“War art” is a form of artistic expression with warfare as its subject.
“War art” is a form of artistic expression with warfare as its subject. Historians of art as well as military historians have traditionally interpreted war art in purely mimetic terms, defining it by what they believed it represented: the timeless essence of war. This understanding of war art led to studies that focused on the continuity of the representation of war throughout the ages rather than on culturally specific differences. More recent studies of war art have begun to acknowledge that both war and art are expressions of specific times and places, and scholars are finally acknowledging the role of cultural change in shaping the understanding of both art and war.
The cultural turn in the study of war art is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it forces a reconsideration of the complex relationships among art, war, and culture. Furthermore, this change of focus in regard to war art leads to increased reflection on the understanding of change and continuity throughout time. War art has followed a progression over a broad expanse of time, from the ancient world to the present day. The discussion of this progression below is far from comprehensive, but it offers a window into key moments in the evolution of war art.
Visual representations of war first appeared around 4000
Later cultural productions from
Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People commemorates the July Revolution of 1830.
In the medieval period (476-c.1400), war art continued to illustrate the power of the monarch in matters of peace and war, but the added element of Christian belief meant that the secular king would have to share his power with God. Since secular power was subordinate to divine authority, one of the primary sources for war art in this period was the
Francisco de Goya’s Third of May 1808: Execution of the Citizens of Madrid (1814).
Biblical and Christianized images borrowed from earlier classical texts were the primary subjects of war art in the medieval period. It was not until the emergence of the
Two distinct artistic visions of war emerged following the Renaissance. The first continued in the earlier heroic tradition but was updated to meet the needs of that specific time and place. The second was an entirely new view of war that focused on its unheroic aspects, such as the human cost. Although the artists who produced both kinds of works were interested in war art as historic record, they had entirely different focuses and understandings of war.
When compared to the majority of nineteenth century war art, Goya’s painting is an anomaly. It was not until World War I (1914-1918) that the pathos-laden and unheroic vision of warfare that his painting represents became the dominant artistic mode in the portrayal of war. This shift in focus coincided with the emergence of
Something similar happens to the viewer of photographs taken by
Boneham, John, and Geoff Quilley, eds. Conflicting Visions: War and Visual Culture in Britain and France, c. 1700-1830. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Press, 2005. Collection of essays addresses the connection between artistic representations of war and nationalism in Britain and France during the period 1700-1830. Brandon, Laura. Art and War. London: I. B. Tauris, 2007. Offers one of the best overviews available on the subject, examining war art from prehistoric times to the early twenty-first century. Dillon, Sheila, and Katherine E. Welch, eds. Representations of War in Ancient Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Collection of authoritative and accessible essays focuses on nationalism in ancient Rome in relation to the war art produced there. Provides some interesting insights into how Roman culture compares with that of ancient Greece in regard to attitudes toward warfare. Hale, J. R. Artists and Warfare in the Renaissance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 1990. Contrasts the representations of war produced by artists of northern and southern Europe during the Renaissance. Malvern, Sue. Modern Art, Britain, and the Great War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. Focuses on the concepts of witnessing and testimony in showing how the war culture spawned by Britain’s experience in World War I not only altered English art but also prepared the way for a post-Holocaust obsession with authenticity and remembrance. Moeller, Susan D. Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat. New York: Basic Books, 1989. Follows the development of the art of photography alongside the development of warfare. Covers only American photographers, but offers many insights that can be applied to other Western nations. Paret, Peter. Imagined Battles: Reflections of War in European Art. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Presents an informative overview of war art, focusing on a limited number of works that are representative of larger trends in European art with war as its subject. Sekules, Veronica. Medieval Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Excellent overview of medieval art devotes a chapter to the representation of war in the artworks of the period.
Commemoration of War
Film and Warfare
Ideology and War
Literature and Warfare
Music and Warfare
Religion and Warfare
Television and Warfare