When armed conflict occurs between political powers, it seems the only resolution is to declare war. Wars have insurmountable effects on not just those serving but also music, the economy, politics, livelihood, and, of course, art. Since ancient times, wars have been the go-to solution for political problems. Whether or not you support this action, it undeniably contributes to massive cultural shifts.
Artists have been at the forefront of visually expressing the pros and cons of war. Though the art is frequently anti-war, other artworks promote war through state-funded propaganda. America’s iconic Uncle Sam poster, “I Want You,” was created by James Mongomery Flagg to encourage young men to enlist in World War II. Contradictorily, “Eat” by Tomi Ungerer promotes his opposition to the Vietnam War. From the 1800s to the late 1900s, art movements developed alongside society while men in positions of power determined the mortality of millions.
Neoclassicism and Realism
There are moments throughout history when the world is not filled with violence and chaos. In the early 1800s, Americans rested peacefully at night, knowing the air was not filled with gunpowder and lead. However, the inhumane treatment and war against Black Americans persisted. Artists reflected this feeling in their art; the paintings were calm and portrayed life’s beauty. Neoclassicism is a post-Roman era and is considered a classic in Western tradition. Inspired by antiquity, Neoclassicism uses a stark contrast in light and dark colors, often using naked women and Roman inspirations. Jacques-Louis David reigns as one of the masters of Neoclassicism and arguably was the catalyst for this art movement. His painting “Portrait of Madame Récamier'' (1800) perfectly exemplifies Neoclassicism.
Similarly, Realism accurately depicts the artist’s visual perspective. For these artists, society was relatively calm, and there was no imminent need to alter this reality and normalcy. Artists like Edward Hopper, Barge Haulers, and Honoré Daumier highlight what Realism encapsulates: authentic depictions of their subjects.
Impressionism was arguably the most prevalent art movement developed during the 1860s. While Impressionism still paints a picture of real life, there is an alteration in its portrayal of reality. Artists depicted the heightened tensions of wartime in their works—reality imbued with a felt experience of terror.
America saw intense violence during the 1860s due to the nationwide debate over slavery, resulting in the Civil War. Artists coped with the dissonance of the nation-splitting, unprecedentedly violent war through their work, specifically with Impressionistic techniques, utilizing the movement’s signature distortion of reality and its acknowledgment of complex emotion.
Winslow Homer is an incredible American Impressionist who focused on the tragedies of the Civil War. His painting “Home, Sweet Home” (1863) depicts Americans' lives during the 1860s. Thomas Eakins also represents this movement and war period in his pieces, specifically “The Gross Clinic” (1875) after the Civil War ended. Although he was a Realist painter, his most famous works were completed after the height of the Realism movement.
Elsewhere in North America during this time, the Second Franco-Mexican War (1861-67) and its senseless violence inspired the use of the Impressionist technique. artists. Édouard Manet used Impressionistic techniques to depict the execution of Maximilian, a deposed emperor installed by Napoleon III. In Manet’s painting, the scenery includes onlooking generals, Maximilian, and the landscape, but with a pointed lack of lifelike details, differentiating “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian” from the traditions of Realism.
Cubism and the Picasso Era
From 1907-1915, Cubism’s popularity developed and became the defining art movement of the early 1900s. Cubism is a collection of disfigured shapes, a singular point-of-view, and overlapping planes. Generally, this technique is not visually pleasing and appears as an impaired version of reality. Pablo Picasso claimed Cubism as his go-to technique and is remembered today as the Father of Cubism. While artists began exploring this new painting method, world leaders began exploring new levels of murder and violence.
Cubism, which flourished during the unspeakable horrors of World War I, represents a reality that did not feel real. Europe suffered levels of decimation that were thought to be impossible at the time. The distortion and confusion of Cubism embodies that ennui. The Cubism movement itself was eventually halted because its artists’ governments shipped them off to fight, including famous Cubism painters Braque, Lhote, de la Fresnaye, and Léger.
Dadaism is a precursor to Surrealism in the sense that the paintings do not necessarily make sense, but viewers still understand the concept. This movement directly results from the feeling towards WWI and the immense scale of the senseless murders in the trenches. Painted with heavy political overtones, art from this movement depicted the frustration of the post-war era in Europe. Dadaist artists used their artwork to protest the bourgeoisie and its sinister thoughtlessness of sending young men to die over trivial political matters. These artists advocated for and stood behind their radical leftist ideals. This movement resulted in iconic and satirical works of art like “The Art Critic” (1919–20) by Raoul Hausmann, “Fountain” (1917), and “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919) by Marcel Duchamp.
Surrealism marks a period where artists explicitly relied on creation to rationalize WWI's trauma and unfathomable tragedies. Before this art movement, artists criticized and scrutinized the government and world leaders for the war. The war’s after-effects started sinking in—life no longer felt real. Salvador Dalí, the Father of Surrealism, captures the odd sensation everyone felt during the 1920s. WWI had begun to settle, surviving soldiers experienced PTSD, and civilians mourned their lost loved ones. For many, life in the 1920s understandably felt like a hallucinogenic dream. Artists like Dalí and Ernst captured this sensation using Dadaistic and Surrealistic techniques throughout their careers.
Constructivism followed Surrealism during the 1930s. This art movement is another direct result of the war that inspired artists to highlight the war’s absurdity. Constructivism developed mainly from 1915-1925 when WWI ended and the Russian Civil War was just beginning (1917-1922). A group of anti-war artists established the Cologne Progressives Heinrich Hoerle, a member of this group, created “Monument to the Unknown Prosthesis” (1930) to show how the relation of man and machine is both a positive and negative shift for society. New technology meant new research developments but also exposed humanity to new, and more dangerous, war techniques.
Symbolism is just another example of an art movement emerging because of a new war outbreak; this time it was because of Russia’s Civil War. Symbolists were “painters that believed that art should reflect an emotion or idea rather than represent the natural world in the objective, quasi-scientific manner embodied by Realism and Impressionism.” Though artists like Gustave Moreau and Eugène Carrière laid the foundation for Symbolism, the Civil War trajected this movement in the late 1910s and 1920s. These movements used concurrent wars to fuel their inspiration and create constructive, critical, and ideological art.
Constructivism also assisted with propaganda as a genre of art. Anti-war propaganda is adjacent to the art created by Constructivists. As previously mentioned, Max Ernst was an active participant in anti-war art. His piece “The Barbarians” criticized WWII using Surrealism techniques. When society shifted from democracy to what was essentially barbarism, Ernst and millions of others started to view world leaders—most notably Hitler—for the inhumane and barbaric acts of WWII and the Holocaust. Propagandists and Constructivists were the precursors to further developments of other criticizing art movements like Social Protests and Murals and Abstraction speaking against the violence of WWII.
Abstraction arose during the 1930s when the Nazi party gained significant power and Hitler’s reign took control over Germany; the country had just undergone a political crisis, and Hitler saw the population’s vulnerability as an opportunity to publicize his savior complex. Art had a major shift in Germany when Hitler implemented highly restrictive laws against what art artists could and could not make. These regulations included restricting the spread of art, self-expression, and general ideas that did not perfectly align with his. In fact, Hitler was an art enthusiast and had ideas to create a selflessly titled “Leader’s Museum”. To eliminate anti-Nazi and anti-war artists—dubbed Degenerate Artists—Hitler enacted “cultural cleansing” in 1944.
The world recognized the unfathomable tragedies that occurred during WWII and The Holocaust; even today, these acts are incomprehensible. Artists and millions of others worldwide felt confusion, hurt, empathy, and disgust for what was happening in Europe. In 1937, the Nazis bombed Guernica, a small town in Spain. Pablo Picasso and millions of others saw this act of terror and subsequently created his iconic painting “Guernica” (1937). This Cubist painting portrays various symbols of life experiencing pain from the Guernica massacre, such as screaming women, a dead baby, a bull, and dismembered soldiers. Though “Guernica” is not technically an abstract piece, it still shows how art is a tool that artists rely on to cope with tragedy.
Social Protests and Murals
Overlapping with Abstract Expressionism, public art (e.g., murals) became ubiquitous; artists used this publicity to advertise their anti-war opinions. We still see murals promoting opposition or support for a movement, person, or idea. Artists, especially Jewish artists, fled to neighboring countries where it was safe to be Jewish and have opposing views against the Nazis. However, many could not escape from Nazi Germany and could not freely express their disgust with Hitler’s power. Countries like America, where artists could create art without being killed, produced anti-war murals and Constructivist artwork because countries under Nazi power were not allowed to express their views freely. Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka and her husband escaped Poland in 1939 to go to the United States, like many other citizens in countries under attack during WWII. Her painting “Escape” (1940) represents the protest against the invasion of Poland and the pain it caused her and her family. Protest art carried on through the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the U.S. War in Afghanistan, and the recent Russia-Ukraine War.
Murals are a strategy to promote an idea and raise awareness for a specific issue or person. The Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 saw a new resurgence in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Though not a war declared between countries, people of color have struggled against state-sanctioned violence and discrimination for centuries. The murder of George Floyd by a police officer, depicted on video, represented a particularly stark example of this systemic violence. Artists created murals to raise awareness about this deep-seated institutional racism in the wake of this killing, especially in Minneapolis, where the murder took place.
When Will War Turn Into Peace?
In today’s political and economic climate, it is increasingly difficult to be optimistic. Art, of course, does not exist in a vacuum. Dark periods of history manifest in the art created during those times. Conversely, when artists feel safety and security, happiness and prosperity, more optimistic art movements like Neoclassicism and Realism emerge.
Art is the rock people latch onto when coping with the tragedies born from war. Artists of all forms—painters, sculptors, musicians, directors—create art to express the complex feelings born from tragedy and peace, nurturing the evolution of art. War has an undeniable cause-and-effect impact on art history because of this need to cope. In the few moments in time that humans have experienced peace, we see normalcy and serenity shine through artists’ work, giving us incredible and classic eras like Realism and Neoclassicism.
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