From Praxis in Color, the blog of Frontline Arts.
By Kevin Basl
The Frontline Arts team recently viewed On War, a holding of the Richard Harris Collection, at C.G. Boerner in New York. The exhibition features several print portfolios essential to understanding the history of war-art and, more broadly, printmaking as a political act. Tracing the evolution of imagery and form apparent in the exhibition (and drawing from other sources) can help us better understand how prints have been used to record the horrors of war, while also giving us a deeper appreciation for today’s socially-engaged printmaking. (It shouldn’t be surprising that war imagery is the visual material most-referenced in Combat Paper NJ workshops.)
One of the earliest innovators of the copper plate etching technique, Jacques Callot’s Les Grandes Misères de la guerre (Large Miseries of War), a collection of 18 prints, was completed in 1633. The prints that make up the Miseries collection are painstakingly detailed and surprisingly small: most are only 3 inches by 2 inches. Inspired by Europe’s Thirty Years War (1618-49), Callot covers themes representative of all wars, including recruitment, the chaos of battle, and mass atrocities. While contemporary audiences can only speculate on Callot’s intentions in creating Miseries, it’s clear that he witnessed war’s many deceits and tragedies firsthand—not as a soldier, but as an artist living in a war-torn countryside.
Perhaps the most well-recognized collection of prints-on-war, Francisco Goya’s Los desastres de la guerra (Disasters of War), created between 1810 and 1820, wasn’t released until 1863, 35 years after the artist’s death. Goya, who served as court painter under Spanish kings Charles III and Charles IV, was at least indirectly influenced by Callot (he probably studied Miseries). However, the gory images inspired by the Peninsular War (1808-1814) represented in Disasters focus on individuals and their (usually) petrified or gloomy expressions, rather than the anonymous crowds of Callot. Goya’s aquatint etchings are comparatively larger (most are around 6.5” x 8.5”), which certainly helps bring focus to facial expressions and interactions between soldiers, peasants and the tools of war. Often considered the first collection of prints taking an explicitly anti-war stance, it seems that Goya wanted to challenge notions of heroism and patriotism, in contrast with sentiments of the day (Birk 10).
Callot’s and Goya’s portfolios are a touchstone for understanding all subsequent prints-on-war. The below collections and individual prints reference them—if unconsciously—both in subject matter and form.
World War I produced a flood of prints. This year, 2017, marks the centennial of the United States’ entry into that war. Several exhibitions around the U.S. feature artwork from the “Great War,” including Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (World War I and American Art) and Cornell University’s Johnson Museum (“The War to End All Wars”: Artists and World War I). The latter features many rare prints, including lesser-known artists (many of whom are veterans) such as Werner Hahmann, Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, and Käthe Kollwitz. These prints build on the work of Callot and Goya (with a nod to 19th century printmaker Honoré Daumier) in both theme and composition, while evidencing the radical, sudden cultural shifts of Modernism (which, to a great extent, was a response to World War I). Attitudes of Modernism—especially the expressionist, cubist and surrealist movements—would directly influence war-prints of the 20th century, from Pablo Picasso to the DIY trench art of the Vietnam War and beyond.
The most significant collection of prints to come out of World War I is by German artist and war veteran Otto Dix. Dix—plagued by nightmares from a war effort he had enthusiastically joined–published a collection of 50 prints entitled The War in 1924. Writing on a 2014 Dix exhibition in England, Jonathan Jones says: “it was as if Dix needed to vomit his memories in order to purge himself of all that haunted him.” Like Goya’s, Dix’s aquatint etchings (to which he applied multiple acid baths, producing a decayed-look) are up close and personal, focusing on dazed and terrified facial expressions and wasted landscapes. Dix’s representations of war demonstrate the influence of Modernism: The War’s imagery is abstract, especially compared to the realist imagery of Goya’s Disasters.
All of the above printmakers witnessed war firsthand, as soldiers or civilians. Leaping forward to the 21st century, Sandow Birk instead draws imagery from the ubiquitous media coverage of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Depravities of War (2007), Birk’s large-scale print collection (4’ x 8’ woodcuts), resembles Callot’s in composition, usually depicting anonymous crowds in wide-view; however, his stance is firmly anti-war, closer to Goya and Dix. Art historian Darius A. Spieth writes, “It is the merit of Birk’s series to highlight how little the basic functioning of these ‘terms of engagement’ [the process of war-making] have changed over the last four hundred years, while leaving the formulation of a moral judgment on the events to the individual viewer” (Birk 10).
In contrast to Goya’s closet creation of Disasters, prints-on-war are now often collaboratively made, sometimes publically in the street (or even with active duty service members at USO centers—Combat Paper workshops are just one space for soldiers and veterans to learn printmaking as a way to communicate their military experiences). The War is Trauma portfolio (2011), for example, marks a collaboration between members of the Justseeds Artists Cooperative and Iraq Veterans Against the War. Anti-war prints from the Vietnam War, often featuring didactic text (similar to the propaganda posters of World Wars I and II), have certainly been influential—if indirectly—to many contemporary socially-engaged printmakers working in this vein. Many great examples of these prints can be seen in Vietnam Veterans Against the War’s newspaper, Winter Soldier (1973-1975).
It’s interesting to consider what the pre-21st century printmakers were trying to accomplish in reproducing images of war. A warning? A purging? An obsession? So often we hear Combat Paper workshops pigeonholed as healing work—which is only part of the process (this so often oversimplifies the conversation—art is inherently “healing,” I argue). Perhaps the current tendency to view war prints as a sign of healing-work (rather than insanity) ought to be celebrated as social progress. However, when the work is interpreted only through this lens, much is missed: how can this art be viewed in relation to the robust history of war resistance movements? How might emerging artists’ work be improved (viewers and critics are reluctant to give useful feedback when the work is considered only as therapeutic)? As community-members and citizens, what are these artworks telling us to do?
We have much to learn from the above prints. They not only represent artistic (and perhaps psychological) achievements, but so much work to come.
The Depravities of War by Sandow Birk. Featuring an essay by Darius A. Spieth, “Terms of Engagement”) (HuiPress Publications and Grand Central Press, 2007)
Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged: Artists in World War I edited by Gordon Hughes and Philipp Blom. (Getty Publications, 2014)
“The First World War in German Art: Otto Dix's First-Hand Visions of Horror” by Jonathan Jones. (The Guardian, 2014)