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Books: A personal reflection on artistic responses to war

Records, celebrations, denunciations

Art is creative, war is destructive. The apparent contradiction between the callings of the artist and the warrior sets up a paradox for a book designed to address their relationship. However, the fact that we should think it a paradox at all is in part a product of modern sensibility—a reflection of the tyranny created in the eye of the beholder. Because we live in an era whose thinking about war, especially in Europe, is shaped by the two world wars, we naturally and logically associate war above all with waste and destruction, not least of art itself.

Of course, war has always been associated with destruction: from the Athenian obliteration of Melos to the Romans’ sack of Jerusalem, accounts from the ancient world provide plenty of proof. But war has also been about securing power, profit and land, and so it has provided the wherewithal for the exercise of artistic patronage. Its conduct has required initiative, imagination and courage, and so it has also spawned creativity of another sort. Indeed, as Theodore Rabb makes clear, many of the great works of art he discusses in The Artist and the Warrior would not have come into being without war’s associations with other, more praiseworthy human qualities. To associate war with art is at one level no more illogical than to link it with religion or love.

Rabb’s book does not aspire to promote a thesis. Its origins lie in a series of articles in Military History Quarterly, and the format that results is a series of self-contained essays, each highlighting a select group of masterpieces, but the whole chronologically arranged to embrace a history that begins in Assyria and ends with Guernica. Each chapter starts with a brief summary of developments in the conduct of war within the period to be discussed, before moving on to the works themselves. Most of these are paintings, but three-dimensional objects figure at the book’s beginning, with stone reliefs from Nineveh and Trajan’s column, and end, with Lutyens’s victor’s triumphal arch, Memorial to the Missing, in a new and even ironic context at Thiepval in the Somme.

This is a personal journey, allowing Rabb to highlight what appeals to him rather than requiring him to justify his choice. It escapes the tyranny of Eurocentricism, with excursions into Japanese, Ottoman and Mughal art, but it overlooks China, Latin America and all of Africa. Its definition of art includes Matthew Brady’s great record of the American Civil War on camera. It also includes a truncated and highly selective discussion of film. Rabb does not use either chapter to ask in what way Brady’s work counts as art or what the camera and its capacity to report war have done to art’s representation of war. At one level, his decision to end with Guernica, and his consequent refusal even to address the second world war, appears to be an admission that the traditional visual arts were trumped in the 20th century by new media. But that argument only works if art is committed solely to representations of reality. Rabb is too wise a man to think that: the works he chooses are replete with allegory, metaphor and allusion; they are often artifices as well as art.

The book begins with the assertion that there are three distinct groups of war art: attempts to create a visual record, the celebration of battle and the denunciation of war. Although complimentary about Callot, whom he places in the first category, Rabb progressively concludes that most masterpieces are to be found in the third. A distinguished historian of early modern Europe, Rabb sees Pieter Bruegel the Elder as embodying for the first time a division in art’s engagement with war. As an eyewitness of the Dutch revolt against Spain, Bruegel portrayed war as inhumane and so created an expectation that the role of the artist was to condemn war. Rabb is not so simplistic as to argue that all great art since then has only engaged with war in order to regret its occurrence: his chapter on the Napoleonic wars contrasts David’s heroic treatment of Napoleon with Goya’s “Disasters of War”. But the problem is that Rabb’s first group—which, quantitatively if not qualitatively, is probably much the largest—contains many sub-headings, and the three categories themselves omit the use of war art in other contexts—among them seascapes with naval battles, genre paintings in which soldiers figure and historical paintings that portray heroic acts of the past. As a book which eschews definitions, The Artist and the Warrior cannot help begging them, but through its combination of personal predilection and splendid colour illustrations, it just about gets away with it.

The Artist and the Warrior: Military History through the Eyes of the Masters, Theodore K. Rabb, Yale University Press, 288 pp, £25 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Records, celebrations, denunciations'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 232 February 2012