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Art and the Second World War

Monica Bohm-Duchen

Farnham: Lund Humphries 2013

Hardcover. 288p. ISBN 978-1848220331. £40.00

Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen



It is no exaggeration to say that this book is a landmark. There was in fact nothing remotely comparable to it on the market before it appeared. This seems incredible when one considers the wealth of books on the Second World War – but then, there is an obvious explanation: the difficulty of writing a scholarly survey covering so many countries, with such widely different artistic traditions. Indeed, one of the outstanding features of the book is that it does not stop at the “Western” tradition – even if one rightly includes the Soviet Union since Russian art evidently belongs with the European heritage – but also has chapters on China and Japan. So, the reader can only be in admiration before the sum of patient research which such a comprehensive panorama must have necessitated. Of course the immediate suspicion before opening it is that being too ambitious, the book will be superficial – but the real wonder is that such is not the case. Each country covered benefits from an in-depth analysis of the various (and varying) contexts in which its art of the Second World War is rooted, with a discussion of its meaning for its contemporaries – and for us today.

The first chapter is appropriately devoted to the Spanish Civil War, since many historians now agree that it marked the beginning of hostilities in Europe. Now, the same historians would also agree that the Second World War, at least in its initial stages, was largely a propaganda war, fought to galvanise the Home Front, but also to convince neutrals that Right was on one’s side – and the Spanish Civil War set the tone for that battle for the hearts and minds of outsiders, notably through the art produced to support both sides.

In many cases, one immediately recognises which side the artist is supporting or denouncing, even without looking at the caption. A case in point is the grim picture of victims on Illustration 1.3, an 1938 drawing by Luis Quintanilla: the two men with their characteristic Guardia Civil hats leaving the scene immediately suggest that they were the perpetrators – which is confirmed when we read that it comes from Franco’s Black Spain. In this as in all other instances, the image is fully discussed in the text. In fact, there is more text than illustrations in that many more works are simply mentioned or fully discussed than are shown, even though – to use the vocabulary of publishers – the book is “profusely illustrated” (very few pages do not benefit from at least one reproduction).

In other cases, we have the great ambiguity of war, in which we know that “collateral damage” can occur on both sides. Take Picasso’s Guernica (1937, Illustration 1.9), for instance, or his far lesser known Plate 2 of The Dream and Lie of Franco (1937, Illustration 1.8): if one did not know who bombed the city or that Picasso opposed Franco, the two images would make it impossible to apportion the blame. And Monica Bohm-Duchen usefully reminds us that Guernica “attracted surprisingly little critical and public attention” when exhibited in London in 1938 [25]. Another great feature of her book is the way she relates the works under discussion to their predecessors in the long history of art, the Massacre of the Innocents in Guernica’s case (ditto for Horacio Ferrer’s Madrid 1937 (Black Aeroplanes) of 1937 – Illustration 1.7). Likewise, she very convincingly relates Javier Bueno’s The Fighter of Madrid (1938 – Illustration 1.6) to “the intense religious imagery of seventeenth-century Spanish artists such as José de Ribera and Francisco de Zurbarán” [21]. She might have mentioned that for his Bombardment (1937-1938 – Illustration 1.13) Philip Guston must have been influenced by Leighton’s And the Sea gave up the Dead which were in it (exhibited 1892) – an interesting insight into the way even “Internationalist” artists are shaped by the traditions of their own cultural sphere.

For her next chapter, on Britain, Monica Bohm-Duchen had a special difficulty to overcome, as there already exists a superb monograph on the subject – which she of course repeatedly mentions – by Brian Foss (2007). But naturally Foss could not discuss – let alone illustrate – all the paintings of Kenneth Clark’s War Artists’ Advisory Committee. So, she followed a very wise course, deciding to include the “must-have” paintings like Paul Nash’s Totes Meer (1940-1941 – Illustration 2.8 and Plate facing p. 33) or Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-Ring by Dame Laura Knight (1943 – Illustration 2.10) while drawing the reader’s attention to lesser-known works, notably Escape of the Zebra from the Zoo during an Air Raid, by Carel Weight (1941 – Illustration 2.1) or Ruskin Spear’s We can take it (1942 – Illustration 2.6). She also mentions the superb, but rarely seen “expressionistic and disturbing” oil by Arthur R. Harrison, The Long Night : London Blitz (1942) [43] – alas with no illustration, probably for copyright reasons, the plague of art historians. Not all works of art had a “propaganda” dimension of course – some were meant to be testimonies, like the drawings made in captivity – the example illustrated being Ronald Searle’s blood-curdling Heads of Malay and Chinese Civilians displayed in a Syonan (Singapore) Street (1942 – Illustration 2.12), and for evident reasons of chronology they were only seen after the war, when the prisoners had come back. Still, there remains more than a hint of “If you did not know what you were fighting for, now you do”, to paraphrase Eisenhower’s words at the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp on 12 April 1945.

The themes already met in the “Britain” section are inevitably met again in the chapter on the Commonwealth – men at work: Forming Bulkhead Girders by Caven Atkins (Canada 1942 – Illustration 3.5), strongly reminiscent of the “Shipbuilding on the Clyde” series by Stanley Spencer; women doing “men’s jobs”: Nora Heysen’s Transport Driver (Aircraftwoman Florence Miles), where once again a female subject is painted by a female artist (Australia 1945 – Illustration 3.9); prisoners, though with a twist since we have both Allied PoWs, with Murray Griffin’s Roberts Hospital, Changi (Australia 1943 – Illustration 3.15), which allows us to learn that “painting was permitted in Changi – as a ‘recreational pursuit’!” [69], and enemy ones, with Russell Clark’s Japanese Prisoners, Mono Island (New Zeland 1943 – Illustration 3.20). In total contrast to the painstakingly descriptive Roberts Hospital, Changi, we have Albert Tucker’s Victory Girls (Australia 1943 – Illustration 3.13), evidently inspired by the German painting of the Great War and after, which was not considered “acceptable” [67] – as we can very well believe. The Great War seems indeed to be strongly present in the memories of all these artists, and Monica Bohm-Duchen rightly makes the point that Ivor Hele’s Battlefield Burial of Three NCOs (Australia 1944 – Illustration 3.14) “recalls the uncompromising realism of C.R.W. Nevinson’s controversial World War One image, Paths of Glory (1917)”.

Chapter 4, on the United States, does not start with December 1941, but with the anti-Fascist movement, which also often insisted on domestic issues and “the ugly link between religion, capitalism and politics” [77]. To make her point, Monica Bohm-Duchen usefully draws her readers’ attention to the mountains which form the background of Peter Blume’s The Eternal City (1934-1937, Illustration 4.2), ostensibly a picture of “Social Surrealism” which derides Mussolini’s Italy: they are not the Appennines, as one might expect, but the Rocky Mountains [78]. Fascist Company by Peter Evergood (1942, Illustration 4.7) does not go so far in its Surrealism, but there is a clear filiation between the two works. The book has a very interesting passage which draws an implicit comparison between the British Government-funded War Artists’ Advisory Committee discussed in chapter 2 and the failure to persuade the American Administration to do the same after Pearl Harbor. It was left to the artists to create their own organisation, Artists for Victory Inc., which mounted “a substantial number of suitably patriotic exhibitions” [83]. Among those who were given the opportunity to exhibit their works by Artists for Victory, one finds Jolán Gross Bettelheim, whose Assembly Line (Home Front) – yet another case of a woman depicting women (1943, Illustration 4.6) – immediately recalls the British Vorticists (as does Charles White’s Soldier of 1944 (Illustration 4.12), incidentally). The diversity of inspiration and technique among American artists could not be better demonstrated than by looking at two works of 1943 on the same theme, female war workers: Bettelheim’s Assembly Line and Norman Rockwell’s “meticulously naturalistic” [90] Rosie the Riveter (Illustration 4.14), which could usefully be compared with Laura Knight’s Ruby Loftus, also of 1943. A peculiar aspect of the American Home Front was the internment of citizens of Japanese origin from February 1942 – and they produced art which has survived. Again, the reader is implicitly invited to contrast Rockwell’s “feel-good” images like his Four Freedoms (1943, Illustration 4.15), and Mine Okubo’s stark [Japanese] Women in Latrines (c.1942-1944, Illustration 4.22).

In her chapter on “ ‘France, Once the Haven of Exiles’: Victim or Collaborator?”, the author faced a difficult task once more, since the title seems to announce a Manichean alternative, when in fact the story was far more complicated – as she perfectly explains with the example of Picasso, who was neither [112]: he was simply attentiste, like the vast majority of the population. His The Charnel House (1944-1945, Illustration 5.3) was only shown after Liberation and La Bacchanale (1944, Illustration 5.19) “almost certainly alludes” to the Liberation of Paris [124]. Appropriately, there is a comprehensive discussion of the worst aspect of Vichyism – its persecution of the Jews – with the de rigueur allusion to the notorious Paris exhibition of September 1941, “Le Juif et la France”. The most intriguing question about Charles Perron’s France liberating itself from the Jews (1941, Illustration 5.2) is what has become of this 30-foot statue, which featured prominently among the exhibits. Was it destroyed after Liberation? Was it spirited away by some rabid antisemite to augment his collection of Nazi “regalia”? All that the caption indicates is “location unknown”. The cult of personality known as maréchalisme also receives substantial treatment, notably because of the imagery which it generated [119]. A minor reproach here is that Monica Bohm-Duchen fails to inscribe Gérard Ambroselli’s Le don à la patrie juin 1940 (1941, Illustration 5.11) in the old French tradition of popular naïve art known as images d’Épinal: this type of “art” evoked fond childhood memories in most of the population. In the opposite camp, we have a thorough analysis of the role played by “a remarkable American called Varian Fry” [120] in sheltering Surrealist and Jewish artists and writers in Marseilles while they waited for a Neutral boat to take them out of the country. Among the “over two thousand people” whom he helped, one finds names like Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger, Heinrich Mann, Hannah Arendt – some of their wartime works being reproduced and discussed in the book. Finally, the chapter has a section on those who were not lucky enough to escape: the internees, especially those of the Camp des Milles, near Marseilles – among them Hans Bellmer (Les Milles on Fire, 1940, Illustration 5.14). A recent colour photograph of the guards’ refectory shows the murals painted by the inmates (Illustration 5.16).

Then one crosses Europe, for chapter 6 on “Russia’s Great Patriotic War”, which actually starts with a reminder of the importance of art in the eyes of the Bolsheviks, resulting in a conflict between the supporters of the avant-garde and the conservatives in the 1920s which was finally won by the latter and their “Socialist Realism”in the early 1930s. No wonder, then, that when war with Germany finally broke out in June 1941 “the visual arts were immediately enlisted in the cause” [131]. Not surprisingly, the first type of pictorial production was in the form of posters – strongly reminiscent of those of Revolutionary times against the White Russians and Western invaders. Monica Bohm-Duchen interestingly draws the reader’s attention to the evolution in the morale-boosting dimension or otherwise of all these works, from the gloomy tone of the 1941-1942 posters to the more optimistic message of post-Stalingrad productions. Among those illustrated, two play on the age-old register of the innocent female victims of war: the old mother who fears for her sons’ life on the front (The Motherland Calls! by Irakli Toidze, 1941, Illustration 6.4) and the defenceless young wife with a baby in her arms facing a Nazi bayonet (Red Army Warriors, Save Us! by Viktor Koretsky, 1941, Illustration 5.14). A fascinating section is devoted to the special case of Leningrad, under siege from September 1941 to January 1944: “Against the odds, and in the most appalling conditions of starvation and temperatures as low as minus 40°C, ambitious, patriotic images continued to be produced” [144]. Exhibitions were also organised and large canvasses were airlifted to Moscow to be shown there – an obvious demonstration of the importance of art in the eyes of the Soviet authorities. The chapter ends on a substantial discussion of the representation of the conflict in the postwar era – in fact, we learn, “realist canvasses with titles like Wounded and At the Front Line [were produced] as late as 2005”. Interestingly, when Monica Bohm-Duchen writes in the final lines of the chapter “In no other country, clearly, did the memory of the war, and the desire to perpetuate that memory in art, cut so deep and persist for so long” [149], one is tempted to transpose the sentence to the British scene – simply substituting “on television” for “in art”. For the Russians, too, it was “their finest hour” – as she reminds the reader earlier in the chapter: “As a nation, Russia’s experience in the Second World War was arguably the cruellest of all, and the grim determination of Russians, soldiers and civilians alike, to resist the invader indisputably impressive” [131].

Continuing with totalitarian régimes – in fact “Imperfect Totalitarianism” in Mussolini’s case, as the title suggests we move back to Western Europe and Fascist Italy. One aspect of the totalitarianism of the Mussolini régime was that after 1923 “free enterprise in the arts was virtually non-existent” [152] – so artists had only one possible client in Italy: the Fascist State in its various guises. It so happened that the Futurists, who were there before Mussolini, “rallied most enthusiastically to the cause, their violently aggressive iconoclasm being most obviously in tune with Mussolini’s initial political stance” [153]. This led to superb prewar pictures like Alessandro Bruschetti’s Fascist Synthesis (1935, Illustration 7.2) or Ernesto Thayaht’s The Great Pilot, in the then fashionable aeropittura manner, fully discusssed in the chapter (1939, Illustration 7.3). Another remarkable aeropittura canvas is the spectacular Nosediving on the City by Tullio Croli (1939, Illustration 7.4), which Monica Bohm-Duchen describes from a female point of view as “an adrenalin-fuelled celebration of macho aerial heroics” [155]. We may dislike these works for their evident admiration for brute force, but there is no denying their artistic merit – which is not the case for kitsch scenes like Contardo Barbieri’s The Legionary’s Tale (1936, Illustration 7.8), or far worse, Ferrucio Vecchi’s sculpture, Empire springs from the Mind of Il Duce (1939-1940, Illustration 7.9). All these pictures were made and shown in the period of Fascist Italy’s triumph over the Ethiopians and Libyans – but after June 1940 it was at war with Britain and there followed a long series of humiliating defeats (sometimes only mitigated thanks to Hitler’s intervention) which culminated in the Duce’s deposition on 25 July 1943. During that period, few works of note were produced – and none at all in Mussolini’s “Italian Social Republic” in Northern Italy only defended by the Germans. One glaring exception to the complete Fascist domination of the Italian art scene before 25 July 1943 is the unclassifiable grotesque work of an opponent, Tono Zancanaro, who has one of his drawings reproduced in the book – a monstrous caricature of Mussolini from 1943, Long Live Gibbo! (Illustration 7.14).

No question of “Imperfect” Totalitarianism in the next country covered, Nazi Germany. Straight from his accession in 1933, Hitler took a deep interest in the eradication of the “degenerate art” of the Weimar Republic and the promotion of a cleansed “Great German Art”. The book has a very telling reproduction of Hubert Lanzinger’s portrait of Hitler as the knight in shining armour – or Joan of Arc – variously known as Guardian of German Art (the original title), The White Knight or The Standard Bearer (1934-1936, Illustration 8.2). Not unexpectedly, the evolution of the mental framework behind this art followed the reverse process of that in the Soviet Union: Stalingrad put an end to the certainty of victory which had inspired so many works since 1939. The contrast is striking between Paul Mathias Padua’s 10 May 1940 (The Attack on France) of 1941 (Illustration 8.6) – when all viewers knew of course that the attack had resulted in complete victory – and Will Tschech’s And Still of 1944 (Illustration 8.13), in which the defiant SA troopers are marching against the background of a city in ruins, probably as a result of Allied bombings. We are also told of the complex postwar history of these art works, confiscated by the United States in 1945 and sent to Washington, where “approximately 450 of the most inflammatory works” are still held in a vault as part of the US Army Center for Military History, though most of the initial 9,000 items of this “deeply problematic and embarrassing legacy” [180] were sent back to Germany in two stages, in 1951 and 1986.

Logically, this discussion of Nazi art is followed by the chapter on “Art of the Holocaust”. Only one reproduction by the liberators of the camps is offered: Leslie Cole’s Belsen Camp : The Compound for Women (1945, Illustration 9.18) – the choice was evidently made to give priority to the victims’ works. Respect for what they have suffered makes it is impossible to use the accepted criteria of art historians to comment upon the “artistic” value of these testimonies produced under the worst imaginable circumstances. Suffice it to say that two themes emerge predominantly from this chaper: how most of the survivors explained that their primary motivation was the hope that these images would somehow reach the outside world at some stage and provide a small record of the atrocities (“it has been estimated that only one in ten works survived” [193]) – and how their ingenuity and resourcefulness helped them find the necessary materials: thus “Zoran Music tinted his paintings with rust from the bars of his jail cell in Dachau”, while others resorted to a technique still used in nursery schools : “Yehuda Bacon would save some of his potato rations to make potato cuts; when they were finished, he ate them” [193]. Another very effective form of “nursery school technique” is used in Józef Szjana’s The Roll Call lasted very long…My Feet hurt a lot (1944, Illustration 9.8 and facing p. 191). Ironically, therefore, this art constitutes “propaganda” in the etymological meaning of a deliberate effort to “propagate”, i.e. desseminate information.

The last three chapters are devoted to the War in the Far East, from the Sino-Japanese war which erupted in 1931 to the aftermath of the Bomb in 1945. Here, of course, Western commentators tread on treacherous ground when Eastern artists produce works rooted in their own long tradition. In fact, in the chapter on China, only one such woodcut is reproduced: Yan Han’s New Year Door Guardian : A Good Fighter (1939-1940, Illustration 10.10), while we have very complex blurrings of the differences in the Western and Eastern traditions in some of the Japanese reproductions offered, like Yasuda Yukihiko’s two hanging scrolls (one on silk), Young Genji : Yoritomo off to the Front (1941, Illustration 11.10) and Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, 8 December 1941 (1941, Illustration 11.11). In the Chinese case, another difficulty is that “only since the early 1990s have there been scholarly attempts to set the wartime record straight, and a concomitant attempt by historians to take a more impartial and comprehensive view of cultural production in China during the 1937-45 period” [213]. When we learn from Chinese artists of the time like Lu Xun that they were influenced by left-wing German Expressionists, we are not astonished to see pictures which could have been made by Western painters, the only real difference being that the characters shown have Eastern features – but not even Eastern dress in Tang Yihe’s Propagating Resistance against Japan, July 1937 (or The Trumpet Call of July 7) of 1940 (Illustration 10.3). Likewise in Japan with Abe Gosei’s Crowd saluting the Departure of Soldiers (1938, Illustration 11.3 and facing p. 227). It may also be noticed that Miyamoto Saburo’s Attack on Nanyaun, Beijing (1941, Illustration 11.4) has a strong affinity in the artistic treatment with Padua’s 10 May 1940 (The Attack on France) of the same year, even if one discounts the common reference to “attack” in the title. On the facing page, on the other hand (or additionally?), Mitsuru Suzuki’s After Graduation Japanese Student Pilots depart for the Front (c. 1943-1944, Illustration 11.5) somehow reminds us of “Socialist Realism”.

The final chapter, on the art associated with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, discusses the work both of Japanese artists and Americans like Standish Backus, who at once offers pictures of the results of the atrocious treatment of American PoWs by the Japanese, with Recent Guests of Japan (1945. Illustration 12.3) and of the atrocious burns suffered by the Japanese population, with At the Red Cross Hospital, Hiroshima (1945. Illustration 12.5). In fact, it seems that the Japanese artists who treated the subject were not eye witnesses. The chapter has a very interesting discussion of their work produced in the following years, like the monumental (c. 25-ft wide) series of panels by Toshi and Iri Maruki of 1950-1982, Hiroshima (Illustration 12.12).

The book very appropriately ends with a quotation from Elie Wiesel on the Holocaust in 1965, which applies to all aspects of the Second World War: “How is one to speak of it, how is one not to speak of it?” [261]. This is followed by a number of useful appendices: copious Notes, a Chronology of Key Events (1917-1962), a substantial Select Bibliography (including articles), classified according to the twelve countries / themes treated in the book and a comprehensive Index. The author must be both congratulated and thanked for giving us such a remarkable panorama. This magnum opus must be in all Art School, University and Public Libraries – and it would also make an excellent present for anyone interested in the Second World War in all its complex aspects.


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