Class offers analysis of artistic depictions of war

November 12, 2014 Features
artistic warfare

The Sandspur worked with Dr. Susan Libby’s Art History class, ARH 364: Picturing War, to compile this special feature. Students were asked to analyze an art form and its depiction of war—offering a unique commentary on societal perceptions of warfare.

Anaylsis by Christina Gentil
Distorted and mutilated figures cloud the overall composition of Pablo Picasso’s abstract work of art Guernica (1937).

Picasso’s painting depicts the aftermath of the bombing of Guernica, a small town located in the north of Spain, by the German and Italian fascist political party during World War II. On April 26, 1937, bombs fell from the sky and turned a market, filled with shopping civilians, into a war zone.

Picasso chose to artistically interpret this event due to the horrific injustice that involved murdering innocent lives in order to demonstrate fascist power. These people were not war criminals or political enemies; they were innocent bystanders.

Picasso’s figures shrivel in pain and gasp for air as they deal with the shock and confusion of what just occurred. On the left side of the painting, a woman clutches the limp and unconscious body of a small child while raising her face towards the sky. Her mouth is wide open as if in a state of hysteria and disbelief that her child now lies cold and dead in her arms. A viewer can almost hear her screams lurch out from the painting and bleed into our reality.

Guernica presents itself as an unusual form for depicting warfare. In recent decades, our society has become remarkably desensitized to war imagery due to the constant exposure of events though news sources (such as the beheading videos of American and British journalists by the terrorist group ISIS). Videos and photographic evidence of violence has lost a majority of its effective shock on contemporary audiences.

Through the creation of non-realistic images that depict events where innocents lose their lives, an abstract painting is able to incite deeply buried emotions of grief within a viewer, who begins to empathize with the universal themes of pain and anguish of death.

The impactful nature of the Guernica as a canonical image of war lies in its representation of a complete disregard for human life during political conflicts, along with its style. Abstract art deserves a viewer’s time, and the longer the subject matter and formal qualities of Guernica are studied, the more expressive the painting becomes.

Through the utilization of the abstract technique, specifically using anatomically incorrect human bodies, Picasso has elevated his painting’s capability to clearly express emotions of chaos, confusion, anguish, and death to a viewer. In addition, Picasso accomplishes these emotional expressions through the massive scale of the painting (11’ 5” x 25’ 6”), its monotone color pallet, the stark contrast of soft shadows against brightly lit shapes and the dynamic movement of the distorted figures, which instantly capture a viewer’s gaze and guides them around the composition. These formal qualities result in a highly compelling image that demands spectator’s attention the instant they rest their eyes onto the canvas.

An abstract painting that depicts the aftermath of war can have the same effects as a war memorial, forcing a viewer to confront the nature of death. In that moment, you become confronted by human fatality. As you are captured by the allure of the painting, you are forced to accept the nature of death in order to move past it. Only when you accept the realities of death—even war—can you begin to heal.

Analysis by by Brian MacMillian
BOOM! POW! KABOOM! A formation of Nazi soldiers comes marching through towns in Europe. The Nazis’ goal was to take over the world, create a new world order and carry out Hitler’s ideology. No need to fear: the Americans are here. They have the ultimate solider named Captain America who will stop the villainous Red Skull in his tracks! Does this seem similar to our past? Possibly very similar to World War II?

War and its history have influenced comic books since the beginning of the Golden Age. Most comic books of the Golden Age were influenced by World War II. People throughout the world thought of America as the biggest and strongest nation capable of winning any war. This sentiment is reflected in comic book history with characters such as Captain America. He was an example of a big, strong, patriotic hero, which the Americans thought they should be.

In the comic Captain America, the artist depicts the villainous Red Skull to reflect Hitler. Red Skull was known as Hitler’s right hand man and did all of the dirty work for him. Soon after his appointment, Red Skull killed off many of Hitler’s top men because of how strongly he believed in Hitler’s ideology. Soon Hitler himself became scared of him, and Red Skull took control of the German occupations.

Just like in WWII when the American Soldiers were shipped to war to defeat the Germans, Captain America gets involved and soon finds his match is the villain Red Skull. Captain America must rid the world of Hitler’s ideology. In the end. Captain America finds Red Skull and they go through a full fire-and-explosion-ridden battle, which ends with Captain America thinking Red Skull is dead—but he actually is not.

War has influenced comics in many different ways. It creates story lines and characters that people could never come up with. Red Skull and Captain America are both examples of war-inspired characters.

Anaysis by Carly Hernandez
“The fools, the mad fools! The doomsday device!” Upon hearing this, the entire war room goes silent, and America’s top military brass crowd around the Russian ambassador like children eager for story-time.

The balding, bespectacled American president peers up at the ambassador in a sort of naïve state of disbelief as he says, “This is madness, Ambassador. Why should you build such a thing?”

With his menacing build and bullfrog-like features, the ambassador glowers down at the president from underneath his bowler hat, and replies, “In the end, we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race and the peace race.” The Russian shrugs, as if building an unstoppable weapon to end the world is perfectly rational, and says, “We didn’t want a doomsday gap.”

Thus ends a typical scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film Dr. Strangelove, a movie noted for its comedic portrayal of the absurdity of the Cold War. The main characters of Dr. Strangelove include the powerless American president, the hysterical Soviet leader Dimitri Kissov, the psychotic ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove, and the war-crazed General Turgidson. These are the men responsible for the fate of the world in Kubrick’s “suspense” comedy, in which they have an increasingly short amount of time to fix the mistake of one paranoid General Ripper, who gives the seemingly irreversible command to nuclear bomb the USSR. His justification for doing so is his inability to become sexually aroused due to the intricate communist plot that is water fluoridation in the US. The justification is madness, the situation is madness and the characters are utterly mad. In this lies the brilliance of Kubrick’s social commentary—perhaps the entire Cold War was madness.

Dr. Strangelove was not alone in its observations about the Cold War in America, and many other notable films of the late 1950s and 1960s dealt with, both directly and indirectly, the political and social perils of the time. When comparing two of these films, Dr. Strangelove and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, certain patterns emerge in their portrayals of the Red Scare, McCarthyism and the Cold War.

One such pattern was that of madness. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for example, was a science fiction movie released in 1956, one of the final years of the McCarthy era, at the height of the Cold War. In the film, when the protagonists find the alien seed-pods that have been taking over the bodies of people, they make a vow: “They have to be destroyed, all of them. We have to search every building, every man, woman and child has to be examined…” It is not difficult to see how this vow is similar to the vows of Senator Joseph McCarthy, explaining the need for his vicious campaign against supposed Communists.

Both films perfectly capture the paranoid atmosphere that defined popular culture in the United States during the Cold War, reflecting the distorted communist subversion fears that fueled the mass hysteria of the “Red Scare.”

Analysis by Amanda McRae
200 feet is nearly the entire length of a football field. 200 feet is also how long one of the greatest works of Medieval art is: the Bayeux Tapestry.

Comprised of around 200 yards of fabric, this embroidery depicts the entirety of a battle deciding the next English king in 1066. Oath-swearing, treason, comets, and battles create one exciting narrative.

In 1066 King Edward the Confessor of England died. Thus began a battle between his brother-in-law and cousin for the right to the throne. Edward’s sneaky brother-in-law had previously sworn to the cousin that he would not attempt to win the throne after Edward’s death. Apparently this guy thought little of swearing—he became king immediately after Eddie’s death. So the cousin, like any man of his word, crossed the English Channel to remind him of his oath—by killing him and assuming the throne.

This drama fills the length of the Bayeux Tapestry, yet the tapestry does not exist solely for entertainment value as a work of art. In the Middle Ages, art had a different purpose than it does today. Instead of going to a museum to contemplate your feelings as you gaze upon various artworks, art had a very specific role in Medieval society: to teach people. The Bayeux Tapestry, for example, taught people about the course of a battle. CNN and TIME Magazine were not there to document the events. Instead, artists had to recreate the battle in thread to document it and educate about what took place on the battlefield.

This tapestry was prominently displayed in the front of a cathedral. While this may not seem like the most happening place today, churches and cathedrals were visited nearly every day by everybody in the Middle Ages. By hanging the tapestry in the front of a well-visited place, it ensured people would see it. In essence, the tapestry was not just a private journal, but rather a public Facebook post for the world to see.

The Bayeux Tapestry exists today still as a historical documentation of a battle, but also as a look into how medieval societies were maybe not so different from life today.

Analysis by Nicole Yatsenick
A group of three American soldiers are fighting for their lives somewhere in Afghanistan without backup. They are outnumbered, and one of them is hardly able to walk. Taking cover behind large boulders, the soldier with the wounded leg climbs to the top of a hill in order to attempt communication with the base to ask for backup. Knowing that he will not survive the summit, he tells his fellow soldiers to “never give up the fight.” Just after securing air support for their position, he dies. This scene depicts an American soldier sacrificing himself for the greater good of the overall mission. This film, Lone Survivor, exemplifies the glorification of war by Hollywood.

The film Lone Survivor is based on a true story in which a group of four American soldiers go on a mission to Afghanistan, and only one survives. Regardless of accuracy, Hollywood chose a story that glorifies war and supports American involvement overseas. In the film, American soldiers are shown as selfless individuals. Compassion is shown countless times: when the group decides to let the goat herders go, the scene of self-sacrifice mentioned above and when Mark Wahlberg’s character requests that the Afghani man who helped save his life be allowed to accompany them back to base and be free from the Taliban. Hollywood utilizes scenes of selflessness to gather support for the American troops.

Not only did the film portray the soldiers as caring individuals, it also underscored the need for American involvement in Afghanistan. One of the early scenes in the film shows a small village being terrorized by a Taliban leader, portrayed as ruthless. When the local people see Wahlberg, they welcome the American troops, and are happy about their presence in Afghanistan.

Moreover, this film contains all of the elements of a stereotypical Hollywood film that glorifies an American war: justification for military involvement, a seemingly impossible obstacles to overcome (commonly, being out numbered), martyrdom or a display of selflessness on the part of the American soldiers, and a hero who survives against all odds.

Hollywood films that depict American involvement in war show the American audience what they want to see. They all depict a scenario in which America successfully intervenes and aids a disorganized foreign society. The final fight scene of Lone Survivor portrays exactly the message that the American military wants to convey: somewhere in the world there is a ruthless warlord ruling over a disorganized society, but America can efficiently dispense of the enemy and save the helpless.


Analysis by Nia Morgan
Hannibal of Carthage is best known for his conquering of Rome on the backs of elephants. During the height of the Second Punic War, Hannibal and his army crossed the Pyrenees and the River Rhone, arriving at the base of the Alps. After many attempts to cross over into enemy territory were thwarted, the Romans decided to make the first move. Though Rome clearly had the larger army, Hannibal’s brute force, sly tactic, and bigger were was superior by far.

Nicolas Poussin’s painting Hannibal traversant les Alpes a dos d’elephant depicts Hannibal riding a large elephant in the last moments of his triumphant victory. Underneath the elephant is a Roman kneeling in submission and around the edges of them is the rest of the Roman army that has been captured by the Carthaginian soldiers. The use of dark rich colors (such as the abundant deep blues and yellows) draws on the power and bravado characterized by Hannibal; comparatively, it also draws attention to the positions and placement of the people in the painting.

The position of the people in the canvas painting shows superior distribution of power on the larger issue of inferiority over dominating cultures. Arguably, the systematic strategy that Hannibal uses to defeat the Romans is highly effective. Displaying his force as weaker and then overpowering them unknowingly is ingenious in itself, rightly justifiable.

Analysis by Giancarlo Castillo
The 21st century is a world of messages; they come in various forms and from a seemingly endless continuum of sources, most notably in the realm of politics and social activism.

Despite the obvious differences between, say, a State of the Union address and an anti-war comic strip, both types of discourse aim to convey a message to the general public. Over the past 20 years, social leaders have utilized media outlets to promote and familiarize the public with their political agendas, in hopes of securing votes and the public’s overall approval. Artists in the 21st century have also broadcasted and displayed their own political messages, some of which contradict or disrupt the messages of dominant political groups—especially in times of war. Thus, through these displays of artistic expression, art has become a means of timeless protest.

In the early 2000s, the War effort in Iraq, while fronted by the US military, also received support from other nations like Britain. In his 2003 address to the nation, British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke in defense of the supposition that Iraq was in fact a “brutal state” and that his intention to deploy troops was solely based on bringing a semblance of peace to the Middle East. Despite this premise, British citizens were not supportive of such a proposal.

Shortly after this address to the nation, British citizens began a series of anti-war protests which preceded a nearly successful parliamentary rebellion. That rebellious spirit has since transcended the immediacy of the war, as evidenced by political artists like Peter Kennard and Kat Phillips, who in 2013 released a photoshopped picture of Blair taking a ‘selfie’ in front of an Iraq war scene. The photograph received critical acclaim from both the anti-war public and artistic organizations such as London’s Imperial War Museum, who included it in their North Catalyst Exhibition. Although the photograph’s portrayal of Blair coincided with the anti-war sentiments of British citizens, Kennard and Phillips would face the disapproval of British media outlets in their attempts to broadcast the image to a wider audience.


Kennard and Phillips intended to incorporate the photograph into full blown advertisements that would appear on billboards and public transport advertisements, but were turned down by British advertising agencies like JDecaux and CBS Outdoor. When accused of political censorship, the two companies argued that the work could be considered “misleading, harmful, or offensive.” As the artists pointed out, however, the advertising companies seemed to have no grievances over broadcasting material that was violent or hyper-sexualized.

Through their art, Kennard and Phillips reassembled the politically disruptive ideologies of that year: the idea that Blair deployed troops to Iraq not for the sake of moral duty, but for the sake of militant domination and political amusement. While the Kennard and Phillip’s photo was not an immediate reaction to the events of 2003, its depiction of Blair helps to immortalize the opinions of those who opposed Britain’s involvement.

Those who could not experience the progression of these events are now able to consider these counter-political messages a decade later and engage in a more personalized form of dissent from Tony Blair’s pro-war mantra.

Analysis by Morgan Metzger

Returning home from a long day’s labor, she sits alongside her family, sipping on a freshly made cup of coffee. Her parents and her daughter look upon their hero with pride, knowing that she is working hard to support her husband and all other men overseas at war. She could not do much before, but look at her now! Taking care of her home and working for her country. This advertisement by Maxwell House coffee exemplifies the many posters from the World War II era featuring a new role for the American woman. During this time frame, anything ranging from ammunitions factories to soap companies promoted a positive image of women’s involvement in the workforce. While encouraged to fill the roles of their male counterparts in the factories, however, women still had to fulfill their traditional duties as the homemaker and caregiver. We could not let them get too ahead of themselves, right?

During the mobilization years on behalf of the United States during World War II, the country needed to reaffirm its value system as a way of holding the people together at the home front. Certainly, the U.S. had come to promote values of patriotism, unity, and freedom, but these pillars of the American way alone were insufficient in holding together the American moral structure. A huge portion of the population had gone overseas to fight in combat, and now the U.S. not only need to consider the impacts on an economic level, but also on a psychological level. If the country were to survive, it needed to encourage individuals and families left behind to contribute in their own way to the war effort. Considering this dynamic of the war, the U.S. needed to create the idea of the home front hero, and this led to the idea of the working woman as being that hero.

Though we usually think emphatically of the increases in women’s employment during World War II, the truth of the matter is that not only do these employment trends reflect the limitations inherent in the approved job positions for women of the time, but they also display how after the war ended, the majority of women returned to their role as the caretaker of the household or switched into other job markets whether by choice or by force. A number of factors contributed to this dynamic of the employment market at the time, which were directly related to the replacement of jobs typically held by men with female workers. For example, since women usually did not take positions as labor workers, when the men returned and took back their job roles once more women were not very inclined to search again for what was probably an undesirable job as a mechanic or production line worker. Rather, women served the economic market as clerical workers, sales associates and secretaries, markets which by their construction left less room for opportunity for change of the female ideal. Another reality of the time was that many women had to provide for themselves and their families while their husbands, fathers, and brothers were gone overseas at war, and facing the societal pressures of serving as both the homemaker, and for the time being the breadwinner, can really take its toll.

Considering the trends witnessed in the rise of women’s employment during the war, the decrease in women’s involvement following directly after the war, and then the next spike in female employment in the years following through till the 1950s, it appears that World War II propaganda served its purpose. It encouraged women to join the workforce during this time of combat to aid in the war effort, utilizing these women for their invaluable services and then kicking them to the curb once the men returned. Through this mixture of exhaustion from overworking and fear generated by the war, and the eventual return of the male workforce, women were simultaneously discouraged from working both by societal pressures and by their own feelings. Interestingly, however, due to the increases in female participation in the employment market in years to come, it seems that once the immediate post-war era came to pass, American women as a whole rediscovered their spirit to break the mold and prove that they were just as competent and worthy of work as their male counterparts.

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