War and Peace in the Arts
Civilian Casualties In War
Jacques Callot's series of etchings The Miseries of War (mid-seventeenth century) was the first attempt to depict the impact of war on civilians. Callot's finely detailed etchings of war-ravaged Lorraine during the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) show pillaged farm houses, burning churches, and the raping and killing of peasants by marauding soldiers and deserters. But this is not a thoroughgoing antiwar perspective; rather, it shows what happens when legitimate authority temporarily breaks down and soldiers become an ill-disciplined rabble as a result. 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.
Francisco Goya (1746–1828) 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 (1808–1813). 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 eighty-three etchings, The Disasters of War (1810–1814; published posthumously 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.
In the twentieth century the widespread use of the camera made possible the depiction of the impact of war, especially total war, on civilian populations in much greater detail: whole cities reduced to rubble by "carpet bombing" during World War II; a naked Vietnamese girl running toward the camera with her napalm wounds exposed; a room full of human skulls in Cambodia. In the early twenty-first century the small and cheap digital camera made possible the graphic depiction of the treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison camp. Among the outright pornographic is the iconic image of a hooded and cloaked Iraqi with arms outstretched, Christlike, with wires from his extremities hooked up to some source of electricity. The camera is able to capture and reveal two extremes of war's impact—the personal and individual suffering that war causes, and the panorama of mass destruction—but the middle ground seems to be missing.
Photographic images that have become closely associated with the Holocaust are pictures of rooms full of victim's shorn 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. 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 include portraits, images of daily hardships, images of death and dying, and gallows or black humor. The art produced in the Nazi camps is extraordinary testimony to the will to survive of human beings and to the deeply felt need to document human experience.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States in World War II also gave rise to new images of war. 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. The pictures (published in Unforgettable Fire), all drawn by amateur artists, provide a moving and very different set of images of atomic warfare. A number of images that appear repeatedly in their work include bloodshot and bleeding eyes; people walking about naked; and people walking about with what appear to be rags or cloth draped over their bodies but which are in fact sheets of burnt skin that have 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.
In spite of the camera's success in capturing the experience of war in the twentieth 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 woman calling out a warning to others, a mother holding her dead baby, a woman 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 and depicted in the second half of the twentieth century (or perhaps because of it), the power of this painting still shocks nearly seventy years after its creation.
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