New College of the Humanities

Art and the Second World War

Yan Han: 'New Year Door Guardian, a Good Fighter, 1939-40'Art and the Second World War
Monica Bohm-Duchen
Lund Humphries   288pp   £40

From earliest times warfare has been a recurrent theme in the arts. But what roles have art and the artist performed in times of war? In an impressively researched and richly illustrated book Monica Bohm-Duchen examines the work of a wide range of visual artists from all the principal combatant nations in the Second World War. How far did artists support the war effort of their respective nations and perhaps become a propaganda arm of those fighting it – and did the quality of their art necessarily suffer as a result? Did artists ever criticise and maybe even undermine their compatriots’ war efforts?  Could art remain above the fray, the practitioners adhering to what they thought of as purely ‘artistic’ criteria and might this not have involved the risk of aestheticising and even neutralising genuine horror?  Such questions recur throughout the book as the author guides us past images of bombing and the bombed, strutting portrayals of Hitler and Mussolini, Henry Moore’s huddling masses in the tube stations, the heroic imagery of US or Soviet (or Japanese) soldiery, Auschwitz and Hiroshima and much else.

The Spanish Civil War was arguably the ‘first battle’ of the Second World War, at least to Europeans. Bohm-Duchen touches on the widely divergent political perspectives aroused by this still controversial conflict and convincingly rebuts the common belief that ‘left-wing’ political views (such as those of the Republicans and their supporters) necessarily coincide with avant-garde aesthetics. Paintings and posters, prints, lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, cartoons and simple sketches all provide part of the narrative, while the latest camera technology enabled a sharp-eyed photojournalist like Robert Capa to illustrate the civil war with ‘action shots’. In Britain artistic priorities were inevitably modified by political necessities. Thus the War Artists’ Advisory Committee under Kenneth Clark commissioned work from artists such as John Piper, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, much of it designed to help boost national morale and show ordinary people (including women) rolling up their sleeves and pulling their weight. Anything too obviously upsetting was to be avoided. In America, too, many artists (eg: Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton) happily turned their hand to morale-boosting imagery. A few tried to alert people to the sheer horror of war or even the racism endemic in the US armed forces, but far more found themselves portraying battlefield buddies or re-imagining legendary heroes from the past such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone or Paul Revere, rather as Soviet artists painted ordinary citizens performing extraordinary tasks or sought inspiration from long-dead national icons, like Alexander Nevsky or General Kutuzov.

It is common to dismiss Nazi and Fascist art, or that of Stalinist Russia or wartime Japan, as having been no more than crude propaganda (much wartime Nazi and Japanese art was subsequently confiscated – ‘looted’? – by the victors). But as Bohm-Duchen makes clear, all war art, whether by ‘good guys’ or ‘bad’, is bound to respond to the imperatives under which it was produced. So are people’s reactions to it, both at the time and subsequently. Thus one can imagine the works of Arnold Breker, Hitler’s favourite sculptor, becoming more highly regarded, if he were shown to have helped protect Picasso from danger in Nazi-occupied Paris. In Britain the patrician Kenneth Clark, keen to retain high artistic standards despite the privations of war, continued to believe that ‘popular taste’ was tantamount to ‘bad taste’, while in China, Mao Zedong proclaimed (in 1942) that art was ‘intended for the masses of the people’. Who is to say that one was right and the other wrong?

In a moving chapter Monica Bohm-Duchen considers the drawings and sketches (and occasional paintings) produced by victims of the Holocaust. It would seem almost blasphemous to assess these works in purely aesthetic terms, she rightly says. But she adds tellingly that they would be equally ill-served if we ever came to regard them merely as historical documents.

Daniel Snowman is a writer and historian. His books include The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera (Atlantic, 2010).

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