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Can art about the Ukraine war be anything more than disaster porn?

For centuries artists have tried to show the truth about war’s horrors – but even great work has had dubious success

Vesna Maric
2 July 2022, 7.00am

'Vacation from War' (2022) by the Ukrainian artist Kinder Album

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Kinder Album. All rights reserved

“Producing many texts and projects on the war in Ukraine, I cannot shake the feeling that I am working in the genre of disaster porn.” So wrote Ukrainian critic and curator Alisa Lozhkina in April, in a post titled ‘We Are Only Seen When We Die: Notes on the War and Art in Ukraine’. We are inundated with images from the Russia-Ukraine conflict through art, news and many other media: recently, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky even appeared as a hologram at a conference in Paris. Representation is everything when it comes to making a political difference, yet the endless portrayal of the war does not seem to bring peace any closer.

Perplexed by the testimony of horror, glorious spectatorship and disaster porn that meet in images of war, I decided to look at some major works of war art to see if art has made any real difference to war, and our ideas about it. How has mass media and technology – apparently meant to make the viewer more informed – affected our way of seeing?

From art as propaganda to art as reflection and anti-war protest, I’ve looked at how far artistic representation of war – and its effect on viewers – is an effective tool for both inciting and preventing or stopping conflict.

‘The Surrender of Breda’

“If governments had their way, war photography, like most war poetry, would drum up support for soldiers' sacrifice. Indeed, war photography begins with such a mission, such a disgrace.” Replace the word ‘photography' with the word ‘art’ in Susan Sontag's statement and you sum up pre-19th-century artistic representations of war. They were grandiose, epic, unique creations, carefully composed and depicting a particular battlefield victory. War art exemplified the artist’s skill and glorified battle.

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Diego Velázquez ‘The Surrender of Breda’

Diego Velázquez, ‘The Surrender of Breda’

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Museo del Prado, Madrid

These aims are clear in Diego Velázquez’s ‘The Surrender of Breda’ (1634-35), which depicts a defeated Dutch commander handing over the key of the city of Breda to his Spanish enemy counterpart.

The Dutch soldiers are few and their weapons are broken. In contrast, the victorious Spanish stand proud, their lances upright. Commissioned by Spain’s Philip IV, the painting was intended to boost the king's reputation, for the country was going into an economic decline. The viewer was not meant to be disturbed by the content and was likely to be impressed by the size of the work and the artist's skill. The painting was a confirmation of stately and courtly power and is considered one of Velázquez's best works.

Artistic representations of war are still used for propaganda to this day, but 19th-century developments in print technology vastly increased their reach. Mass production and consumption of both art and war became possible. The viewer no longer had to seek out art that represented war – art sought out the viewer.

First employed as mass propaganda in World War One, art was used in the fighting nations to mobilise support for the war effort, summon donations to charities, encourage participation in war bonds and publicise victories in notable battles to a broad public. Posters, postcards, and trade cards flourished.

Art’s traditional concern for originality and uniqueness faded as the reprintability and ubiquity of the image were the priority. During both World Wars, governments invested in printed matter that rallied nationalism and support for war, and animosity towards the enemy. Then as now, the actual horror of war was downplayed, if portrayed at all, and the glory of the righteous cause (together with the monstrosity of the enemy) was key.

Technological advances have influenced the content of war art as well as its production and distribution. Industrial ideas of progress have often gone hand-in-hand with warmongering: the sense of humanity’s superiority over nature, patriarchal and white supremacist ideas, and nationalism. Nowhere was this better packaged than in Italian Futurism, an artistic movement of the early 20th century that admired violence, intense patriotism and misogyny.

The ‘Manifesto of Futurism’ written by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909 declares: "We will glorify war – the world's only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for and scorn for woman.” Ironically, the movement died out in World War One and several of its members were killed. When art offers itself up to war propaganda, history becomes a spectacle.

‘The Disasters of War’

It’s hard to imagine that an artist who has experienced war in person could easily produce pro-war propaganda – and it was precisely at the point when artists started to draw on their personal experience that a monumental moral shift occurred in representations of war.

'Esto es peor' ('This is worse') plate 37 of 'Los desastres de la guerra' ('The Disasters of War', 1810-20) by Francisco Goya

'Esto es peor' ('This is worse') from 'The Disasters of War' by Francisco Goya

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Museo del Prado

Francisco Goya created his highly political, and spectacular, 82-print series ‘The Disasters of War’ (1810-1820) after he visited the battlefields around Madrid, witnessing the carnage of the Napoleonic wars.

The images of the many forms of suffering depicted by Goya draw the viewer in; they disturb, provoke feelings of outrage. The artist wrote emotive captions below each image, such as: ‘One can't look’; ‘This is bad’; ‘This is worse'; ‘This is the worst!’.

The captions and images appear to be in conversation with one another and with the viewer. They seem to ask: are we going to let this go on?

Because he makes us examine our assumptions in this way, Goya is considered the first real Modernist (although he is pre-Modern). Few works of art have retained such a freshness over time; but then again, war atrocities never go out of fashion.

Goya’s images were a prelude to war photography: he was the first artist to portray the reality of war free of romance and idealism. All succeeding generations of artists dealing with the subject have Goya's etchings in mind.

20th-century shock and trauma

'Guernica' by Pablo Picasso (1937)

'Guernica' by Pablo Picasso (1937)

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agefotostock/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

In 1937 Goya’s later compatriot Pablo Picasso produced extraordinary work in response to the Spanish civil war, drawing heavily on studies of ‘Disasters of War’. His painting ‘Guernica’ is now one of the most famous anti-war artworks in the world; ‘The Dream and Lie of Franco’ is a series of 18 individual comic-style prints accompanied by a prose poem that echoes Goya's moral feeling around the effects of war. An extract:

cries of children cries of women cries of birds cries of flowers cries of wood and stone cries of bricks
cries of furniture of beds of chairs of curtains of casseroles of cats and papers cries of smells that claw themselves

'Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas', etching and aquatint from 'Der Krieg' by Otto Dix, 1924.

'Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas' by Otto Dix

The German Expressionist painter Otto Dix drew on his own war memories to produce remarkable work in the same frank tradition. He had joined the German army in 1914 as a passionate patriot, only to emerge with debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder.

Haunted by war trauma for a decade, he created a series of prints titled ‘Der Krieg’ (‘War’) in 1924. There are dying, dead or decomposing bodies, shell-shocked soldiers and ravaged landscapes. Dix used etching and aquatint, a medium in which acid etches a metal printing plate by corroding it; as decay eats away at the flesh, so the acid eats into the images.

'Self-Portrait as a Soldier' (1915) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, oil on canvas

'Self-Portrait as a Soldier' by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

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Charles F. Olney Fund, Allen Memorial Art Museum

Another German Expressionist, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, also joined the war in 1914 and soon also suffered from mental health disorders. In his 1915 painting ‘Self-Portrait as a Soldier’, he stands in uniform, his face yellow and his gaze unfocused, his right hand severed at the wrist: Kirchner had not lost a hand in the war, but the image depicts the loss of his ability to create and therefore to be truly alive.

These artists wanted to shock the viewer into consciousness, into empathy, via revealing at close range, or via symbolism, the extent of humans’ cruelty to one another. Their hope was that art would awaken us, so that war’s atrocities might one day end.

In order for art to potentially make any difference in the viewer’s consciousness, the viewer, presumably, must be disturbed. This was certainly the intention of Dix's publisher, Karl Nierendorf, who worked with a pacifist organisation called Never Again War to show the ‘Der Krieg’ prints across Germany. According to Heather Hess, a researcher at MoMA in New York, “Dix himself doubted that his prints could have any bearing on future wars”.

Beyond horror

Mass media and technology have made authentic images of war part of our everyday experience – although the traumatic realities that artists from Goya onwards depicted are kept out of part of news reports. And wars continue to be waged. At the time of writing, the following are just a few of the countries suffering war: Ukraine, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria.

Contemporary audiences consume images of conflict at breakfast, lunch and dinner, turning screens on and off at will. The viewer is shocked, sometimes only briefly, and at other times suffers from 'compassion fatigue’ – which possibly translates as jadedness from being overwhelmed by images of remote suffering.

Captions and images in protest against or support of wars are shared on social media. Most quickly sink into oblivion. “Awareness of the suffering that accumulates in wars happening elsewhere is something constructed. Principally in the form that is registered by cameras, it flares up, is shared by many people, and fades from view,” wrote Susan Sontag in her 2002 essay ‘Looking At War’. Sontag died in 2004, the year that Facebook launched.

The writer Paul Valéry had a premonition of this visual inundation nearly a hundred years ago in his essay ‘The Conquest of Ubiquity’ (1928): “Just as water, gas, and electric power come to us from afar and enter our homes with almost no effort on our part, there serving our needs,” he wrote, “so we shall be supplied with pictures or sound sequences that, at the touch of a button, almost a wave of the hand, arrive and likewise depart.”

While Valéry was not talking specifically of war images, he foresaw the state of the contemporary viewer. Not only does one longer need to seek out images, it has become almost impossible to avoid them.

How can writers and artists compete with this flood of documentary imagery? In ‘On the Natural History of Destruction’ (1999), the author W.G. Sebald showed how inadequate language is for the task of portraying the World War Two Allies’ destruction of German cities and its aftermath.

“How ought such a natural history of destruction to begin?” Sebald wrote. “With a summary of the technical, organisational, and political prerequisites for carrying out large-scale air raids? With a scientific account of the previously unknown phenomenon of the firestorms? With a pathological record of typical modes of death, or with behaviourist studies of the instincts of flight and homecoming?”

Ruins of apartment buildings in Hamburg destroyed by the firestorm which developed during the raid by Bomber Command on the night of 27/28 July 1943 (Operation GOMORRAH).

Ruins of apartment buildings in Hamburg destroyed by the firestorm which developed during the raid by Bomber Command on the night of 27/28 July 1943 (Operation Gomorrah)

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J. Dowd/Air Ministry Second World War Official Collection/Imperial War Museum. All rights reserved

Almost no German author wrote adequately about this subject for decades after the war. There was no proper artistic representation of the complexities of Germany’s war and post-war reality.

Sebald describes a raid on the city of Hamburg in July 1943 as part of Operation Gomorrah, a campaign by the RAF and US Air Force:

Behind collapsing façades, the flames shot up as high as houses, rolled like a tidal wave through the streets at a speed of over 150 kilometres an hour, spun across open squares in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders of fire. The water in some of the canals was ablaze. The glass in the tramcar windows melted; stocks of sugar boiled in the bakery cellars. Those who had fled from their air-raid shelters sank, with grotesque contortions, in the thick bubbles thrown up by the melting asphalt.

Combined with the demonic Nazi death machine led by Hitler, could any art form hold a mirror wide enough to contain and reflect such devastation?

Kurt Vonnegut was drafted into the US Army towards the end of the war and like Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of his 1969 novel ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, was captured by the German army. Vonnegut, like Pilgrim, was in Dresden when the Allies bombed the city. The author and his character alike hid – along with their guards – in a slaughterhouse that was partly underground. As a result, he was among the few survivors of the firestorm that raged in the city from 13 to 15 February 1945.

An estimated 25,000 to 35,000 civilians died in the Dresden air attacks, though some put the death count at 250,000, given the influx of undocumented refugees from the Germans’ eastern front. Most victims were women, children and the elderly. Vonnegut chose the genre of semi-autobiographical science fiction and satire to depict the physical and psychological devastation of war, especially on the young: the novel’s subtitle is ‘The Children's Crusade’.

Following every citation of a(nother) horrific death, the narrator says: “So it goes.” Critics have interpreted this as Vonnegut's fatalism, but I think he's making a much bigger point that echoes Sebald’s comment: human beings – our hearts and minds and our language – cannot fathom so much death.

Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim is a dainty and an altogether unsoldierly young man whose mental health suffers for the rest of his life. One of the novel's points, the reader presumes, is that the only sane response to war is to be mentally and spiritually disturbed – and to remain so.

Thanks to its artful relaying of the reality of war and its effects on human life, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ is also one of most controversial novels in the US. It is number 46 on the American Library Association's "Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000–2009”. It is also one of the first literary texts that mentions homosexuals perishing in death camps.

Challenging the censors

In her book ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ (1985), the Nobel prizewinning author Svetlana Alexievich wanted to portray “small great human beings” rather than war heroes. So she collected oral histories of Russian women who had joined the armed forces in World War Two.

Her work contains some of the most humanistic, simple, yet powerful writing one can find about war; its patchwork of testimonies makes the reader feel as if they are surrounded by all these women, telling their stories, each more poignant and insightful than the next.

There is no sentimentality or grandeur here. A woman recounts an occasion when, working as a nurse, and comes across a Russian and German soldier lying next to each other: “They were no longer enemies, but people, simply two wounded men lying next to each other. Something human arose between them. I observed more than once how quickly it happened…”

Alexievich includes comments from her book’s Soviet censors in her text: she was told that she should have focused on portraying victory, rather than “filth”.

Anti-war art continues to be censored today. Russian authorities imprisoned the artist Alexandra Skochilenko for replacing supermarket price labels with protest messages against her country's invasion of Ukraine. Skochilenko faces a decade in prison, charged with spreading fake news.

Making a difference

If artists are imprisoned and their work censored, then art must threaten power – but how much difference can it make?

When Susan Sontag directed Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s besieged capital, Sarajevo, in 1993, it was both an act of protest and an attempt to raise awareness. Staging “a play in which nothing happens – twice”, as a critic once described it, portraying an idle, absurd waiting for death, held up a mirror to the so-called international community's blasé attitude to the plight of the people of the country.

Some say the staging of the play and the attention it received helped end the war – though that took another two years – but one cannot help but think of the absurdity that it takes a Western artist to highlight and make relevant the tragedy of war in non-Western countries.

Let’s consider the current war in Ukraine. In ‘We Are Only Seen When We Die: Notes on the War and Art in Ukraine’, Alisa Lozhkina writes: “Having worked with contemporary Ukrainian art all my life, I know very well how indifferent the international art world is to our problems […] Today, the world has put a sharp focus on us. This, of course, is good, although I would have preferred obscurity in exchange for peace.” This time the West is watching, but the war continues under its gaze.

In 2022, war art still straddles the space between testimony of horror and glorious spectatorship: we watch the fighting from 'the right side of history' as if the act of watching and sympathising were in itself a moral act. And considering how little attention is given to so much death in countries like Yemen, one wonders if disaster porn is as good as it gets.

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