If you really think about it, ‘war artist’ is a fascinatingly bizarre occupation, and one that throughout the 20th century produced some of the most shocking and inspiring imagery, and continues to do so right until the present day. The First World War came at a time when the revolutionary art and philosophy of modernism had dismissed the thought that such a destructive war was possible, since it was believed the cost was too high.
With the outbreak of war, the world was irreversibly changed as doubt was cast on the beliefs and institutions of the past. This generated a dark cornucopia of artistic output, documenting the tragedy of the front line with a placid anguish that would inspire future generations with its unflinching accounts of the punishing emotional consequences of war among individuals. As the conflict dragged on, the British government realised that this could lead to positive outcomes, so war artists were officially ‘commissioned’ (not paid to make work but given the go ahead to do so) in the hope that this documentation would build a truthful archive of what the soldiers had gone through. Understanding how the particular concerns of British soldiers were expressed helps give necessary insights into the nature of modern warfare. From this innovation a strange tradition has developed, and the relationship between art and war is just as interesting a subject as the work it has triggered.
This desolate 1918 landscape by Paul Nash called ‘We Are Making a New World’ manages to convey the despair of a battle polluted wasteland devoid of human figures. Their absence strengthens the message of infertile stagnation that the artist felt as he examined the aftermath of trench warfare.
His role was to observe and record, but in a letter to his wife while he was producing this work, he said that all interest and curiosity had been drained out of him. All that was left was a creative driving force dedicated to being a messenger to bear witness to the horrors of trench life.
As you can imagine, being sent to document war as an artist can cause or exacerbate pre-existing mental problems, which was the case with Peter Howson, whose work retains and further humanises the bleakness of Nash’s work more than 70 years earlier.
Howson was commissioned by London’s Imperial War Museum in 1993, to be the official war artist for the Bosnian war. Here he produced some of his most shocking and controversial work detailing the atrocities which were taking place at the time, like in this 1994 painting ‘Bosnian Harvest’.
The horrors he encountered caused struggles with mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism, which some could argue makes his work an even stronger vehicle for his audience to contemplate the destructive influence modern warfare has on the human spirit.
These days the documentation of conflict is an international phenomenon which allows people to come to terms with hostilities which are broadcast through the media, accessible to almost everyone. Some complain about disturbing imagery being thrust into our living rooms, but when you consider the mental scars carried by generations of war artists working in chaotic, isolated conditions, I consider paying attention and taking an interest in what is going on to be an important part of helping society to evolve out of these self destructive habits.
For example, the terrorist attacks in Paris during November triggered numerous responses, not only from artists but from the public of the world who have wanted to show compassion and understanding towards those affected and their families. Arguably the mass media driven society we live in makes it harder to avoid hearing about what has happened, which I think contributes to a richer and more caring society, better equipped to understand that a fundamentalist minority doesn’t represent the Islamic faith and its followers. An example of how good education is leading towards a more enlightened American youth can be found in this article.
Most dictatorships, massacres, assaults and other challenges to human rights generally have their roots in an underlying cultural ignorance. Mass media doesn’t just give us a chance to hear every side of the stories that are shaping the future of humanity, but it also offers us a platform so that we can express our own thoughts and have them heard and acknowledged.
The victims of conflict can feel our sympathy and support and we can share a hope for a more open minded future, where hopes for freedom can be realised and humanity strengthened.
I would argue that today it is no longer a question of whether an artist should get involved with the subject of war and conflict; instead it is about how they should respond. It is no publicity stunt when western street artists risk their lives to tunnel into the Gaza Strip with the intention of producing work about the conflict between Israel and Palestine; it is a ray of hope demonstrating that we all have a voice that can be heard without being sent to the front line the way artists were 100 years ago, instead getting involved of our own accord. Mass media unifies the world in giving us a chance to reflect on historical events like the terrorist attacks in Paris as they happen, allowing us to consider the causes and consequences. Creativity is a vital tool for us all to utilise in giving a personal response, and we should take great pleasure in that glorious privilege.
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