A Different Kind of War Art

The most famous art from the First World War comes from the avant-garde styles of the era: expressionists like George Grosz, Vorticists like C.R.W. Nevinson and Wyndham Lewis, or surrealists like Paul Nash. But war art reflected pretty much every art tradition out there, including some stemming from far away from the battlefields of Europe.

The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta has a teepee door from the Kainai (or Blood) tribe on display in which triangular figures are seen running amidst what are clearly shell explosion. Some of them clearly wear the German spiked pickelhaube helmet, others stand behind a cannon. Though the artist is unknown, the door bears the date 1917.

As it happens, Glenbow Museum AF 3649-B (viewable here) is only one of many pieces of war art painted after the First World War by men from the Blackfoot confederacy, a First Nation that inhabits present-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana. L. James Dempsey’s extensive catalog of Blackfoot pictographs, Blackfoot War Art: Pictographs of the Reservation Period, 1880–2000, has numerous examples of the art form being used to depict wartime experiences.

The First World War works that Dempsey catalogs come in a variety of forms. They include a calfskin robe with the exploits of Mike Mountain Horse in the 191st Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the anonymous tent door at the Glenbow, Nick King’s capture of four pickelhaubed Germans – painted on Eagle Ribs’ war lodge after the Second World War, and George Strangling Wolf’s capture of three enemy guns – on a canvas teepee liner now at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Second World War veterans similarly depicted their exploits when they returned home. Clarence McHugh, or Black Bull, counted coup for surviving heavy bombing raids in England and dangerous patrols in France; Mark Wolf Leg, whose exploits included the capture of four Germans, depicted them both on the Three Suns war lodge and a miniature shield.

Blackhawk pictographs from of the World War are, Dempsey explains, only one example of how the tradition of pictographic war art, continued after the decline of warfare on the plains in the late nineteenth century, changed to accommodate more recent experiences. My favorite example, and one that’s quintessentially Canadian, has to be the use of National Film Board logos to mark participation in documentary films on a robe painted by Pete Standing Alone.


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?