Thursday 20 February 2020

Anti-war Art

The creation of art that attempts to convey the sterile horror of war has a long history indeed.

Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904) was a Russian landscape painter of the nineteenth century and, for a time, an official war artist for the Russian army. His paintings often reflect his own direct experiences. 
He is often categorised as an anti-war artist because of the devastated landscapes he painted drew closely upon his own direct experiences, and were depicted in his distinctive crisp, unflinching classical realism. These paintings are like a "morning after" image, displaying the sterile destruction of life and civilisation that remains once the heat of battle has died down.

Vereshchagin dedicated 'The Apotheosis of War,' to "all great conquerors, past, present, and to come." It can be found today in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which houses a great deal of his works. 'The Ruins of the Theatre in Chuguchak' (below) can be found in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg.
What makes paintings like these so powerful and disturbing to me is how often images like these have been repeated and recreated in the real world in the century and a half that has elapsed since their creation.

The lifelessness of Vereshchagin's landscapes are echoed by those of the British war artist of WW1 John Nash. The hideous mound of skulls in 'The Apotheosis of War' has been seen in the twentieth century too many times to count, perhaps most infamously and presciently in Cambodia of the 1970s.
In the last century we have seen the power of photography replace painting to convey the reality of war to the public. Think of those photographs of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, who defied a ban on western reporters visiting the cities following the US atomic bombing, described as "a warning from history".
In the twenty-first century independent journalists like the British photojournalist Guy Smallman have produced similarly stark images on landscapes in Afghanistan. 
Others increasingly rely more on video, which can be easily distributed via social media to anyone with an Internet connection. For example, this footage shot by the British independent journalist Vanessa Beeley of Daraa al Balad in Syria I feel captures the same spirit of Vereshchagin's unblinking vision, which bears witness to our own inhumanity.

Today some of the best anti-war reportage is that which is created by the perpetrators themselves, and it is merely left to conscientious individuals to alert the general public to its existence, as US Army Private Manning did back in 2010.

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