War Artists (Part 1)

Oxford dictionary define war as “a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country”. War is regarded as one of the example of social conflict, and it is usually caused by inequalities of social classes and conflict of interest of different groups.

According to Wikipedia, “a war artist depicts some aspect of war through art”. They normally present their artworks in the form of pictorial record and visual drawing. Paul Gough (2009, pg. 1) explains that “war artists accompanied troops to the front, making spontaneous sketches and watercolors of soldiers as they engaged with the enemy en masse.” By combining their eyewitness accounts and disturbance of cruelty, many war artists manage to “have an immediacy and an intensity of representation which is instantly convincing” (Gough, 2009, pg. 1).


Fig. 1. Vasily Vereshchagin, The Apotheosis of War, 1871, 127 × 197 cm, oil on canvas. http://www.usc.edu

Taking Vasily Vereshchagin’s The Apotheosis of War (fig. 1) as an example, he expresses his depiction through art for the aftermath of the conflict. The oil paining get my attention thanks for its composition – a pyramid-liked pile of skulls. If ancient Egyptian pyramids represent the cultural and architectural climax in Egyptian history whereas the pyramid of human skulls in Vereshchagin’s painting symbolized the apotheosis of human’s cruelty and brutality. From the artwork’s title itself, it is obvious that Vereshchagin wishes to reflect his idea for scourge of war and to denounce killing through describing a massacre happened during wartime. I find one of interesting parts is the broad daylight used in the artwork as it can nakedly/transparently reveal the sinful nature of human being. The stunted trees and ruined city at the back show the mood of desolateness. Opposed to the human skulls, to certain extend many living crows ironically reflect meaning of life and death. This art piece to me is not merely a record during the wartime, but a great piece of art to reflect an idea of social conflict. Rudolph Rummel (1976, ch. 27.1 ) suggests that “social conflict is then the confrontation of social powers.” Not all physical force or violence is social, but the conflict of interest (or idea) might eventually lead to violence. Vereshchagin’s art piece reminds me of the great disasters that led by social conflicts, namely China’s Cultural Revolution, French Revolution and Malaysia’s 13 May incident. Most of the time, the desire of “the role of conflict-space” (Rummel, 1976, ch. 27.1 ) increase the social-conflict, i.e., value, norms, status and class.

Rummel, Rudolph (1976) Understanding Conflict and War: The Conflict Helix, Volume 2, The Conflict Helix. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc

Gough, Paul (2009) ‘Why paint war? British and Belgian artists in World War One’, World War One Available at: http://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/why-paint-war-british-and-belgian-artists


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