Painting Hell

When Theodor Adorno sad “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” he didn’t mean that one could no longer physically write in verse, just that to write with the lyricism of culture was a travesty of memory (hence the actual quote, that to write poetry was barbaric, “nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch). Ironically enough, Adorno may have been closer to right with the visual arts than with poetry. The two World Wars were the apogee of war art, maybe even its sole era of greatness, as aesthetics and warfare complemented each other for a brief, uncanny moment. (Ignore Picasso’s comment to Gertrude Stein that cubism created World War One’s camouflage. That’s the strange confluence of zeitgeists talking.)

Since Auschwitz, or at least since World War Two (since the former and the latter are hardly identical), war art has languished in doldrums – though anti-war art flourishes from time to time. Why?

Japanese painters Iri and Toshi Maruki, who spent several weeks in Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb, began painting the aftermath of the blast in 1948. Their murals, painted partly from memory, “Ghosts,” “Fire, “Water,” eventually became part of a larger multi-decade project to memorialize the victims of war and injustice that included murals of the Rape of Nanking and Auschwitz.

What troubles war art since World War Two? Here’s historian John Dower talking about the Marukis’ art in the introduction to The Hiroshima Murals (Tokyo, 1985):

Birds without wings. Ghosts shuffling forward, hands stretched weakly before them. Monsters. Naked figures wreathed in flames.

These are hell scenes, and to persons familiar with Japanese art they may call to mind the medieval Buddhist scroll paintings of damnation … these particular scenes are [also] recollections from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where hell and the modern age fused in August 1945.

When it’s hard to tell the difference between reality and hell, and the latter looms with the immanence of “seven minutes to midnight,” what sort of reality is worth painting?

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3 thoughts on “Painting Hell

  1. It’s also interesting how the “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz” quote can be tied to changes in the theatre. Started with Dadaism (Gas Heart) and Theatre of Cruelty (Spurt of Blood) in the 20s, as a reaction to WWI, and continued after WWII with Sartre and Beckett. Not to mention Brecht. Mother Courage is probably the best war play ever, and it was written just as WWII began.

    • Yeah, there’s this whole trajectory of despair to be seen in most of the arts (classical music too, from some atonality in Strauss all the way to total serialism post-WWII). The debate is always, was it WWI or WWII that was the bigger shock to the system, or is that a trick question because bourgeois European civilization was already drowning in anomie by the turn of the century.

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