Monday, August 21, 2017

NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 4

In the last few posts we discussed combat art from World War I.  

In the comments, a lot seemed to depend on the fact that these artists, whether illustrators or "fine" artists, were first-hand witnesses to the trauma of war.  The personal ordeals of these artists seemed to give their work an authenticity.  In some cases, it pushed the artist to abandon traditional artistic techniques and flail around for new methods of communication. 

How does this art compare with work by artists who did not participate in the war?  How were the results different for artists who merely imagined the war from a great distance?

In my view, the best contemporary artist to be inspired by World War I is George Pratt.  Here is some of his work, which I find quite striking:


Pratt uses a powerful composition to strengthen an already powerful subject.




Some of Pratt's subjects are similar to the subjects chosen by Dix, but Pratt kept his wits about him. 



His first graphic novel about World War I was the highly regarded Enemy Ace: War Idyll.





Pratt worked a safe distance from the terror, in both time and space.   Yet his imagination and talent enabled him to close some of that distance and give his pictures strength, insight and veracity.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 3

For me, the work of Harry Townsend was among the most impressive art in the Smithsonian's exhibition of World War I art.  Townsend wrote in his war diary, "Only those near to it all can know what endurance and suffering that was."  He was thankful to be there in the battles of the Marne, and of St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne,  for the "impressions, spiritual and material, that alone can furnish the inspiration for a convincing pictorial record." 

Here is Townsend's powerful charcoal drawing, "The Hurry Call, Night of May 30, 1918."


It shows two red cross wagons racing to the front in response to an emergency call.  Townsend chose not to detail the mangled bodies they would encounter there, although he certainly saw plenty of bloodshed and wrote about it in his diary.  His approach is more symbolic.  His dread is more abstract.  Whatever his reasons for restraint, I find this to be a formidable drawing, both in form and content.

A number of commenters to my previous post praised the work of fine artist Otto Dix, who graphically showed the mangled bodies and distorted them:


It has been suggested that fine artists such as Dix responded to the horrors of war in a more genuine, meaningful way than illustrators.  He abandoned conventional western realism and clawed out drawings that seem like a howl of despair.  I find Dix's drawing powerful too, but a large part of that is due to shock value.

In one of Townsend's paintings, he captured the vertiginous experience of air combat-- something new in the history of war:



In his diary, Townsend described his first experience with flight:
Higher and higher we went.  What a cubist painting below, and cubist paintings would appeal, if only they could catch some of the beauty of color and design of all those lovely patches on the canvas beneath us.... It was beautiful beyond wild dreams.  Here and there one caught the earth way down there between the clouds, struck now by the sunlight and thrown into a wondrous high key of light, citrons and greens and lavender.  And here and there thrown into shadow by the clouds, one saw it in rich, low tones like music, close and melodious, purples and low greens and earth that were like bass to the high tenor of the sun.
As soon as he landed, he promptly vomited into the gunner's cockpit where he was sitting.

No matter what horrors he had witnessed, Townsend could still be astonished by the beauty of nature. And he gave (in my opinion better than Dix) "a convincing pictorial record" that conveyed both the "spiritual and the material" ramifications of air warfare.  In his drawing of air warfare, Dix again focuses on the mangled bodies left behind...


Powerful, yet I don't find Dix's treatment any more insightful or creative than a drawing by an EC horror comic artist, or a modern graphic novelist who had been nowhere near battle.  For example, compare this war picture by Dix...


...with this Jimbo comic book illustration by Gary Panter:


I guarantee you, Panter had no first hand experience with, or special insights into, war.  Yet, he finds it easy to simulate the horror that Dix experienced first hand.  In my opinion neither of them could do what Townsend did.

The argument seems to be that illustrators, harnessed to a commercial function or purpose (or as Kev Ferrara put it, "faith") are not as sensitive to the true horror of War.  But here we see a hand drawn and lettered poster by Townsend, who was sufficiently sensitive to the horror of starvation to try use art to do something about it:


I suppose a nihilist would argue that such "purposeful" art is oblivious to our existential predicament.  I'm not sure that distinction would impress the starving French peasants.

Monday, August 07, 2017

NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 2

Did fine artists and illustrators react differently to World War I?

Many historians believe that World War I changed the path of fine art.  In the years leading up to the war, art had already begun to explore modernism and the industrial age.  But no one was prepared for the way scientific progress changed the nature of war: the invention of the tank, air warfare, the development of poison gas, and mass killings that didn't discriminate between combatant and civilian-- these were just the tip of the iceberg.  More ominously, modern mass communications, mass transportation and other fruits of scientific progress which once appeared to hold such promise turned out to escalate and accelerate the worst of humanity.  They revealed a yawning existential void beneath a thin veneer of civilization.

 As a result of the World War,  nihilism seemed to spread throughout the fine art world.  For example, Dada represented a negation of everything that reason had once taught us.



Surrealism (a term invented by soldier Guillaume Apollinaire) represented another assault on common sense and social order.




Similarly, futurism urged in violent language the overthrow of the old values and order.  And the "New Objectivism" of George Grosz and Otto Dix cast aside traditional artistic images and values to show how the great war had shattered lives beyond any rational explanation.



 As art critic Reed Johnson wrote:
World War I reshaped the notion of what art is, just as it forever altered the perception of what war is.…. In visual art, surrealists and expressionists devised wobbly, chopped up perspectives and nightmarish visions of fractured human bodies and splintered societies slouching toward moral chaos.
Even as modernism severed its ties with the traditions of fine art, the illustrators of the AEF kept their faith.  These eight artists worked on the front lines and witnessed as much horror as anyone.  Their art contained as much drama and pain.  We can't assume that they were any less sensitive or talented than their fine art counterparts.  Yet, the illustrators didn't forsake their roots in rationality, or their belief that realism had something worthwhile to say.  They created powerful, beautifully designed, meaningful images in response to the same stresses that contorted fine art.

Harding

Harding

Aylward

Townsend

Why did the illustrators respond differently than the fine artists?

Perhaps the illustrators didn't succumb to nihilism because, unlike fine art, their art continued to be braced by a purpose (or to put it more crassly, a mission).   Nihilism is purposelessness, but illustration-- for better or worse-- by its nature has a purpose or function. In this case it is reportorial art, the art of witness.

Everyone is quick to point out that illustration's "function" imposes constraints and limitations that don't apply to fine art.  At the same time, I think a function or purpose has its advantages as well.  The reactions of the AEF illustrators to the horrors of war were moderated and tethered to coherence by the need to communicate with an audience.  These artists had to keep their wits about them.

Dunn

Harvey Dunn, The Sentry

Harvey Dunn, The Flare

It's important to emphasize that the AEF illustrators did not retreat to jingoistic propaganda (the opposite side of the spectrum from fine art).  The illustrators were not blind to the harsh realities of the front.  In fact, the US military staff was disappointed that the illustrations had no propaganda value.  A report concluded, "the officers of the General Staff [don't] appear to express very much interest in the pictures.  They do not serve either a military purpose nor propaganda purposes."

In short, the illustrators seemed to have worked between the pro-war propaganda on one side and the antiwar nihilistic despair on the other side.  Consider their merits and think about whether this is a good place on the spectrum for an artist to work.

Harvey Dunn, The Grenade
I AM PLEASED TO REPORT THAT THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION HAS OPENED A BRAND NEW WEB SITE DISPLAYING  MANY ILLUSTRATIONS FROM THE AEF ILLUSTRATORS IN HIGH RESOLUTION.  I URGE YOU TO VISIT AND ENJOY THE ART.