives continually emerging and studied, this collection, stemming from the 2013 conference War in the Visual Arts (University College Cork), offers a transnational, interdisciplinary approach to the impact of war on visual media since the outbreak of World War I, examining a diverse range of visual material which reflects the heterogeneity of experiences and perspectives that have characterised artistic responses to war in the past century. It aims to contribute meaningfully to the growing discourse on the memorialisation of war in art by exploring works that have resulted from an environment of war and across a broad range of twentieth- and early twenty-first-century conflicts.
The mass mobilisation of humans and technology that marked the onset of war in 1914 meant that individuals from all walks of life, artists included, enlisted for war service or were affected by the war in some way. This ensured that the visual record—the visual memorialisation of war—no longer rested mainly in officially sanctioned products subject to censorship. Additionally, the means of recording war moved in step with the technology that enabled it. Photography made censorship more problematic and war more visible. The major exhibition Les Desastres de la Guerre 1800–2014 demonstrated how the century leading to 1914 witnessed a gradually increasing range and frequency of visual material from a greater variety of perspectives, most notably perhaps the portrayal of war as disaster, which until then was often absent.[iii] From the earliest months of World War I, recalls Bernd Kuster, official German war artist Theodor Rocholl’s German Dead and Wounded in a Trench was an exceptional portrayal of the wounded in a nation, much like any other European example, which habitually portrayed a positive image of war: ‘There one already sees in 1914, away from the
colourful autumnal roads, soldiers bleeding in the trenches, and they are German soldiers’.[iv]
The viscerally intimidating post-war pictures of Otto Dix, whose work may be productively compared to that by a number of artists explored here and is a reference point for any study of war art since 1914, delineate the special significance of the visual memory of war since 1914. The image of the German World War I soldier preoccupied Dix, who was also a veteran of the front-lines. There seems little doubt that his war experience led him to reconfigure the portrayal of German warriorhood in the memory of World War I. Pictures such as Prague Street (1920), The Matchseller (1920) and The Trench (1923), among numerous others, critiqued prevailing pictorial conventions, style and iconography in a sensitive theme that provoked an already sensitised German audience in the post-war years. His portrayals of broken German warriorhood were barbs of impropriety to an audience accustomed to battlepieces that lauded German military prowess, as in, for example, Anton von Werner’s heroic pictures of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), a conflict which was still in living memory at the outbreak of World War I. Prague Street and The Matchseller, painted at the height of the so-called pension wars in Germany in 1920, were affective memorialisation in that they indicted middle-class ambivalence to destitute veterans by confronting them with the facts of warriorhood: it was a time when the physical and mental trauma suffered by soldiers was played down in public discourse, a tactic driven by continually promoting a positive image of warfare through idealistic portrayals of the war experience at a time when the German government was pressed for pension payments.[v] The Trench has been central to the visual memory of war right from the time of its first exhibition at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne in 1923. Probably destroyed by the Nazis before the outbreak of World War II, the explosive public response to The Trench in 1923, which divided critics and public alike, was followed by Willy Wolfradt’s short early monograph on Dix, which underlined its socio-political import in memorialising the war:
[Dix] never shrinks from brutality of expression or from bloodthirstiness, and does so only to be seen, to have an effect, to pack a punch, to break through the awful forgetfulness of people. [. . .] Dix is a singular obstruction against the subtle little painting that acts like nothing had happened.[vi]
Using the large scale typical of traditional battle-pieces such as those by von Werner, Dix turned the visual portrayal of war and warriorhood completely on its head. Dix’s attempts to portray the savagery of war realistically, with such insistent painterly tactility, is pivotal to his mode of memorialisation, but conveys also the quite complex role of war art in forming later perceptions of World War I or any conflict. Dix’s example also reflects how the memory of war is felt and visualised in different ways by various sectors of society, from those who fight at the front to those who escape direct loss in a relatively untouched homeland. The years 1914–1918 caused an irreversible sea change in how war could or should be visually recorded and memorialised thenceforward. As the work of World War I artists delineates, artistic agency was indicated by increasingly confrontational imagery. Indeed, the artist as direct agent and interlocutor, or maker of memory, embodied by the creators analysed here, characterises the sheer number and variety of visual responses to war in the past century.
The collection is divided into four thematic parts, though the reader will find many connections between individual chapters. Part I looks at five quite different aspects of visual culture on the home front, opening with Claire Whitner’s study of German war bond posters during World War I. Initially resistant to using images, the German Reich’s commissioning of the thoroughly modern concept of the poster acknowledged the transition from imperialism to modernity in how it sought to attract potential investors. Exploring the repertoire and context of wartime imagery in these posters during the last two years of the war, she shows how the Reich’s transition to images in attracting investors developed in tandem with the political transitions current in Germany during and immediately following the war. David Clampin explores how imagery of the British countryside was employed in commercial advertising during World War II to reassure and reinforce a sense of community in wartime Britain. The chapter shows how by invoking the long tradition of British landscape art and the connection between the land and the people as a British phenomenon, such advertising was pivotal in the development of British visual culture and contributed to the war effort. It underscored how a people could be united through familiar imagery that reinforced a sense of connectedness and national identity that would prevail during wartime.
In her study of paintings produced on the home front by Australian, New Zealander, British and American women artists during World War I, Catherine Speck explores how these paintings differ from but are no less valid as authentic memoriography of war than those produced by official artists who witnessed the battlefield. They expressed a cognitive rather than empirical experience of war, tracing the anxiety felt by those who dwelled on the fate of loved ones on distant battlefields. Affect, Speck shows, generates imagery that contests the supremacy of art based on direct experience of conflict.
Peter Harrington treats a rarely addressed facet of home front experience: the ‘soldier art’ programmes that formed an aspect of military training at numerous camps throughout the United States between 1940 and 1944. These programmes—the seed from which the 1943 American War Art Program developed, initially aimed, among other things, to improve the morale of soldiers—generated a vast body of art that recorded various aspects of military training and warfare. Many of America’s future war artists cut their teeth in these programmes, and the significance of the work was acknowledged by a number of exhibitions, including that at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1942.
Closing this section, Elizabeth de Cacqueray focuses on the degree to which British women’s art created on the home front of World War II reflects artistic agency and vision, exploring how these artists’ treatment of space and directing of the gaze indicate a specifically women’s experience of war. Women are depicted as subjects rather than objects, their input as workers actively contributing to the war effort restated and revising the terms by which women were portrayed in wartime. In witnessing post-war Germany, specifically the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and the Nuremberg Trials, these artists express profound empathy with victims and place the viewer as witness to the crimes of the Nazis.
Part II, Art, Activism and Resistance, looks at how artists have engaged various, often popular, visual forms as a means to express socio-political and cultural concerns. Caroline Perret examines the relationship between Jean Dubuffet’s Metro series of gouache paintings and the humanist ambitions and ideals of the French Resistance during World War II. Commentary on the gouaches by poet and founding French surrealist Paul Eluard and eminent academic and writer Jean Paulhan promoted this connection. Dubuffet’s subject, the busy Parisian underground, where the first confrontation between resistants and the Nazi army occurred, emphasised the notion of the popular and collective, and his aesthetic (graffiti, children’s drawings) explicitly rejected the Volkisch art celebrated by the Nazis.
Anna Markowska’s chapter is the first of several that deal with the artistic legacy of war in the so-called ‘other Europe’, the countries of the former communist bloc. The art of the troubled history and memory of these countries, as these chapters reveal, clearly urges a reconfiguration of the visual memorialisation of war in Europe. Markowska looks at the overt, sometimes riotous, responses of Polish artists to communist power, where artists’ rebellion was registered by open rejection of ‘official’ art and the development of alternative spaces and artistic means. The mockery by many artists of the Jaruzelski years (1981–1989) was followed by increasing black humour in the post-communist era, evoking the rebellion of German Dada during and immediately after the First World War.
The unique Revolution Khayamiya of contemporary Egyptian artist Hany Abdel Khader is introduced and explored by Sam Bowker. In reinventing the traditionally purely decorative quality of khayamiya (Egyptian tentmaker applique) as a framework for a narrative of the artist’s witnessing of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Abdel Khader’s work expresses the link between civil uprising, social responsibility and a means by which to memorialise a watershed in Egyptian history. As Bowker shows, the Revolution Khayamiya, unlike the better-known graffiti art of the revolution, revise the boundaries by which a popular art form operates, establishing new artistic and social discourse of khayamiya as an art form.
Maebh O’Regan treats how artists across Irish political and religious divisions have memorialised Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, a defining event in the history of the contested territory of Northern Ireland. Artistic commemoration has evolved from personal traumatic experience, as protest against social and political inequalities or as a challenge to the bias detected in official reports of the event. Street art, particularly the many large murals, memorialise and mythify prominent figures and mark territorial boundaries. More recent work reflects the urge for peace, supporting conflict resolution and the decommissioning process.
In the final chapter in this section, Christine Conley explores the work of three contemporary Canadian artists who have participated in the Canadian Forces Artists Program (CFAP) and which constituted the touring exhibition curated by Conley in 2014, Terms of Engagement: Averns, feldman-kiss, Stimson. Whereas previous Canadian artists’ programmes generated largely representational imagery, this programme is unusual in the degree of freedom of interpretation enjoyed by embedded artists. As such, the Canadian example has generated a multiplicity of perspectives in narratives of colonialism, genocide, human rights and gender, among others. Dick Averns’ photographs based on his time with the Multinational Force and Observers in North Sinai analyse the rhetoric of the War on Terror. Work resulting from nichola feldmankiss’ observations in Sudan tap into the artist’s identification with mass migration and mixing of peoples resulting from violent political upheavals, whereas Adrian Stimson, embedded with the Canadian forces in Afghanistan, reflects on the significance of the military for his family and other indigenous peoples in Canada.
Part III, Traumatic Memory and Victimhood, adds to a substantial but by no means exhausted subject of recent research. Jānis Kalnačs explores Latvian artist Kārlis Padegs’s (1911–1940) remarkable Red Laugh series of drawings, based on the artist’s recollections of World War I. Kalnačs, the key scholar on this artist, introduced Padegs’s highly idiosyncratic imagery to an English-language readership in 2014. Though a number of the drawings in The Red Laugh have not survived, those that remain reveal a break with the Latvian tradition that sought to monumentalise or romanticise the experience of war, instead portraying the misery of war. Padegs focused first and foremost on the suffering of the individual, in a piercing, provocative visual language. Ultimately, as Kalnačs shows, The Red Laugh conveys the helplessness of the individual in the face of absurd power.
Nanette Norris treats (collective) traumatic memory in Brian De Palma’s 1989 film adaptation of Daniel Lang’s book Casualties of War (1966), an uncommon departure in American films that attempts to understand the legacy of the Vietnam War for the Vietnamese people. Though advertised as ‘one man’s quest for sanity and justice amidst the chaos of war’, the film’s greater sophistication, Norris argues, is how the personal narrative underlines a political one. The horrific suffering of a Vietnamese girl, Oahn, at the will of American soldiers symbolises the traumatic memory of another invasion or rape of Vietnam. Oahn’s imprisonment, vicious rape and beating over several days, culminating in her murder, represent a central element of the memory of the war for its people.
By introducing the powerful, poignant work of photographer Gintaras Zinkevičius, Agnė Narušytė explores the devastation of a Lithuanian Soviet soldier’s experience during compulsory military service as expressed through the photographer’s dembel album. Whereas dembel albums normally narrate the ‘journey to manhood’ in photographs and drawings, Zinkevičius’s memorialises the Soviet army in the most ironical manner. Seemingly mundane photographs eventually convey a reality that could not be recorded directly of the various physical and mental abuses suffered by young soldiers during their two years of service. Produced under significant personal risk, Zinkevičius’s album memorialises and at the same time turns on its head the absurd rhetoric of the Soviet army.
Anna Radstrom treats the representation of the traumatic memory of the Lebanese wars (1975–1991) in the documents of the Fakhouri file in Walid Raad’s fictional collective, the Atlas Group. Focusing on two works, Notebook 72: Missing Lebanese Wars, Miraculous Beginnings and the diptych of film stills Miraculous Beginnings and No, Illness Is Neither Here Nor There, Radstrom explores the rationale of Raad’s process of using multi-layered visual and textual montages which deal with the experience of trauma and its ‘inexpressibility’. Considering George Didi-Hubermann’s emphasis on imagination and montage as integral to knowledge, and W. G. Sebald’s factual and fictional literary and photographic work, Radstrom pays particular attention to Raad’s methods regarding the representability, translatability and integrity in the representation of traumatic memory.
The ‘inexpressibility’ of trauma is also a central element of Croatian artist Nicole Hewitt’s intermedia work-in-progress Jasna. Transcripts and Polyrhythmics and Migrating Voices, whose subject is the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague and is examined here by Leonida Kovač. Hewitt’s deeper concern, Kovač delineates, is negotiating the visually imperceptible, indescribable space in which trauma resides. Hewitt seeks out the connection between this space and the media production of reality, where trauma, which remains inexpressible, exists in various registers of memory.
Part IV looks at Collective Memory and Commemoration. Carlos Silveira explores narratives of heroism, self-sacrifice and mourning in the World War I battlefield pictures of Portuguese official war artist Adriano de Sousa Lopes, revealing that although the paintings’ monumental scale belonged to a pre-war tradition, their visceral content, charting the hardships of ordinary front soldiers and post-war mourning, rivalled that of avant-garde examples and provided affective commemorative means by which to come to terms with traumatic events surrounding Portugal’s involvement in the war.
Elisabeth Ansel contextualises Irish artist Jack B. Yeats’s anti-war painting Grief (1951) in relation to Yeats’s attitude towards war, both in relation to troubled recent Irish history and the catastrophe of World War II. Exploring the painting’s allegorical language, expressionistic but idiosyncratic style and iconography, Ansel shows how Grief was founded in the artist’s Irish heritage but deeply informed by developments in continental Europe, past and present, and Yeats’s personal connections to contemporary European artists such as Oskar Kokoschka.
Rania Abdelrahman treats the powerful contemporary YouTube documentaries that shape and re-shape the memory of the 1956 Tripartite Attack on Port Said, Egypt, by Israel, France and Britain. Deploying archival material (iconic photography, film footage) and songs that recall the extreme suffering and courage of Port Said’s inhabitants, these films reaffirm, among other things, the difference in how the attack is remembered by Egyptians and their former colonisers, France and Britain. Abdelrahman analyses these films’ role in shaping the memory of the 1956 crisis in the wake of more recent socio-political upheaval, particularly how the archival material acquires new meaning through the various ways in which it is re-used and re-combined across these documentaries.
Jung Joon Lee assesses the implications arising from the prominence given to photographs of orphans rather than those of military activity or other civilians in constructing the collective memory of the Korean War in popular culture, both in Korea itself and in the United States. The foregrounding of these innately powerful photographs in mass media and in exhibitions has generated the enduring image of Korea as an ‘orphaned nation’. Lee questions the overarching drive to remember the war through these photographs more than others, which reflect a desire to consolidate the metaphor of the nation as orphan and ultimately deflect attention away from other ways in which the Korean War might be remembered.
In the closing chapter, Sandra Križić Roban assesses the impact of the intense commemoration of the Croatian Homeland War (1991–1995) in monumental memorial sculpture. Reflecting on the new political regime’s destruction of many monuments from the communist era, which included a wealth of innovative monumental sculpture that reflected the greater freedom enjoyed by Croatian (Yugoslavian) artists in comparison to other communist bloc states, she considers how bureaucratic practices, which often exclude the input of artists and architects, have resulted in a body of commemorative sculpture that largely fails to engage the public.
In sum, this collection, involving scholarship across five continents and spanning the history of warfare in the past century, evidences the profound significance of visual culture in the construction of the memory of war, querying the extent to which the art of memory continues to shape our understanding of war, past and present.
[i] Aleida Assmann, Cultural Memory and Western Civilisation: Arts of Memory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 206–229. Quotation, p. 215.
[ii] Pierre Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Memoire’, Representations, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory, (1989), 8.
[iii] Les Desastres de la Guerre 1800–2014, Louvre Lens, 28 May‑6 October 2014. See Laurence Bertrand Dorleac, Les Desastres De La Guerre 1800–2014 (Paris: Somogy, 2014).
[iv] Bernd Kuster, ‘Der Erste Weltkrieg Und Die Kunst’, in Der Erste Weltkrieg Und Die Kunst: Von Der Propaganda Zum Widerstand, ed. by Bernd Kuster (Gifkendorf: Merlin, 2014), p. 136. Theodor Rocholl, German Dead and Wounded in a Trench [Deutsche Tode und Verwundete in einem Schutzengraben, 1914]. Stadtmuseum Hofgeismar. Emphasis added.
[v] For a detailed discussion on the postwar fate of German veterans, see Paul Lerner, Hysterical Men. War, Psychiatry and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).
[vi] Willy Wolfradt, Otto Dix (1924). Translated in Olaf Peters, Otto Dix (New York: Prestel, 2010), pp. 113-117 (116). For Dix’s commentary on the perceived controversial content of the works chosen by Wolfradt for discussion, see the letter from Otto Dix to Martha Dix, 5 May 1926, Otto Dix-Archiv, Chauvigny. For a detailed discussion of the reception of The Trench, see Dennis Crockett, ‘The Most Famous Painting of the “Golden Twenties”? Otto Dix and the Trench Affair’, Art Journal, 51 (1992); Jorg Martin Merz, ‘Otto Dix’ Kriegsbilder. Motivationen – Intentionen – Rezeptionen’, Marburger Jahrbuch fur Kunstwissenschaft, 26 (1999).