Although in stories of battles and soldiers, it seems that there is no other possibility than big epic rhetoric when art displays war scenes, WWI proved the opposite. What is the alternative to the epic in representations of war in art then? Would it be possible to represent the cruel reality of war and sustain the support of the public about the conflict?
If there is no epic representing war in the visual arts, then the path of tragic everyday things and the ordinary, of the coarse and the purely human would take place. A war could not look then full of bombastic gestures, flashy and artificial poses. A war would have to be full of pain, anguish, despair, frustration, and fear.
The bereavement would beat the gallantry without the possibility of a rematch. And at this point there is doubt, is a tragedy of the characteristics of the Great War and its consequences representable?
War & Art
Max Beckmann, Ludwig Kirschner, and Otto Dix would answer affirmatively and their works proved it. But to what extent what they showed was the reality of the war? How far the necessary opening to other ways of representation that explore what humanity has done and lost in the conflict is something that seduces art historians.
Even so, it seems to derive in the allure of the avant-garde and its ruptures with traditional representation in the arts. This, obviously, explains the evolution of twentieth-century art, but does not explain the tear in representational discourse.
The “new paths” of art have been explained ad nauseam, but beyond these diligent and necessary explanations is the individual horrified by his own destructive power. There the individual confronting the emptiness of the causes of this war and the unfathomable tragedy of its consequences. That individual is also an artist and in the face of the greatest contradiction of his humanity, he was forced to create from the bleak dimension that embraced him.
What about censorship
John Singer Sargent displayed a delicate speech in his masterpiece Gassed (1919). A very sweetened work for some, which, in the background, could also be a sign of the censorship of the reality of war.
In the introduction to Paul Nash’s book, British Artists at the Front (1918), John Salis expressed that
“it is not possible to paint how truly this war has shaken man, because horror will not allow the truth to be told” (p. 14).
In 1918, there was an incident involving the painting Paths of Glory by the British painter Christopher R.W. Nevinson. The Ministry of Information objected the work exhibited in the Leicester Galleries, particularly by the war censor Major A.N. Lee. This officer stated about Nevinson’s work, which showed two soldiers lying face down on a road flanked by barbed wire, that “representation of the dead has an adverse effect at home”.
Knowing about the adverse reception of his work, Nevinson himself would diagonally place a strip of paper with the word “censored” written on it. The artist tried to show that the reality of the war was terrible, but also that it had unleashed a representational crisis.
This crisis that was believed to affect only the art related to war, would end up affecting the visual arts in general. There might have been three fundamental factors to the problems of the representation of war: first, official censorship; second, self-censorship and, third, the opacity of one’s experience of war.
Nevinson had placed two faceless corpses in his painting. But how to represent the reality of mutilated bodies, disfigured faces and the sickened? That was the reality couldn’t find a place and perhaps the factors stated before had something to do with it.
At some point, these factors could have influenced Sargent and the outcome shown in Gassed as they could have influenced so many other artists. The decisions every one of them made were probably very personal and also intimately linked with their contexts.
Tragedy, War & Art
Grosz, for example, had no doubts, neither did Dix. The war was hell and its representations the necessary catharsis. Some artists surely self-censored. The physical horrors of war, the brutality it had embraced didn’t match the artistic representation about it so popular until WWI.
Decades before, the American Civil War (1861-1865) left many in a real state of shock. The reality of the horrors of a struggle that used -for the first time- much of the arsenal provided by the Industrial Revolution was monumental. The photographic images produced during this war were dreadful. The new conditions of the industrialized war had been set in that conflagration, but Europe seems to have turned its back to it.
Since the Napoleonic Wars, the old continent had not faced a conflict with such broad repercussions. The great empires had been fighting each other, but not in a similar escalation and, moreover, they had fought against enemies well below their military level.
When these empires met in July 1914, there was no room for fright. What was unleashed could not be represented as Jacques-Louis David or Jean-Antoine Gross had done before. Only Francisco de Goya seems to have anticipated what was to come. His series of engravings The Disasters of War (1810-1815), with his crude representation of mutilated bodies and vanquished subjected to the most humiliating and terrible punishments, seems to foresee what was yet to come.