It was the most widespread war in history, involving the participation of more than one hundred million people from around the world. Soldiers, diplomats, aid workers and others flocked to battlegrounds from over 30 countries, including the greatest powers across the globe: the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, China, Japan, Italy, and the Soviet Union. It affected life in myriad ways: economically, politically, industrially, scientifically, ideologically. And its reach was one of the most horrible. Between the deaths on the battlefield and the mass killings of civilians, an estimated 50 to 85 million fatalities occurred, making it the deadliest conflict in all of recorded human history. And yet, at the same time, it spurred on glimpses of positivity in the midst of this darkness: giving rise to the so-called Greatest Generation, and leading to advances in medicine and aviation, in information technology, and many other sectors.
It was, of course, World War Two. But what did the war have to do with art? And how are the effects of the war still being felt today?
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those can be paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. And for the next few months, we’re going to tackle the effects of the Second World War on the art world--on artists, art institutions, armies, and world leaders, both during the war and long after it concluded. Welcome to a new season of the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
In his 1990 book, Immortality, Czech Author Milan Kundera wrote the following- quote-- “War and culture, those are the two poles of Europe, her heaven and hell, her glory and shame, and they cannot be separated from one another. When one comes to an end, the other will end also and one cannot end without the other. The fact that no war has broken out in Europe for fifty years is connected in some mysterious way with the fact that for fifty years no new Picasso has appeared either.”
I was intrigued by this quote, because Kundera’s linking of war and culture-- which, for our cases, will be defined as visual culture, or simply, art-- is a direct one, but one that isn’t always assumed as being a vital connection. But in World War II, it was. And that’s exactly what we are going to explore throughout this season of ArtCurious, in a range of episodes that discuss war propaganda; the exodus of many of Europe’s artistic elite in the light of occupation and persecution; Nazi art looting and the Monuments Men; and one of the biggest failed painters in modern history.
But before we tackle how art changed under the influence of the greatest war in history, we need to understand where art was in the years prior to the outbreak of the war in the late 1930s, as well as understanding its previous connections to war as a concept, because, as Kundera noted, they were inextricably linked. And there have been visual representations of war-- or of particular battles, at the very least, since ancient times. One of the most incredibly detailed and skillful is the Alexander Mosaic, which was originally found on the floor of the so-called House of the Faun in Pompeii, Italy, and dates to around 100 BCE. Amazingly, this mosaic survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 CE, which blanketed the city in literal tons of ash and cinder, killing its inhabitants- and remarkably preserving nearly everything. The Alexander Mosaic does have large sections of loss and damage, but what remains is fascinating. The work gets its name from its identifiable main subject-- Alexander the Great-- who is engaged in battle with the king of Persia, Darius the third. The piece is big-- about 8 feet high by sixteen feet long-- and is so detailed that it is generally believed to have been based on an older painting, probably from around the third century BCE. Here, Alexander rides in on his trusty steed, all wavy hair and determined gaze, looking across to Darius, who is ensconced in a chariot, his hand outstretched and his face worried and wide. And he had good reason to be concerned, as Alexander did defeat the Persian general twice. Predictably, though, Alexander is the star of the show, and as a viewer you come away with this sense of heroism and victory, even in this ancient work.
War is one of those unfortunate but expected realities of human existence, and so, like love and death, we can see that it has always been an intriguing subject matter for works of art. And as long as there have been big events that changed the course of history-- whether it be the fall of the Roman Empire or the Napoleonic Wars-- there would be military-themed representations. But the manner in which war was depicted in art changed perceptibly at the dawn of the 19th century. Prior to that time, war was portrayed in as positive a way as possible-- dramatically showing an acclaimed general on the cusp of triumph, as with the Alexander Mosaic, for example. War was glorified. But as time inched closer to the modern day, a new consciousness about the perils and destruction of wartime became too much to ignore- and it crept into politicized visual art as well. The French painter Eugene Delacroix created his Massacre at Chios in 1824, and in this canvas, there is nothing that can be portrayed as impressive or glorious. We see a bevy of victims, rounded up and enslaved by Ottoman troops, and there is little to see but the desperation in their eyes and the lack of hope emanating from them. Figures are cowering, slumped over, and fearful. Most heartbreaking is the corpse of a woman at the lower left of the painting, lying prone with her mouth agape. Atop her body crawls a small blond-haired baby, seeking love and comfort from his mother, who is already long gone.
The best example of this new War consciousness, though, came prior to Delacroix with the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya and his Disasters of War print series. These prints, a little more than 80 in all, were completed between 1810 and 1820 and portray the artist’s strong reactions to ongoing conflicts between the Spanish and the French in the Napoleonic period. Goya was already in his early sixties and experiencing a rash of health problems, including deafness, that affected his artistic output. But he felt so strongly about war and its terrible consequences that he simply felt the urge to create them, not even necessarily for the sake of public consumption. It appears that he may have been fairly private or even secretive about them, as they were not shown or disseminated during his lifetime, and they weren't even published until 35 years after his death. But one thing is certain: They are a powerful visual protest and are unflinching in their brutal honesty. One plate shows two women bravely engaged in a struggle against two soldiers. One of them crouches in front of a fallen soldier, holding his sword and looking off into the distance with a wide-eyed look of horror. Did she kill him in self-defense? And did this skirmish suddenly transform into an event that would haunt her for the rest of her life?
And honestly, that's one of the milder images from the Disasters of War. Other ones are even more disturbing-- executions by firing squad, mutilated corpses, women fighting off assault both physical and sexual, famine, and piles of bodies rotting in the summer sun. There’s no escaping them, and Goya doesn’t want us to. As the art historian Robert Hughes wrote in his 2003 book about Goya, quote, “He was the first painter in history to set forth the sober truth about human conflict: that it kills, and kills again, and that its killing obeys urges embedded at least as deeply in the human psyche as any impulse toward pity, fraternity, or mercy. Most of all, he drives home the undeniable message that there is nothing noble about war: that, in the words rasped from the throat of General Sherman to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy in 1879, I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is Hell.”
The ravages of World War 1 in the early 20th century once again laid bare a desolate landscape ripe for artistic interpretation. But what I personally find most interesting about art in the lead-up to the Great War isn't the direct representation of war and its effects a la Goya, but the art that arose as a protest against art itself, really. This was Dada, and it is a cultural movement that is somewhat elusive to define. But one thing is certain about Dada: it was highly, highly affected by World War I, and many of the artists, authors, and taste-makers who were involved in it were disillusioned with what modern society had then become: brutal, violent, corrupt, overly political, repressive, and difficult. In the wake of a war unlike any ever experienced in human history, how were people supposed to appreciate works of beauty? Indeed, how were people even supposed to create art?
Interestingly enough, art for art’s sake wasn’t the inspiration for Dada. As the poet and Dada leader Tristan Tzara once said, quote, “The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.” And the only way for some to come to terms with their deep-seated feelings of disgust was to admit that the world, as they knew it, had become nonsensical. The best way to cope would be to mock modern existence by embracing nonsensical art, music, dance, poetry, and literature. Things for the Dada artists were performative, experimental, irreverent, and sometimes radical, and they especially supported the concepts of spontaneity and chance. Because if you can’t control war, why even try to control art? This concept is best exemplified by Tzara himself, who once wrote a little instruction manual, of sorts, on how to construct a Dadaist poem. It read, quote:
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
From the early 19 teens until the mid-1920s, Dadaists in western European cities like Cologne, Zurich, and Paris-- as well as a few dedicated souls based in New York--used these concepts to challenge society, rational thought, and the definition of art itself. Another way that Dada achieved this was through the concept of the ready-made. We talked about the ready-made in a short collaborative episode with our friend Andrea at A Thousand Things to Talk About, but I’ll give you the very quick run-down. The term “ready-made” was coined by French artist Marcel Duchamp whose specific take on art was--and still is--controversial. Basically, the ready-made is anything, especially an everyday object, that is then deemed a work of art. The most famous ready-made that Duchamp “created” was his Fountain from 1917. Fountain consists of a urinal sloppily signed with the artist’s pseudonym of “R. Mutt” and dated in the bottom left corner. Duchamp didn’t fabricate the urinal- he bought it somewhere, or found it, and it became art through his signature and his declaration. It was art because he said it was. And there it was-- art that isn’t art, art that is ridiculous enough to call itself art.
And then there was the peaceful, logical response in the wake of the Great War. Another art movement, one that was established in 1917, only a year prior to the armistice, was formed in Amsterdam with the hope of returning happiness and calm spirituality to the war-torn European continent. This was De Stijl, which translates to “The Style,” and it was based on a reductive geometrical design, best exemplified by the art of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. Mondrian and his cohort used straight lines, right angles, simple rectangles and squares, and primary colors to establish a rhythm, order, and flatness to their works-- and in a great, grand thought, they seriously thought that such logic and structure could extend beyond the canvas and into society itself, bringing a peaceful regulation to a land wrecked by disorder and chaos. It’s such a beautiful thought, really, that art can be so redemptive, harmonious, and transformative. But ultimately, it was unsustainable, and of course, totally unrealistic. This was war-- and no grid or rectangle was going to be able to patch together a quick solution-- not immediately after World War I, and certainly not as World War II steadily approached.
This is by no means an exhaustive discussion of the many modern art movements that were influenced and affected by war, particularly in the crucial 25 years between the dawn of World War One and World War Two. Suffice to say that art and war particularly linked during this time period, especially in the case of movements, like Dada, whose very core was established by its relationship to a ravaged society. And it hit at a personal level, too. One of the most jarring paintings created in response to World War I, for example, is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s expressionistic masterpiece from 1915, Self-Portrait As a Soldier, which portrays the artist dressed in a blue military uniform, standing in his painting studio, smoking a cigarette… and holding up the bloody stump of an amputated arm. Okay, first thing to reveal about this painting is that it presents us with a lie-- the artist didn’t actually have his arm or hand amputated in the course of World War I. Nevertheless, we can think of the injury as a symbolic response to Kirchner’s own experiences of wartime Germany. Unlike artists like Otto Dix, Kirchner didn’t actually fight in the war, though he did originally volunteer as a military driver before he was declared unfit to serve due to medical issues. However, that didn’t mean that Kirchner himself wasn’t affected. The aura of even living in a desolate battle-ridden environment played havoc on Kirchner, and he presents himself to us as marred, gaunt, and even with a sickly pallor. But setting them down onto canvas allowed Kirchner to exorcise his fears and despair about War. As he later wrote, quote, “If suffering can be transformed into creativity . . . I want to try it.”
If the traditional narratives of artistic genius have taught us anything, it’s that Kirchner was right. Suffering can be transformed into creativity. But 300 miles away from Kirchner’s home in Berlin, another artist would eventually come to represent the inverse of that statement-- that someone's quest for creativity might inadvertently bring about suffering-- the greatest amount of suffering. In two weeks, on the next episode of our new season of the ArtCurious Podcast, we’ll be bringing you the story of a struggling artist living in Vienna, who was affected at his very core by his artistic failures. That man would become one of the key figures in world war two, and one of the most hated men in all of history. That man was Adolf Hitler.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal. Research assistance is provided by the wonderful Stephanie Pryor. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at K-A-B-double O-N-K-I dot com.
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