[Updated: May 9, 2004]

Table of Contents

I. War (in the visual arts)

The Military Leader

Before a more self-conscious and sympathetic, even anti-war, depiction of the ordinary soldier or the civilian victim of war emerged from the 17th century onwards (especially in the work of the Lorraine etcher Jacques Callot, “The Miseries of War”), the most common image of war is that of the military leader. He (always a male with a few exceptions such as Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I) is typically depicted on horse-back or in a chariot, leading his troops into battle, and vanquishing the enemy. Before the late 19th and 20th centuries a king or an emperor had to be a skilled military leader in order to seek, get and maintain political power. Thus, depictions of their military successes were an important means of demonstrating to their subjects and would-be challengers the king’s legitimacy as a ruler. These images were displayed on the bas reliefs of public buildings and temples, and as statuary in public places where as many people as possible could have seen and admired the achievements of their king or emperor.

Example 1: The stone relief of Rameses II in Battle, the Great Temple of Abu-Simbel, Nubia, Egypt (1290-1223 BC) depicts the victory of Rameses over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh. At the gateway to the temple one sees Rameses, with spear raised and apparently alone, terrorising his vanquished enemies. (De Silva, p. 18.)

Example 2: Roman emperors raised triumphal architecture and statuary to a high art form: the bronze statue of the Stoic philosopher and emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-80 AD) shows him on horse back, his arm raised in triumph, and his horse with one foot raised over a (now missing) vanquished barbarian chief cowering beneath; Trajan’s Column (113 AD) was a tall marble column which has a spiral historical account of Emperor Trajan’s victory over the Dacians engraved into the stone, topped by a golden statue of the emperor. One would have to walk 23 times around the column and use binoculars to “read” the entire history of Trajan’s triumphs. (Honour, pp. 211, 213).

Example 3: Amongst the many stone reliefs of the Temple of Ankhor Wat, Cambodia (1113-1150 AD) depicting the battle of the Indian epic Mahabharata one shows the builder of the massive temple, King Suryavarman II, Vishnu-like, riding an over-sized elephant in his own somewhat smaller victory over the Thai army. . (De Silva, p. 36.)

Depictions of a leader’s military prowess were also created for private viewing, usually for the purpose of reminding the ruling elite of the king’s power and legitimacy. Paintings commissioned by the king or emperor would show the leader in various idealized poses as brilliant battlefield commander or god-annointed ruler.

Example 4: In an unattributed 16th century English portrait of “Elizabeth I” (one of the so-called Amada Portraits) Queen Elizabeth, dressed in the height of French fashion, is shown with one hand on a globe of the world and the other on the hilt of a sword. Behind her through two windows we see in one the English fleet fast approaching the Spanish to engage them in battle and in the other the effects of one of the “miraculous” storms which devastated the Spanish fleet and thus saved England from invasion. The intended message seems to be that God wanted Elizabeth to prevail over the Spanish and so intervened meteorologically to assist her. (Keegan, p. 91).

Example 5: Napoleon commissioned the artist Jacques-Louis David to commemorate his victory over the Austrians at the battle of Marengo in 1800 in “Napoleon Crossing the Alps”. Napoleon, in full dress uniform and draped in a flowing red cape, sits on a rearing wild-eyed horse and points to victory over the mountains. In the background we see French soldiers pushing cannon through the St. Bernard Pass. In the foreground we see Bonaparte’s name inscribed on the rock next to other generals who had passed that way (Hannibal and Charlemagne). However, it is more likely that Napoleon crossed the mountains on the back of a donkey. (Keegan, p. 75).

The Hero (incomplete)

Traditionally, next to the military leader the second most commonly depicted individual in war art is the hero. In the Western world the characteristics of the archetypal hero were defined in Homer’s 9th century epic poems about the Trojan War, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and have been reprised again and again over the following 3,000 years. The Homeric hero, as personified by Achilles, was courageous in battle, loyal to his friends and comrades, quick to anger, suffered grievous loss and sometimes even death, was curiously attracted to the thrill of battle but was equally appalled by its horrifying consequences.

Example 1: Paragraphs to come on: Achilles, King Arthur, St. George, Joan of Arc, Duerer “The Knight”, Elizabeth Butler, Simpson and his Donkey, Film: Robin Hood, Gen. Custer, Audie Murphy, John Wayne (Sgt Stryker)

Example 2:

Example 3:

Civilian Casualties in War

It was not until Jacques Callot’s “The Miseries of War” appeared in the mid-17th century that we begin to see the impact war has on civilians. Before this time, civilians were largely invisible in war art since the focus was upon the war leader or the heroic soldier. Callot changed this perspective with his finely detailed etchings of war-ravaged Lorraine during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). He shows us pillaged farm houses, burning churches, and the raping and killing of peasants by marauding soldiers and deserters and thereby elicits our sympathy. But his was not a thorough-going anti-war perspective, rather it shows what happens when legitimate authority temporarily breaks down, when soldiers become an ill-disciplined rabble as a result of the failure of proper leadership. As a good Catholic and monarchist, Callot concludes his series with the just punishment and rewards meted out by the absolute monarch, according to God’s will no doubt – the wicked soldiers are hung en masse and the well-disciplined officers get their monetary rewards and promotions.

Example 1: On the plundering of civilians see Jacques Callot, “Scenes of Pillage,” “Plundering a Large Farmhouse,” “Destruction of a Convent,” “Plundering and Burning a Village,” “Attack on a Coach”; on the punishment of ill-disciplined soldiers see “The Strappado,” “The Hanging,” “The Firing Squad,”; on rewarding well-disciplined officers see “Distribution of Rewards”. (Daniel, illustrations 265-282).

Francisco Goya achieves a more consistent anti-war perspective in his graphic depiction of the horrors of guerrilla warfare in Spain under the occupation of Napoleon’s troops (1808-1812). His adoption of Enlightened ideas of Reason and the natural rights of man meant that Goya regarded as a crime and a disaster, what others had accepted previously as inevitable, namely the killing of civilians. The particular circumstances of the guerrilla war in Spain brought this aspect of war into particularly sharp focus. His series of 83 etchings, “The Disasters of War” (published postumously because of their radical perspective and graphic depiction of atrocities), documents the horrors committed by both sides – the Spanish people fighting a foreign occupying army and the French rooting out “terrorists” in order to bring the ideals of the French Revolution to an apparently unwilling populace. The spiral of violence which resulted, Goya argues, is a downward one. As he showed in another painting, the French Revolutionary or Napoleonic “Saturn” eventually devours its own children.

Example 2: Note in particular etching 38 “Barbarians” where French soldiers execute a priest tied to a tree; etching 39 “Great deeds – against the dead” where unidentified, mutilated bodies hang from a tree as a warning to others; etching 27 “charity” where Spanish peasants loot and mutilate what may be French bodies. (Hofer, etchings 27, 38, 39). See also “Saturn” devouring his children (1820-23) in Gassier, p. 260.

Only in the 20th century with the widespread use of the camera and the mass distribution of its images in cinemas, newspapers, magazines and eventually television and the internet, do we get to see in much greater detail the impact war, especially total war, has on civilian populations. There are some iconic images of 20th century warfare which the camera has created and some of these involve civilians: whole cities reduced to rubble by “carpet bombing” in WW2; Hiroshima and Nagasaki reduced to less than rubble at ground zero; wide-eyed, gaunt-faced, near starving prisoners in the Nazi camps clinging to barbed wire fences; a naked Vietnamese girl running towards the camera with her napalm wounds exposed; a room full of human skulls in Cambodia. What the camera is able to capture and reveal are the two extremes of war’s impact – either the personal and individual suffering which war causes, or the panorama of mass destruction, but the middle ground seems to be missing. (See Lewinski. Moyes, Fox).

In spite of the camera’s success in capturing the experience of war in the 20th century, perhaps the most powerful and best known depiction of innocent civilians in war is Pablo Picasso’s mural “Guernica” (1937) inspired by the bombing of a Basque town by German fighter bombers serving with the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. In a complex, triangular structured painting Picasso depicts burning houses surrounding a square, a women calling out a warning to others, a mother holding her dead baby, a women running from the mayhem, a fallen and broken statue of a warrior, a stabbed and screaming horse. In spite of the fact that much worse atrocities against civilians were perpetrated in the second half of the 20th century (or perhaps because of it) the power of this painting still shocks nearly 70 years after its creation. Its clarity and passion touches something in all of us.

Example 3: On “Guernica” see the detailed analysis in Chipp.

Picasso could not have foreseen what fate was to befall millions of civilians whom the Nazis incarcerated, worked to death, or systematically murdered in the camps because of their ethnicity, religion, or political views. When the camps were liberated in 1945 the world got to see through newsreels and official army photographs something of what had gone on behind the barbed wire. Images from that first encounter, as depicted in early documentaries like “Memories of the Camps” (1946) made by British army cameramen, defined what the Holocaust “looked like” – starving inmates with skeleton-like bodies barely able to walk, row upon row of flimsily built bunk beds shared by more than one person, army bulldozers burying pitfulls of bodies, rows of crematoria used to dispose of the bodies, and the crematoria chimneys. It was the latter image which Spielberg picked up so effectively in “Schindler’s List” (1993) where he shows the crematoria chimneys at the Auschwitz death camp, spewing what looked like snow on the new arrivals but which was in fact human ash. Other photographic images which have become closely associated with the Holocaust are pictures of rooms full of victim’s shawn hair, spectacles, shoes, empty suitcases, and boxes of gold fillings extracted from inmates’ teeth – the by-products of the industrialized process of killing human beings and recycling their property.

We also have the art created by survivors of the camps. In camps like Theresienstadt art work by inmates was sometimes officially commissioned or tolerated by the Nazis as a useful diversion. In other camps making sketches or drawing was strictly forbidden and inmates were severely punished if they were caught. Yet, many did make a visual record of their experience in the camps and some returned to the topic in paintings they made after the war ended. The themes dealt with by camp artists included portraits (to preserve the memory of fellow prisoners who had died), images of the daily hardships they had to endure (barbed wire, scrounging for food, suffering illness, waiting to die, beatings by guards), images of death and dying, and gallows or black humour (to keep up their morale or as small acts of defiance). The art produced in the Nazi camps is extraordinary testimony to the will to survive of human beings and the deep need they felt to document what was happening to them.

Example 4: On art by Holocaust survivors, see Mauryey Bromberg, “Five Jews in One Yoke” (undated) skeleton-like Jews at Auschwitz pulling a heavy roller; Auguste Favier, “Block in the Little Camp” (1943) many tiered bunk beds at Buchenwald filled with living skeletons; Leo Haas, “Hunger” (1944) desperate inmates at Theresienstadt scrounging for food. Bohm-Duchen, pp. 29, 34, 43.

When Picasso heard of the camps he attempted to pick up where he had left off with “Guernica”. He began work on “The Charnel House” in 1945, a painting of a pile of intertwined corpses, but he was unable to complete it. Perhaps he felt art could not adequately express the suffering the world had just experienced. However, the German painter Felix Nussbaum was able to complete a work which captured the feeling of the time. He had been incarcerated in a camp in southern France; he escaped and lived in hiding in Belgium, and was captured again and sent to his death in Auschwitz in 1944. While in Belgium he finished “Deathdance” (1943-44) which drew upon medieval imagery: grinning skeletons play musical instruments and dance around a war-devastated landscape. Only they have something to be joyful about in 1944.

Example 5: Pablo Picasso, “The Charnel House” (1945) in Bohm-Duchen, p. 53. Felix Nussbaum, “Deathdance” (1943-44) in Blatter, pp. 130-31.

Another extraordinary event in WW2 gave rise to new images about war: the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities by the Americans. The image of the mushroom-shaped cloud produced by the explosion of an atomic bomb is now universally recognized. What is less well known is the art produced by the people on the ground who lived through the explosion. In 1976 the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, NHK, collected images drawn by survivors of the atomic bomb blast which were later published. The pictures, all drawn by unprofessional artists, provide a moving and very different set of images of atomic warfare. A number of images which appear repeatedly in their work include bloodshot and bleeding eyes (it appeared people were crying tears of blood); people walking about with no clothes on (the blast had literally ripped their clothing from their bodies); and people walking about with what appeared to be rags or cloth draped over their bodies but which was in fact sheets of burnt skin which had peeled away. Many walked with their arms outstretched, held away from their body in order to prevent the burnt flesh from rubbing. In Japanese culture, this is the way ghosts walk. The atomic bomb victims had been transformed into living ghosts. New kinds of weapons thus required a new set of images since traditional ideas about the nature of warfare were inadequate to describe what had taken place in August 1945.

Example 6: See Schonberger.

The Ordinary Soldier in Battle

Like civilians, the ordinary soldier is largely invisible in war art until the 19th century. Only when mass conscript armies of citizens take to the field after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars had revolutionized the nature of warfare do artists and photographers begin to take notice. The emergence of mass circulation newspapers, the technology to cheaply reproduce sketches and photos, a reading public interested in the fate of their fathers and sons on the battlefield, and a growing liberal concern for the welfare of the ordinary soldier, are also contributing factors. The 1850s are a turning point in this process. The Crimean War (1854-65) is important as it is the first war to be extensively photographed and reported on by war correspondents who supplied information (via telegraph) to a public hungry for news. The incompetence of the British army in caring for its soldiers led to huge numbers of men dying needlessly from disease. This was reported on by new, professionally-minded nurses such as Florence Nightingale, who so shamed the British government with damning statistical analyses of death rates that it was forced to introduce wide-ranging reforms to care better for injured and sick soldiers. From then on, the ordinary soldier was no longer invisible.

The American Civil War was similarly reported on. Illustrated weeklies such as Harpers’ Weekly used artists like Winslow Homer to supply them with a steady stream of illustrations of battles (usually not personally witnessed but reconstructed afterwards with propaganda purposes in mind) and of the life of the ordinary soldiers in their camps (which were eyewitness reports). Many of these camp illustrations show the boredom of soldiers with nothing to do while they wait for the next bloody battle. Photographers like Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy H. O’Sullivan revolutionised the nature of war reporting with their never before seen images of the dead littering the battlefield, or the execution of rebels by hanging.

Example 1: Winslow Homer’s illustrations for Harper’s Weekly include the imagined “The War for the Union, 1862 – A Bayonette Charge” and the witnessed “Winter-Quarters in Camp – The Inside of a Hut” (1863). After the war he produced a series of extraordinary paintings of the Civil War such as “Prisoners from the Front” (1866), “Trooper Meditating beside a Grave” (1865), and “The Veteran in a New Field” (1865) which will be discussed in more detail below. (Simpson, pp. 29, 130, 216, 226, 246).

Example 2: Photographs showing battlefield death include Timothy H. O’Sullivan, “Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 1863” (Simpson, p. 89) and O’Sullivan, “On the Antietam Battlefield 1862” (Lewinski, p. 45); Matthew B. Brady, “Collecting the Remains of the Dead at Cold Harbor” (Lewinski, p. 48); on the execution of rebels, Alexander Gardner, “Hanging of Rebels, 1864” (Lewinski, p. 47).

The total wars of the 20th century required millions to serve the state on the home front in factories and millions on the battlefield to fight. Never before have wars been so well documented in all forms of media. States recorded their activities in meticulous detail: the paper work of bureaucracy survives in enormous quantity (in spite of the fire bombing of entire cities); the military took millions of photographs of all aspects of war fighting; official war artists were commissioned and expected to document what they saw for posterity; film crews did the same with “moving pictures” (the great American director John Ford lost some of his crew and was injured while filming the Battle of Midway for the American government); print journalists were able to accompany ordinary soldiers and to report their activities to the home front (the Indiana-born war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, prided himself on reporting the war from the enlisted man’s point of view). The enlisted men themselves, educated and literate as never before, were also determined to leave behind their own, different record of what they experienced in combat. Many kept diaries, wrote letters home or wrote memoires and war novels decades afterwards, thus exposing the nature of modern war to a mass reading public. A few took sketches of the scenes they witnessed.

WW1 produced a number of gifted war artists whose visual record of the war is significant. Among these is the German graphic artist Otto Dix who served from 1914-1918 and saw action on the Western Front. His most interesting work consists of a set of 50 etchings simply called “Der Krieg” (“The War”) in 1924 and some oil paintings produced in the late twenties, especially the disturbing “War Tryptich” (1929-32). The iconic images we now have of WW1 are the desolation of the landscape caused by the incessant shelling and the digging of trenches along the Western Front. Dix shows how ordinary soldiers dealt with these appalling conditions – they became one with the earth in both death and life. In death their bodies were literally consumed by the soil and the worms; in life they spent their lives covered in dirt and living in holes and trenches dug in the earth. The only hope for life seems to be the flowers and worms which grow out of the craters and skulls of men. Another example of the close link between the earth and the WW1 soldier is the slang term given to an Australian soldier in WW1 - “Digger” – someone who dug holes in the earth in order to seek shelter from the elements and from machine gun fire and artillery fire. The name has stuck and now refers to all men under arms from all wars. In the “War Tryptich” Dix takes the traditional Christian image used to portray the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and applies it to the front-line soldier in the trenches.

Example 3: From Otto Dix’s “Der Krieg” (1924) note especially the worm-riddled “Skull” and “Feeding-Time in the Trench” with the pairing of the live soldier with the “thousand-yard stare” eating his rations while sitting next to the mouldering corpse in the trench wall whose body is feeding the worms and the soil. In his “War Tryptich” we see in the left panel soldiers marching off to battle, the middle panel shows what high-tech weaponry does to human flesh, the right panel shows a soldier pulling a dead comrade from the killing field, and the panel below shows the dead sleeping with what hopes of resurrection we can only imagine. (Eberle, pp. 23, 36, 39).

The classic anti-war film by Lewis Milestone, “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), also shows us the war from the perspective of the ordinary soldier. It is a remarkable film for two reasons: because it defines the structure most future war films will take as a series of loosely connected vignettes (enlistment, training, first experience of combat, endless waiting, visiting injured comrades, returning home on leave, the attrition of comrades, the horror of combat, growing disillusionment, and so on) and it depicts “the enemy” sympathetically (American actors playing German soldiers, a situation unimaginable today – just think of Hollywood using American actors to make a film about the Viet Cong or the Mujahedeen). Like Dix, it shows the intertwining of men and the earth of the trenches as they seek shelter from the constant shelling. One lingering image is of a pair of severed hands clinging to barbed wire after a particularly devastating artillery barrage which forces French and German soldiers from one side of No Man’s Land to the other and back again with no advantage for either side, thus neatly summing up the entire war.

Example 4: Lewis Milestone, “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), based on the autobiographical novel by the German soldier Erich Maria Remarque. Partly as a result of playing the lead role, the American actor Lew Ayres became a pacifist and then a conscientious objector in WW2, thus ruining his career in Hollywood. (Kelly, p. 48).

The production of war art continued during WW2 and the Vietnam War (much of it by official war artists) but its impact was overshadowed by the moving pictures of Hollywood. War films are discussed below in a separate section. Here I would like to mention two types of still images from this period which did continue to have some influence, namely war photography and the art of that largely hidden part of WW2, the experience of POWs. The “illustrated weeklies,” which had played such an important role in the American Civil War in bringing images of war to a mass audience, continued to exert considerable influence on public opinion well into the 1960s when TV overtook them. In WW2. Life magazine quite early on in the war showed photographs of dead enemy soldiers but its editors, carefully following U.S. government guidelines, were reluctant to show images of dead G.I.s. It was not until September 1943 that Life magazine showed a photograph of dead American soldiers on Buna Beach, New Guinea. The photo is significant because it shows no faces and no obvious physical injury let alone dismemberment. As in most Hollywood movies of the time, the dead apparently fell quietly and without catastrophic injury.

Example 5: Life’s first published photo of dead American soldiers appeared in September 1943. (Roeder, p. 34).

The experience of ordinary soldiers who were captured by the enemy was largely hidden from public view during WW2 and did not surface until well after their release. Cameras were forbidden, of course, and those prisoners who were caught keeping diaries or making sketches were severely punished. Nevertheless, some POWs were able to keep their diaries and sketches and publish them after the war. British artist soldiers such as Ronald Searle and Jack Chalker were captured after the fall of Singapore in 1942 and sent to work building the Thai-Burma railways as slave workers for the Imperial Japanese Army. In their art they document the brutal treatment the POWs received as many of their comrades were worked to death. They produced images which have a number of similarities to those produced by European victims of the Nazi Holocaust (see the section above on civilian casualties of war) – emaciated, sick bodies lying on flimsy beds and brutal captors with batons and rifle butts ready to beat them. Of the 60,000 POWs who worked on the railway nearly one third died. Not surprisingly, their anger at their treatment tinges their art with racist depictions of their oppressors.

Example 6: On emaciated prisoners see Chalker, pp. 41, 89; Searle, pp. 127, 141. On brutal Japanese guards see Chalker, pp. 29, 105; Searle, pp. 107, 114.

The War Film (incomplete)

Moving pictures of war (first newsreels and movies, then TV) began to dominate our perception of war in the second half of the 20th century. In the late 1940s and 1950s the newsreel and the Hollywood combat movie co-existed uneasily with the glossy illustrated magazines. But the changing of the baton for the influence of print vs. moving pictures in the public mind came during the 1960s when illustrated weekly magazines lost ground to TV and the 6 o’clock evening news, and the Hollywood blockbuster.

From the earliest years of moving pictures the topic of war provided exciting and attractive material. At first, directors would “restage” current events such as the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion in China, or the Boer War in South Africa in order to entertain and “inform” movie goers. During WW1 all sides rushed propaganda movies into production in order to show the enemy in the worst possible light and to bolster popular support for the war. It is ironic that the need of the modern military for intelligence and training required people skilled in photography, so many individuals who would go on to make war movies in the 1920s and 1930s (sometimes anti-war movies) got their training during WW1 serving in the military. One such individual was Lewis Milestone who went on to make the classic anti-war movie “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) (also discussed elsewhere in this article).

Important films about WW1 include William Wellman’s “Wings” (1927) with its spectacular aerial combat sequences; Lewis Milestone‘s “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) which is the greatest anti-war film ever made and a film which defined the genre for decades to come; Jean Renoir’s “The Great Illusion” (1937) a subtle film about how class, race and language divide men even more than nationality; Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) which shows how ambitious generals use war to promote their own careers at the expense of the enlisted men; Joseph Losey’s “King and Country” (1964) a grim film which questions the British policy of executing soldiers for suffering mental breakdown under extreme combat stress; and Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” (1981) which forces Australians to question the wisdom of fighting for Empire (the British, not their own) justified by vague sporting metaphors so far from home.

Example 1: On WW1 films see Kelly.

During WW2 Hollywood threw its support behind the war effort and produced a large number of “combat films” designed to boost morale and recruitment into the armed forces. The formula for these movies was to take a diverse group of “typical Americans” (an Italian from New York, a Texan, a mid-westerner, a Californian, a Jew, an Hispanic, and so on) and show how they overcame their differences to become a coherent fighting unit dedicated to achieving the government’s war aims. Typical of this genre is “Bataan” (1943) directed by Tay Garnett and “Guadalcanal Diary” (1943) directed by Lewis Seiler.

Example 2: On the WW2 combat film see Basinger.

Only rarely towards the end of the war and occasionally afterwards did more critical and thoughtful films emerge which looked beyond the established stereotypes. John Ford’s “They Were Expendable” (1945) hinted at the futility of what some men were asked to do, while Sam Fuller’s autobiographical film “The Big Red One” (1980) suggests that personal survival and loyalty to the platoon is what motivated men, not grandiose schemes dreamed up by politicians; Keith Gordon’s “A Midnight Clear” (1992) based upon William Wharton’s autobiographical novel and set during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, suggests that fear, chaos, and incompetence were what determined the outcome of battles.

Nevertheless, well into the 1960s Hollywood continued to produce blockbuster movies about WW2 catering to the generation of men who had served in the war as they approached middle age and before the Vietnam War began to sour the taste for celebratory war movies. “The Longest Day” (1962) directed by a committee of Andrew Marton, Ken Annakin, and Bernhard Wicki, based on the book by Cornelius Ryan about the Normandy invasion in June 1944 and “The Battle of the Bulge” (1965) also directed by Ken Annakin about the last counterattack by the Germans in December 1944, were the last gasp of this type of WW2 movie.

The European and Japanese perspective on WW2 was quite different, as one might imagine. Societies which either had done the conquering and occupying (like Germany and Japan), or had been conquered, occupied, and then divided into resistors and collaborators (like the French, Italians, Poles, Russians, and so on) would be expected to see the war in a different light than the Americans, Britons and Australians who had not.

German war films about WW2 have been understandably few and far between. In the last gasp of the Nazi regime, enormous resources were expended in the making of “historical films” like “Kolberg” (1945) directed by Veit Harlan which were designed to rally the German people to one last stand against the “invading” allied armies by reminding them of successful heroic last stands put up by German Baltic towns like Kolberg as Napoleon was marching towards Moscow. But generally Germans preferred to forget the war years as they rebuilt their lives and enjoyed the benefits of the post-war economic miracle. Low budget films like Bernhard Wicki’s “Die Brücke” (“The Bridge”) (1959) sometimes appeared but they were rare. Wicki shows a group of conscript teenage boys forced to pointlessly defend a minor bridge against advancing American tanks as the regime crumbles. Death for all naturally ensues. Higher production values were used to make “The Tin Drum” (1979) directed by Volcker Schlöndorff based on the novel by Günter Grass but the point it may have been trying to make got lost in the bravura performances of the cast. A major international success came with the submarine drama “Das Boot” (“The Boat”) (1981) directed by Wolfgang Petersen which brilliantly showed the claustrophobic nature of submarine warfare in the Atlantic but which completely clouded the issue of why men fought so desperately for the Nazi regime. But it took an American director, Sam Peckinpah, notorious for his violent westerns, to take a German autobiographical novel about the appalling conflict on the Eastern Front and turn it into a film designed to debunk comfortable Hollywood films about WW2 – “Cross of Iron” (1977). Its depiction of the brutal fighting on this front would only be equalled by the Russian director, Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” (1985).

The French were also reluctant to confront early on the painful issues raised by defeat, collaboration and resistance. An early film by Réné Clément, “La Bataille du Rail” (1946) shows the French railway workers as resistance fighters, thus glossing over the issue of collaboration or apathy. A later film by him “Forbidden Games” (1952) shows children traumatized by the 1940 invasion and defeat of France retreating into parodies of Catholic rituals of death and the burial of farm animals as their parents disappear, either killed or scattered in the confusion.

[Paragraphs to come on British films of WW2; Japanese films of WW2; Korean War films; Vietnam War films]

II. Peace (in the visual arts)

If war can be defined as “organized violence” between groups such as tribes, kingdoms, or nation states, then peace in general might be defined as the absence of such organised violence. Peace might also be defined in a more technical fashion as the formal conclusion of organised violence by means of a surrender or a peace treaty. The latter view of peace does have some representation in the visual arts. The former is more complex because, in a sense, all art not about war is directly or indirectly “about” its opposite, namely peace. But I would argue that there is some art which captures the blessings of peace in a such way which makes it a commentary on the nature of war and organised violence, if only by way of poignant contrast.

Domestic Life

Life in the army is a life where one is surrounded by males much the same age as oneself, where one is told when and where to sleep, where and when and what to eat, how to dress, what to do during waking hours, and where the young male soldier is situated at the bottom of a complex pecking order of strict military authority. By contrast, in the traditional western family the same young male might have a wife, be a father with some young children, have a paying job, and be the head of or at least be part of a more or less extended household with all this entailed. The contrast with life in the army, especially in wartime, could not be greater.

In Christian art the traditional image of the Madonna with the child Jesus symbolizes, among other things, the love which exists between every mother and child and, by extension, the love which exists in every family between parent and child. It also suggests the great promise and benefits which would result as the child grows to maturity in such a loving context. In contrast to this Christian ideal of love which binds the family together, the bonds which tied the male soldier to the army were fear of punishment by one’s superiors, fear of humiliation if one was not courageous in battle, patriotic duty, and the comradeship one felt with one’s fellow soldiers.

Example 1: On the soldier’s fear of punishment by his superiors, see Honoré Daumier’s wickedly funny cartoon of “The Army Hierarchy” (1854) where a colonel whips a captain, who in turn whips an NCO, who whips a whipless conscript. (Rothe, plate 13).

Example 2: Giovanni Bellini, “Madonna of the Meadow’ (1505) shows the Madonna with hands clasped and a sleeping child in her lap. Behind the tranquil pair is a field with livestock tended by a man and a woman. A protective walled castle on a hill is in the distance. The anticipation is that the abundance of spring will soon come. (Honour, p. 457).

By the 19th century the economic prosperity which was accessible to the European middle class as a result of the industrial revolution and the ending of the Napoleonic wars meant that the more restricting communal life of the rural village and the need to house several generations of the same family under the same roof could be dispensed with. The “bourgeois” family, as depicted in Biedermeier art of the period 1815-1848, showed these changes and thereby created a new idealization of family life with its devoted wife and adoring children.

Example 3: Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, “The Family of the Viennese Notary, Dr. Josef Ewltz, at Ischl” (1835). In the picture the father has walked to join his family in the countryside. He is greeted enthusiastically by his sons who cluster around him to the left. To the right are the daughters who form a circle around their mother who wears an enormous, billowing red skirt. The gender divisions are clear, as is the family’s prosperity, health and happiness. The upheavals and destruction of the Napoleonic wars seem a long way away. (Norman, p. 60).

Example 4: What Waldmüller had done for Biedermeier Austria, Norman Rockwell did for Midwestern and small-town American families before the outbreak of WW2.

Trade and Commerce

War destroys trade and commerce though blocades, high taxation, confiscation of goods, inflation, the conscription of workers and consumers into the armed forces, not to mention the physical destruction war brings in its wake. The trade and commerce which remains is directed into supplying the war economy and consumers’ needs are neglected until peace returns. Thus depictions in art of peaceful commerce and trade remind the viewer of what war destroys or otherwise takes away. Markets take place in open public places where there is security of property and where contracts are enforced. The workshop floor can be a place where skill is exercised and rewarded accordingly. Trade brings people together from the far corners of the world to engage in mutually beneficial and peaceful exchanges. War either brings this to an abrupt halt or redirects all economic activity through the quartermaster’s store.

Example 1: The Swiss woodcut artist Jost Amman created a remarkable “Allegory of Commerce” in 1585 in which he shows a set of scales representing double entry book-keeping. In the background are detailed depictions of commercial activity on the River Scheldt near Antwerp. In the foreground are equally detailed scenes of peaceful commercial activity of merchants, clerks, book-keepers and workmen. (Yamey, p. 116).

Example 2: Many 17th century Flemish genre paintings gloriously depict the rising prosperity of Dutch towns following the end of the devastating Thirty Years War (1618-1648). These celebrate the merchants who profited from trade, the prosperous homes they were able to create, and the bounty of goods which they attracted to this region. They also show ordinary people hard at work and play, obviously enjoying the benefits of peace. Of the many paintings one could cite I would select Hendrick Sorgh, “Vegetable Market” (1662), Job Berckheyde, “The Baker” (1681), and the joyous “Boy with a Mousetrap” by Adriaen van der Werff (1676). (Watkins, plates 95, 119, 125).

Example 3: Denis Diderot, as part of the enormous publishing effort to put together a compilation of useful knowledge in the 18th century known as The Encyclopedia, included a collection of engravings depicting a huge range of peaceful and productive economic activity to accompany the articles. Among enlightened thinkers there was a growing awareness that there was a fundamental difference between creating goods which could be used to satisfy the needs of consumers (productive “industrial” economic activity) and goods which were produced for the army or navy (unproductive “military” economic activity). Two representative samples are “The Bakery” and “Bee-keeping”. (Keegan, pp. 16-17).

Example 4: Edgar Degas, “A Cotton Office in New Orleans” (1876). One of the issues which divided the North and the South prior to the American Civil War was tariff policy – the North was protectionist and the South favored free trade. Britain, as the major consumer of Southern cotton, was also in favor of free trade. An important tactic used by the North to cripple the Southern economy was the imposition of a trade embargo which threatened to bring the British into the war on the side of the free trade South. The French painter Degas visited New Orleans after the war and painted some of his relatives at work in a cotton office. His uncle is seated in the foreground carefully examining the quality of some cotton, while a cousin shows samples to a potential customer. The end of the war brought Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Americans together for mutually beneficial trade in cotton. (Yamey, p. 7).

Example 5: By the early 1890s the wool and mining industries had made Australia one of the richest nations on earth. The backbreaking work of sheep shearing is masterfully depicted in this heroization of pastoral labor by Tom Roberts, “Shearing the Rams” (1890). (Clark, p. 132).


Common images of the landscape of war in the 20th century include, from WW1, shell holes, muddy trenches, moonscapes of limbless tree stumps and the rubble of farm houses; and from WW2, fire-bombed city centers and smoldering tanks scattered across the fields of northern France and Belgium. One can easily find images of nature which are the complete opposite, where nature is depicted as tranquil, whole, vibrant and green. One also wonders what images of nature soldiers in combat may have thought about as they faced the ruined landscapes around them.

I would suggest the following as possible candidates: a Catholic soldier might think of an idealized image of the garden of Eden where there is material abundance and mild weather, and where animals and humans live in peace and harmony; an English soldier might think of a peaceful English river valley with cultivated fields and a church spire in the distance; an Australian soldier might think of the rugged grey-blue Aussie bush or a sandy beach under a blinding summer sun; a Chinese soldier might think of the sun setting over a river as it winds its way through a cave riddled valley; and a French soldier might think of water lilies in a silent pool. Each soldier dreams of their own private, peaceful place where the guns are silent and there is safety and warmth and enough to eat.

Example 1: On the Garden of Eden see Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Delights (1500) where Adam and Eve before the Fall live in a fruitful garden and where animals and birds live in perfect harmony (Keegan, p. 14); and Edward Hicks, “The Peaceable Kingdom” (early 19th Century) – Hicks was a Pennsylvania Quaker who painted an idealized image of lions, tigers, goats and lambs sitting peacefully in a glade with a man, woman and child (Keegan, p. 15 and Da Silva, p. 55).

Example 2: A romantic view of the English countryside is provided by John Constable, “Stour Valley and Dedham Church” (1814-15) with hedgerows, elms, a slowly winding river, and a church nestling in trees in the middle distance.

Example 3: An Aussie soldier from Sydney would no doubt be thinking of Sydney Harbour and sandy surfing beaches as painted by Charles Conder, “Bronte Beach” (1888) or the bush around the Hawkesbury River as painted by Arthur Streeton, “The Purple Noon’s transparent might” (1896). (Clark, p. 97, 147).

Example 4: In Chinese culture it was believed that to live among rivers and mountains, to quietly contemplate the great symphony of nature was to achieve piece of mind and insights into one’s spiritual nature. See the wall painting of “Queen Vaidheya meditating before the setting sun” (700-750 A.D.) (Da Silva, p. 29).

Example 5: When war broke out in 1914 Claude Monet had been at work on a series of impressionist studies of water lilies which he hoped to sell to the French government. On the very day the armistice was being signed in November 1918 the French premier, Georges Clémenceau, slipped away to Monet’s studio in Giverny in order to personally select which ones the state would accept. The peace and calm, light and shade, growth and decay, of Monet’s series of water lilies paintings had already drawn him away from the war even before the gun barrels had gone cold. Claude Monet, “Water-lilies” (1904). (Da Silva, p. 61).

Bringing War to an End

A more technical definition of “peace” is the formal ending of a state of war by means of a surrender, armistice, or peace treaty. For the losing party there is no pleasant way to accept defeat. For the victor, there is an opportunity for propaganda as a number of works of art demonstrate. The 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velasquez was commissioned by the Spanish court to contribute to a series of victory paintings during the Thirty Years War. His “The Surrender of Breda” (1634-35) shows Justin of Nassau handing the keys of the besieged Dutch city of Breda to the Marchese Spinola in 1625 after the city had endured a terrible 10 month siege. Both men have their hats off, as equals might greet each other, and the Spaniard has his arm on the Dutchman’s shoulder in a conciliatory gesture. Given the impact of a siege on a civilian city such a gesture might seem somewhat inadequate but it was how the Spanish wished to be seen in victory.

A less generous depiction of a surrender, but no less propagandistic, is a popular Japanese woodcut which shows the Russian surrender of the Fortress of Port Arthur to the Japanese in 1905, also after a long siege. The Japanese officers stand with their hats on under the shelter of a tent which flies the Japanese flag. The Russian officers stand humiliated in the snow outside the tent with their hats off submissively, waiting to sign the surrender papers. The battle is significant because it was the first time an Asian military power had defeated one of the Great Powers of Europe. Thus the Europeans had to be humiliated as well as defeated as this magazine illustration was designed to show.

Example 1: Diego Velasquez, “The Surrender of Breda” (1634-35) and unknown 20th century Japanese artist “Surrender of Port Arthur” (1905) both in Keegan, pp. 240, 242-3.

The humiliation was returned 40 years later when the Japanese formally signed surrender documents on the deck of the U.S. battleship Missouri on September 2, 1945. The official American military photograph shows the Japanese party literally surrounded by Allied personnel as they approach the signing table. Immediately above them and to the side dozens of American enlisted men sit on the ship’s giant guns with their feet dangling over the side. They will not show any respect by standing for the Japanese delegation. Directly overhead, at the moment of the signing, 400 B-29 bombers and 1,500 naval fighters flew past, drowning out all words. The surrender was total, unconditional, and utterly humiliating.

Example 2: Dower, p. 42.

I would like to end on a more optimistic note by returning to the work of the 19th century American painter Winslow Homer. When the bitter divisions of the Civil War were still fresh and only 4-5 months after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, Homer painted "The Veteran in a New Field" (1865). A Northern veteran of the war has taken off his jacket and canteen and put them to one side. He has taken up a scythe and begins to harvest a field of wheat. We can imagine that, like the Roman leader Cincinnatus who left his farm to assume the dictatorship of Rome and defend it from its enemies only to relinquish that power and return to his farm, after the surrender our veteran has turned his back on war and taken up peaceful and productive agricultural labor. We might also image that he has in mind as he harvests the wheat, a verse from Isaiah 2:4 “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Example 3: Winslow Homer, “Veteran in a New Field” (1865) in Simpson, p. 216.


There have been great advances made over the last 25 years in our understanding of art, photography, and film in general and war art, war photography, and war films in particular; how this media was produced and for what purposes; and how it reflected the ideas and aspirations of those who created it and how it influenced those who viewed it. We have also moved beyond just examining the images of political, social, and military elites. The common man and woman also have something to say about their war experience, whether as combatants, war industry workers, prisoners, or consumers of popular culture and recipients of state propaganda. I hope this article has shown, especially for the 20th century, that the civilian and the ordinary soldier have interesting and important stories to tell us about war and what it does to us and our societies.

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