- Art and the Second World War by Monica Bohm-Duchen
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 288 pp.
Bohm-Duchen has given us a concise, accessible introduction to the war-related art of every combatant nation, Allied or Axis, with additional chapters on the Spanish Civil War, the Holocaust, and the nuclear bombing of Japan. Each chapter has between ten and twenty-two excellent color illustrations, making for a visually lavish, physically manageable volume. There is painting, sculpture, and graphic art (no photography or film); art by soldiers, and by artists embedded (as we would say now) with soldiers; scenes of battle and of the boring, often squalid life between battles; melodramatic depictions of heroism and merciless caricatures of the enemy.
Conciseness comes at a price: a sense of paths not taken, of the possibility of whole different narratives. This is especially true when the author encounters what seems to be her bugbear: “an aestheticizing approach which turns battles into panoramic and dramatic spectacles.” By and large, she avoids pictures of this kind, and when she does show them she is carefully ambivalent. I, for one, would have liked to see more of them and to know how the artists themselves dealt, morally and aesthetically, with the problem of battle as spectacle, which sums up the problem of the sublime in twentieth-century art. Over and above such issues, both text and pictures tell an implicit “big story” that has more to do with art than with war. It is a story of compromises with and within modernism. Modern art, as though made for the purpose, had the power to convey the devastation and terror of twentieth-century warfare. Surprisingly, very few artists chose—or [End Page 342] were able?—to accept and deploy that power; Picasso, with Guernica, stands out among those few. For the most part, the visual art of World War II is a mixture of more conservative styles, reaching back to the nineteenth century and earlier, with a kind of polite modernism. The final criterion was what the public would accept easily and what was suited to convey a patriotic message.
The absence of modernist innovation is not confined to visual art, or to World War II. As Paul Fussell reminds us in his account of the cultural impact of World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), “The roster of major innovative talents who were not [my italics] involved with the war is long and impressive. It includes Yeats, Woolf, Pound, Eliot, Lawrence, and Joyce — that is, the masters of the modern movement. It was left to lesser talents — always more traditional and technically prudent — to recall in literary form a war they had actually experienced.” An interesting thing about the two responses — literary in World War I, artistic in World War II — is that, close as they seem to be, they have different origins. Unlike literature, visual art has a secret that helps explain why it never rose to the challenge of modern warfare. Art has always told war stories, but of what kind? Real, unidealized warfare is one of the subjects that art throughout its history, worldwide, has rarely been good at.
Exceptions can be startling, all the more when they are couched in an “old-fashioned” idiom. Few other war paintings are as terrifying as Final Fighting on Attu by the cosmopolitan (and, for the most part, pleasantly lightweight) artist Tsuguharu Fujita (1886–1968), who made his name and home in Paris before deciding to put his art at the service of Japan’s war effort. Pictures of close combat tend toward rhetoric, not horror. The emphasis is usually on the individual warrior who, for a brief and crucial moment, embodies all the ideals of his country. Fujita gives us nothing of the sort. There is no rhetoric, no arm raised to brandish a weapon, leading the troops to glory, only a chaos of men jabbing and grappling in the dreadful Aleutian half-light, and a visceral understanding of battle as the place where self-protection becomes meaningless and blind chance determines who lives or dies...