2 minute read

War and Peace in the Arts

The Ordinary Soldier In Battle

Like civilians, the ordinary soldier was largely invisible in war art until the nineteenth century. Only when mass conscript armies of citizens took to the field after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had revolutionized the nature of warfare did 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, were also contributing factors.

During the American Civil War, artists like Winslow Homer (1836–1910) produced a steady stream of illustrations of battles (usually not personally witnessed but reconstructed afterward) and of the life of the ordinary soldiers in their camps. 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 revolutionized the depiction of war with their images of the dead littering the battlefield, or of the execution of rebels by hanging.

World War I 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 to 1918 and saw action on the Western Front. His most interesting work consists of a set of fifty etchings simply called Der Krieg (1924; The war) and some oil paintings, especially the disturbing War Triptych (1929–1932). Iconic images of World War I include the desolation of the landscape caused by the incessant shelling and the digging of trenches along the Western Front. In Der Krieg 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 (the worm-riddled Skull); in life they spent their lives covered in dirt and living in holes and trenches dug in the earth (Feeding-Time in the Trench). The only hope for life seems to be the flowers and worms that grow out of the craters and skulls of men. In the War Triptych 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.

The experience of ordinary soldiers who were captured by the enemy was largely hidden from public view during World War II 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 prisoners of war (POWs) were able to keep their diaries and sketches and publish them after the war. British soldier-artists such as Ronald Searle and Jack Chalker, captured after the fall of Singapore in 1942, were 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 that have a number of similarities to those produced by European victims of the Nazi Holocaust—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.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Verbena Family (Verbenaceae) - Tropical Hardwoods In The Verbena Family to WelfarismWar and Peace in the Arts - The Military Leader, The Heroic Soldier, Civilian Casualties In War, The World Wars In Film