Short Texts on War Art

[Last updated 01.06.2021]

On this (new as at 17.02.21) page, I feature some of the works that I have researched or am currently researching, accompanied by a short text with some insights from primary sources. Once the page includes five or more works, they will be ordered alphabetically by artist surname.

01 June 2021: Antonio Gisbert, The Execution of Torrijos and his Companions on the Beach at Malaga, 1888

Antonio Gisbert is little known beyond Spain and only recently has his work received lengthy scholarly examination among Spanish-language scholars. After the new extension of the Prado Museum opened in 2007, which showcases Spanish art of the nineteenth century, Gisbert’s most important work, The Execution of Torrijos and his Companions, was finally put on permanent display and a special exhibition dedicated to it in 2019. The work, at about six metres in width and almost four metres high, was commissioned by the State as a memorial to the heroism of the liberal Torrijos and those who died with him on 11 December 1831 in an attempt to end the oppressive rule of Ferdinand VII, and as an instrument of nation building from the perspective of the defence of liberty.

Antonio Gisbert, The Execution of Torrijos and his Companions on the Beach at Malaga, 1888. Oil on canvas, 390 cm × 601 cm. Prado Museum, Madrid.

The painting has a clear connection to Goya’s Third of May 1808, although Gisbert’s work is far more sober and academic; though not severe, there are no wild gestures, only the skillfully conveyed expressions on the faces of the men, who exhibit defiance, resignation and sadness. Among the condemned is the Derry-born, Byronic figure of Robert Boyd (1805-1831), who had, like Byron, fought in the Greek War of Independence (from the Ottoman Empire) and who had met Torrijos in London through a group of liberal intellectuals called ‘The Cambridge Apostles’, which included the poets John Sterling and Alfred Tennyson. Boyd is the sandy-haired figure in the deep green coat seventh from the right in the foreground group (Torrijos is fourth from the right, in a long brown coat). Judging by the extant likenesses of Boyd, it is probable that Gisbert, in the absence of visual source material of Boyd as a mature adult, used a degree of artistic license in depicting him.

The strong, well-defined features of Boyd in Gisbert’s painting are at odds with the slight face in the miniature, though Boyd’s age in the latter is not known. The silhouette exhibits a similar hairstyle and perhaps more mature features than those in the miniature, though it is clear nonetheless that Gisbert resorted to imagination. In so doing, Gisbert has portrayed a romantic hero in the mould of Byron, with well-defined features, noble bearing and a demeanor fitting of the bravery exhibited by Boyd in his final letters, written scarcely an hour before his execution. The enhanced reddish tones of Boyd’s sandy hair (which he is recorded to have had) and the green chosen for his coat, traits steretypically attached to Irish culture, seem chosen to enhance Boyd’s Irishness as well as the fact that admiration and respect for Torrijos had attracted, as the clothing of some of the other figures suggest, an international following to his cause. A special introductory essay to this painting will be published in 2022.

07 March 2021: Vasily Vereshchagin (Vassili Verestchagin), The Apotheosis of War, 1871

When Vasily Vereshchagin died on 13 April 1904, aboard a Russian battleship involved in the Russo-Japanese war, numerous reports circulated around the world about the death of one of the world’s great painters. On 23 April 1904, The Illustrated London News dedicated a full page to ‘works by Vassili Verestchagin, the great Russian war-painter, drowned on the “Petropavlovsk’. [1] The journal Brush and Pencil wrote at length about his ‘tragic death’, which would ’cause regret to many readers…whether pro-Japanese or pro-Russian in their sympathies’. [2] Vereshchagin is much less known today outside of Russia, but during his lifetime and for decades afterward he was celebrated as one of the greatest antiwar artists the world had ever seen.

Vasily Vereshchagin, The Apotheosis of War, 1871. Oil on canvas, 127 x 197 cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

The Apotheosis of War, perhaps his most famous work today, was described thus in a catalogue accompanying an exhibition of his work at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in 1902:

He is the first Russian painter who has given his countrymen a true impression of war —something besides those official pictures where victory is displayed and never defeat. Even when he paints victory he never separates it from its sadness, its ruin, its misery, its mourning beyond relief. I seem to have always before my eyes, as in a dream, that pyramid of piled-up skulls which he met with somewhere in his wanderings, and of which he has made one of his most striking pictures. He wrote underneath it, “ Dedicated to the Conquerors.” [3]

Vereshchagin witnessed the harshest realities of war first-hand and Apotheosis summarises his bitterness. Describing his purpose, he wrote that:

Observing life through all my various travels, I have been particularly struck by the fact that even in our time people kill one another everywhere under all possible pretexts, and by every possible means. Wholesale murder is still called war, while killing individuals is called execution. Everywhere the same worship of brute strength, the same inconsistency ; on the one hand men slaying their fellows by the million for an idea often im practicable, are elevated to a high pedestal of public admiration : on the other, men who kill individuals for the sake of a crust of bread, are mercilessly and promptly exterminated and this even in Christian countries, in the name of Him whose teaching was founded on peace and love. These facts, observed on many occasions, made a strong impression on my mind, and after having carefully thought the matter over, I painted several pictures of wars and executions. These subjects I have treated in a fashion far from sentimental, for having myself killed many a poor fellow-creature in different wars, I have not the right to be sentimental. But the sight of heaps of human beings slaughtered, shot, beheaded, hanged under my eyes in ali that region extending from the frontier of China, to Bulgaria, has not failed to impress itself vividly on the imaginative side of my art. [4]

There is a good general description of the painting on Wikipedia, and a number of contemporary publications available on archive.org

[1]The Petropavlovsk was a Russian battleship, which sank after striking one or more mines near Port Arthur, northeast China,during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Vereshchagin had been invited by its Admiral, Stepan Makarov, to join him on board.

[2] E. Colbert, ‘Tragic Death of Vassili Verestchagin’, Brush and Pencil, Vol. 14, No. 2 (May 1904), pp. 102-106,102.

[3] Unknown Reporter for Le Gaulois, reproduced in John Fell O’Brien, Catalogue of Paintings by Vassili Verestchagin, on Exhibtion at the Astor Gallery of the Waldorf Astoria, 14-26 November 1902 (or circa), p. 9.

[4] Vassili Verestchagin, Why I painted war pictures’, The American Advocate of Peace and Arbitration, Vol. 53, No. 2 (February 1891), p. 49.


17 February 2021: Otto Dix, War Wounded (Kriegsverletzter), 1922

Though there is no specific date for when this picture was completed, it is known that Otto Dix sold it to the Galerie Nierendorf on 24 July 1922. Stylistically, it is a definite departure from the four Dada-influenced war cripple paintings of 1920, moving towards the bitter realism of his controversial painting The Trench [Der Schützengraben] (1923, lost) and his suite of intaglio prints, The War [Der Krieg] (1924).

Otto Dix, War Wounded (Kriegsverletzter), 1922. Pencil and watercolour on paper, 48.8 x 36.9 cm. Kupferstich-Kabinett (Prints and Drawings), State Art Collections, Dresden.

Left: Otto Dix, Transplantation, Portfolio 4, Print 10, The War, 1924. Etching, aquatint and drypoint, 19.8 x 14.9 cm (sheet size; shown with sheet cropped). Right: Soldier with Facial Injuries, c. 1920/24. Photographer unknown (Hugo Erfurth?). The etching shows that Dix did not reverse his drawing (made either directly on the plate or on paper and then copied to the plate).

This picture is intriguing for several reasons, one of which is the possibility that Dix painted this picture in one of the many special hospitals for wounded veterans of World War I, working directly from one of the patients. The sitter wears a hospital shirt typical of this period and similar to that in the photograph above, which also formed the motif for one of Dix’s etchings in the The War [Der Krieg]. On close inspection, as German researcher Bernhard Maaz notes, all four edges of the sheet of paper are perforated, meaning that the paper is unlikely to have been produced for artistic purposes but possibly as tear-out sheets used for medical records. The sitter’s name is unknown but it may have been known to Dix, who did not name the sitter in order to protect his identity. Alternatively, Dix may have worked from a photograph as he did for the etching in The War. But as a veteran who served thirty-eight months on the battlefields, such injuries were nothing new and Dix may have worked from memory. At this time, facially wounded men were largely unseen by the public and at least until late 1920, were not allowed to own photographs of themselves (Erich Kuttner, 1920). Some of these men remained in hospital for several years after the war, as their horribly painful wounds slowly healed, or slowly killed them. Some remained hidden even from their families. Anarcho-pacifist Ernst Friedrich published his book War against War! [Krieg dem Kriege!] in 1924, which included numerous photographs of the facially wounded, bringing to the fore the immense suffering caused to the human body by industrailised warfare.

Interestingly, the picture was sold by Dix’s widow Martha in 1973 to the surgeon Prof. Dr. Werner Widmaier in Leonberg, who himself had suffered injury during the war.

References: Bernhard Maaz, ‘Otto Dix’ “Kriegsverletzter”. Zu eine Neuerwerbung des Dresdner Kupferstich-Kabinetts’, in Otto Dix. Der Krieg – Das Dresdner Triptychon, ed. by Birgit Dalbajewa, Simone Fleischer and Olaf Peters, pp 96-97. Erich Kuttner, ‘Vergessen! Die Kriegszermalmten in Berliner Lazaretten’, Vorwärts, 9 September 1920, pp.1-2. Ernst Friedrich, War against War!, 2 volumes. 1st edition, Verlag Freie Jugend, Berlin 1924. (1st edition is in four languages: German, French, English and Dutch).

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