Monica Bohm-Duchen, Art and the Second World War, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 2014; 288 pages, $49.50 hardcover.
For many years, the consensus was that in Europe, at least, the air had been sucked out of visual creativity during the years of WWII. Most postwar surveys of art history simply bypass the period, taking readers from before 1939 to after 1945. Monica Bohm-Duchen, an independent scholar, lecturer and curator based in London, has undertaken to fill this historical gap with a chapter each on China, Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union on the Allies’ side, plus Japan, Germany and Italy on the Axis side. Both Spain, torn between Fascist and anti-Fascist factions, and France, half Nazi-occupied and half under Vichy rule, get divided treatment.
Faced with a potentially overwhelming task, the author has limited herself to showing how artists either independently or under official commission, working either near the front lines or from home, set about interpreting victory, vengeance, sacrifice, patriotism and other propaganda themes in the countries at war. She also offers her take on Holocaust- and Hiroshima-related art. One theme of her lavishly illustrated Art and the Second World War is that, regardless of nation, “a surprising humanism manifests itself in works produced in or near the front lines”—many of them generated by artist—soldiers or by artists sent there and paid by their respective governments.
Wartime art production in Japan and China, enemies in WWII, is among the more unusual topics in Bohm-Duchen’s book. Because the Japanese, once defeated, considered their war art more a cultural embarrassment than an asset, they long forbade its exhibition and reproduction. For one thing, as Bohm-Duchen points out, most Japanese artists backed the regime’s goals of supremacy in Asia. The Japanese painter Fujita Tsuguharu (Léonard Foujita), for instance, a famous socialite expatriate in Paris in the ’20s, returned to Japan in 1933 and became an official documentarian of Japanese victories, including Pearl Harbor. Moreover, Japanese atrocities against Chinese civilians and U.S. war prisoners hardly invited commemoration. This may be why only images that depict combat or preparations for combat have been allowed to surface. Examples include Maintenance Work Aboard Aircraft Carrier I (ca. 1943) by Arai Shori, a colored drawing on paper of two airplanes being repaired, and Mitsuru Suzuki’s After Graduation Japanese Student Pilots Depart for the Front (1943-44), a Western-style painting modeled, like wartime works by several other Japanese artists, on Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.
To get a contrasting view of Japan’s military, one has only to turn to the book’s China chapter, particularly to Chinese woodcuts of the invasion. (Evocative titles include Killing Contest by Li Keran, Feeding on Blood by Cai Ruohong and Japanese Soldiers’ Bestiality by Hu Kao.) Lowbrow and cheap to produce, these images became a favorite tool of propaganda not only against the Japanese invaders but also against the national Kuomintang regime during China’s relentless civil conflicts (1927-49). Expressionist in style, the woodcuts often show headless bodies (A Mother’s Head Severed [or Bombardment II], 1938, by Feng Zikai), bodies tied by ropes and chains (Roar, China!, 1935, by Li Hua), eyes bulging in terror of approaching troops or planes overhead (Living for Vengeance, undated, by Ye Qianyu). In addition, during this period when civilians were constantly on the run, many scrolls bearing timely messages were created by traditionally trained artists from the intellectual elite.
One exceptionally striking scroll, Jiang Zhaohe’s 1943 Refugees, a monumental depiction of the aftermath of an attack on noncombatants, has a tumultuous history, mirroring the era’s convulsions. Painted secretly in Japanese-occupied Peking, it was shown in a temple, banned by the Japanese military police and then exhibited in the French Concession in Shanghai, where it was confiscated by the authorities. Half of it ended up badly damaged, and the other half disappeared.
The Western Front also had its official propagandists. The German artist Paul Mathias Padua depicted an assault on French defenses (10 May 1940 [The Attack on France], 1941), while Aleksandr Deineka paid homage to Soviet resistance against the Nazis (The Defense of Sebastopol, 1942). Of course, not all artists who were advocates of their country’s goals received special treatment from their government. The Futurist painters in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy did not succeed in winning the level of official favor they sought, even though their many exuberant works—especially paintings with dizzying perspectives on and from military planes in flight—appear to be suitably nationalist, technologically oriented, warmongering and powerful.
Bohm-Duchen’s treatment of war art from Great Britain is particularly interesting, not least because it involves the figure of Kenneth Clark, the famous art historian and museum director who became the head of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, in charge of commissioning most of the nation’s official artworks during WWII. Clark supported art that hovered between subjectivity and propaganda. Laura Knight’s oil-on-canvas Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-Ring (1943), a nearly photographic rendering of a woman hard at work in a factory, barely skirts propaganda, while Graham Sutherland’s Devastation: City, Twisted Girders (1941), an ink-and-crayon drawing in shades of dark brown, beige and black, symbolizes the impact of Nazi destruction on Britain’s urban landscape in a style approaching abstraction.
Picasso’s Guernica (1937), while predating the war, may well be the era’s most famous testimony to the physical suffering and moral revulsion of civilians afflicted by aerial bombardment—a subject that engaged artists on both sides of the conflict. Germany’s Karl Raible painted Air Raid over Hamburg (1944)—showing the silhouette of the city at night, crisscrossed by floodlights—to visually incriminate Allied bombing. The American Thomas Hart Benton’s allegorical Year of Peril: Again (1942), one of eight paintings he did in response to Pearl Harbor, indicts the Axis powers. With its central image of a ghost-white Christ on the Cross being strafed by a plane and, from the ground, lanced by a Nazi, a Fascist and a subhuman Asian, it symbolizes Christian America under siege.
The author has few kinds words for artists like Benton who, “however sincere and well intentioned,” never left the comforts of home. She is more sensitive to American “combat artists” like Donald Dickson, Howard Brodie and Kerr Eby, who, even though they were sponsored by the state, “for the most part eschewed allegory, symbolism, melodrama and hyperbole in favour of an emphasis on authenticity and the raw immediacy of experience.”
In light of the author’s interest in and empathy for combat art, one wonders why she chose to concentrate on the stay-at-home artists of France during the period 1940-44, rather than investigate the less well-known front line art of France. The tense period of the Phoney War (fall-winter, 1939-40), followed by the Nazi blitzkrieg that broke French defenses—causing thousands of French and British deaths, and leaving a million war prisoners in the hands of the invaders—had its battle—witness artists, too.
Also surprising is the somewhat sympathetic “reassessment” of Nazi war art by the daughter of Jewish refugees. Bohm-Duchen describes Sentry Post on Beach near Ostend (1940), by Franz Martin Luenstroth, as “a surprisingly melancholy and introspective image . . . in which the solitary male figure facing the sea’s immensity immediately recalls similar archetypal motifs in the work of that quintessentially German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.”
In my view, the image of the tall solitary sentry facing the sea can be read as a stand-in for the sentry-in-chief, Adolf Hitler, the guardian of the nation, contemplating his immense responsibilities at the start of the war. Friedrich happens to have been the Führer’s favorite painter. A subtle case of hero worship, Sentry should remain quietly at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Lesley J. McNair, in Washington, D.C., where it is stored.
Overall, the illustrations in Art and the Second World War, fresh as they are, tread a thin line between information and, in some instances, implicit rehabilitation of aesthetically and morally questionable artists. The text, meanwhile, is a useful summary of each country’s social, political and artistic journey through the dramatic years of WWII-drawing heavily on the existing literature, despite the author’s claims of revisionism.
MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based cultural critic and a historian of the Vichy years in France.