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Art and the Second World War

Monica Bohm-Duchen

(Princeton University Press; US: Jan 2014)

A nation’s art is arguably the most reflective cultural product of that nation. Art expresses the psychic contours, the dreads and aspirations, the limits and the reach of a people’s imaginative resources. Art is culture, so when war threatens, art is threatened as well, and forced into a position of strategic defense and offense.


Monica Bohm-Duchen’s Art and the Second World War is a thorough survey of the art made under the threat and duration of World War II. Though, as the author acknowledges, there may be numerous publications covering slightly similar ground, Bohm-Duchen’s book differs in that it deals in large part with neglected official war art, government-sanctioned and/or monitored, along with more underground, unofficial responses.


To the author’s great credit, she doesn’t just round up the usual suspects of WWII art history—Pablo Picasso, the émigré Surrealists—but honors the unsung heroes of war art. If Picasso et. al. are the officers, and “second-tier” artists like Paul Nash or Ben Shahn are NCOs, most of the artists here are the infantry: Remember Nora Heysen? Kerr Eby? Sugimoto? This book ensures that we do.


Of course, the upper ranks are represented, as well. Picasso’s Guernica (1937), the artist’s flash-response masterpiece to the bombardment of that town, is essential to the art history of the Spanish Civil War, and thus WWII. And certainly the subsequent terrain of the global art-historical field was greatly affected if not wholly determined by the European surrealist expatriation to the United States before and during the Second World War.


But the war art of the lesser-known figures like those named above—as well as many, many others covered in the book—was often just as powerful as the more celebrated avant-garde work. Yet, as Bohm-Duchen makes clear, even the more famous artists faced a kind of lacunae when it came to the art they made during those troubling years: “All too often, the war art of major artists is seen as inferior and/or of little relevance to the rest of their output,” as if the art they created during the war was somehow an anomalous or hiatus-art, made under duress. 


A major contributing factor to this critical scarcity, especially in the case of the lesser-known artists, is the treatment of the actual art objects after the war. Much of the official war art, from virtually every country involved, has been crated up and stored away. Two examples speak clearly: The New Zealand National Art Gallery “regarded the collection [of war art] now in its possession as of historical rather than aesthetic value and promptly relegated it into storage”; and “…the US Government still holds approximately 450 of the most inflammatory works in a vault in Washington D.C….Not only is it hard to access reproductions of these works, but one has to be very determined indeed to see the works in the flesh.”


It is as if war art has undergone a kind of embarrassed demotion as suppression against fresh antipathies and shameful memories. It is easy to see this unfortunate attitude as reflective of the similarly shabby treatment of actual war veterans. Once they lose their utility in the theater of operations, both players and props are shuffled off.


Again, this is sorry and unfortunate, for as Art and the Second World War demonstrates, much of this war art is revelatory, heart-wrenching, and formally inventive. Despite restrictions on subject matter, format, even sensibility and supplies within all countries, artists from all mediums and levels of involvement—from front to homefront, from furloughed soldiers to POW and concentration camp inmates—all were committed to getting it down.


The book’s chapters span internationally, from the Spanish Civil War (crucible of all the horrors to come), through the art of the “Democracies and “Dictatorships”, right on to the devastating blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What becomes abundantly clear is the ambiguity of war-representation. The adjective Bohm-Duchen uses most often is “disconcerting”, as in “disconcerting similarities” or “disconcerting affinities” between, say, the propaganda art of Australia and Nazi Germany or the US and Fascist Italy, evidence of an international chauvinistic tendency to valorize one’s own position.


Because Art and the Second World War is a kind of compendium or catalog of generally neglected works, the sheer plethora of images listed, if not discussed in-depth, becomes somewhat overwhelming. Though the book is copiously illustrated, with full-color and black-and-white reproductions, there are many referenced works left undepicted. But considering the abundance of reproductions it seems miserly to wish for more, so simply reading the book with the Internet on hand is advised.


The journey, even through visual records, is harrowing. As Bohm-Duchen states: “Art that deals with war runs the constant risk of aestheticising the horror, of rendering palatable that which shouldn’t be. Much official war art… aims to do exactly this. But even art that sets out to expose the horrors of war runs into this fundamental—and ultimately unresolvable—problem.”


This dilemma makes her chapter organizations especially compelling. The chapter on Nazi art, for example, is followed by one on Holocaust art, making for a striking contrast in forms, intents and attitudes: military strength versus human vulnerability; racial insecurity and blind patriotism versus wide-eyed disbelief and existential terror. Yet for all the horror conveyed, the Holocaust art appears more dignified than official Nazi art, more invested, more human and, dare I say, more alive.


James Baldwin once wrote, “The multiple truths about a people are revealed by that people’s artists—that is what artists are for.” Certainly this applies most acutely to those terrible truths that are hardest to face, such as humanity’s limitless resources for depravity.


Yet if war is humanity’s greatest failure, art is its victory. From concentration camps or the frontlines, to the leveled wreckage of a bombed landscape, art made under such conditions—though “conditions” seems too slight a word, almost an accommodation—is a powerful testament to human resilience.


So Art and the Second World War feels both hopeful and despairing: Hopeful as proof that humans can rally and create even under the most inhuman and inhumane circumstances; despairing that we are able to create such circumstances in the first place.

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