The arrival of large-scale modern warfare at the turn of the 20th century, and the new levels of brutality that ensued, left artists wondering how to respond to the subject which had since the genesis of the “story-telling” historia genre been at the thematic heart of painting.
The terrifying and unprecedented nature of this new warfare required a complete break from traditional war images and the notion of the commemorative “battle-scene”, instead leaving artists to conceive of a new language of representation, one that reflected an increasingly visible anti-war agenda.
WWII artists focus on the severity and scale of the consequences of modern war which, for the first time, included the mass killing of civilians in their home cities via aerial bombings. Painting the reality of these civilian lives, so far from the frontline and yet still in the fire of the “collateral damage”, have helped artists to emphasis the vast scope and indiscriminate nature of the destruction that was caused.
British artist Clive Branson takes as his subject scenes of a desperate London during the Blitz, which, living in Battersea at the time, he witnessed first-hand. In his painting “Bombed Women & Searchlights” (1940) we see a haunting and surreal image which is confusing and unsettling visually. There are dramatically foreshortened and oversized objects in the foreground (a broken wooden chair, the red and white road barrier which almost pierces the picture plane, a cigarette box lying on its side) which disrupts any continuity or rational ordering of the composition.
The backdrop to the scene is a sickly grey-green sky, split violently by the “X” of the two searchlight beams and filled by the monstrous forms of the barrage balloons – known at the time as “blimps” – which were used to protect the city from the Luftwaffe. The blimps would tangle low flying aircrafts in the metal cables and nets which were suspended beneath as well as obscuring the pilots’ lines of vision, especially dive bombers, forcing them into higher airspace where anti-aircraft fire could dispose of them.
The broken cables hanging down here show that the German air force has already struck, and a temporal aspect is added: we are looking at the end of a sequence of events, the aftermath. However the danger does not seem to have passed completely, fire can be seen in the distance between the buildings and the red-white stripes of the road barrier also signals “danger ahead.” The two central women are presumably rescuing their possessions from a bombed out residence, but have they got somewhere safe to go?
In the painting, many different types of surface bear their own images like a collage. There is an over-sized poster on the wall, a named shop and factory front, graffiti scrawled across brickwork, a cigarette packet advertising itself. The mixture of slogans: “Dig for Victory”, “Smile and say victory”, “Vote Joyce for Peace” relate to a number of opposing narratives which “draw attention to the tensions in British Society” at the time and also highlight the difficulties involved with deciphering truths within an overload of information, most of which is propaganda.
The confusion of surfaces, scales and contrasts leaves the viewer disoriented, looking in on a chaotic and claustrophobic dream-like vision. However there is also a faint message of hope and reassurance here. A woman in the middle-ground wields a broom, undeterred by events, ready to get stuck into the cleaning up effort. The closest figure, that looks directly at us, is gripped with resolve and empowered in her action: determinedly marching forward with her stone grey face, gritted teeth and broad shoulders straining forward. (This is perhaps a portrait of the artist’s wife, Noreen Branson).
The painting suggests the task of the women “back home” in London, maintaining order as best they could and keeping the flame of the British spirit alive, is just as vital a duty as that of the soldiers, albeit a very different one. In this way Branson has cleverly depicted not only the horror of the bombing aftermath, but in the same composition, the “bouncing back” of the British civilians, their tenacity, their jumping to action, even after catastrophe has hit.
Another British artist who featured scenes in London during the Blitz is Henry Moore, who in 1940 was appointed as an official War Artist. Moore had taken cover from an air raid in Belsize Park underground station and, deeply moved by the sights he had seen there of people sheltering together, made a series of monochrome drawings from memory, done with graphite, ink, wax and watercolour on paper.
In “Tube Shelter Perspective” (1941) we see a long dark tunnel, disappearing into the distance. Just as in “Bombed Women & Searchlights” there is a resounding atmosphere of foreboding within the painting, the sense that danger is close by. This drawing takes a high perspective viewpoint, looking down upon two long rows of bodies which are lying horizontally on the floor. The tall walls loom over them, in one sense enclosing the people but also leaving a vast, cavernous space all around.
As the drawing moves into the distance the contours of the bodies become increasingly blurred, melting into indeterminate lines and shadows, no longer individual figures, but one solid mass. Like a group of resting animals, livestock perhaps, there seems to be a sense of strength in numbers, in solidarity: human beings sharing in each others plight.
The materials Moore has chosen create a great depth and darkness, the shadows are impenetrable, reminding us that there is no natural light deep under the earth. White chalk is used on the wall and the floor but does not suggest light, rather glistening moisture and damp surfaces. Splashes of bright yellow suggest beams of artificial light, falling in, but it does not reach far down the tunnel.
The National Gallery Catalogue of 1941 summarises this drawing as “a terrifying vista of recumbent shapes, pale as all underground life tends to be pale; regimented as only fear can regiment; helpless yet tense, safe yet listening, uncouth, uprooted, waiting in the tunnel for the dawn to release them.” Whilst it is certainly a frightening image of a dark and damp place which seems barely fit for human inheritance, what is most significant is that the people are “safe”, they are surviving. Moore presents not only a dingy tunnel but a sanctuary, a hiding place, a moment of respite, which thus gives the painting a hopefulness. In a similar way to Branson then, this image is also about the stoic resistance of the British people, quietly doing what they must, adapting to their environment and making-do.
If British artists were effective in communicating the fear that civilians during WWII faced, and the drawn-out resilience they had to show in the face of uncertainty, Spanish artists perfectly captured the sudden, horrific violence that civilians were now also exposed to. Spain in fact, in the grips of a turbulent internal conflict between the Republicans and the Nationalists, can be seen as perhaps the most severe example in Europe for the brutality that non-combatants faced during the years of WWII.
“Black Aeroplanes” (1937) by Horacio Ferrer and the world-renown “Guernica” from the same year by Pablo Picasso both depict scenes from the Spanish Civil War which raged between 17 July 1936 and 1 April 1939; specifically the aerial bombings of civilian cities that were carried out by Fascist forces under the direction of General Francisco Franco.
In Ferrer’s painting, as in the two already discussed, none of the perpetrators of the conflict are present, the black aeroplanes that the title refers to are excluded, but the still-smoking landscape and the rubble all around leaves no doubt of the that has just occurred. Ferrer focuses on four women: three with their children of different ages, and an elderly lady who is bent over and clasps her hands together in despair. This cross-section of figures shows how the tragedies of war encompass all generations and none are left unaffected. Each of the women’s faces are contorted into extreme grief, fear or indignation.
The woman in the middle with a raised arm reveals her exposed breast, and this reinforces not only the powerful movement of her gesture but also her role as an “innocent” mother: a child-bearer and life-giver who should not be perpetrated by violence in this way. Her bare breast and clenching fist might also perhaps refer us back to the very famous female symbol of liberty in “Liberty Leading the People” (1830), a French painting by Eugene Delacroix from a century earlier. This commemorated the July Revolution in which the monarch Charles X was overthrown. Here the figure of Liberty, holding the tricolour, leads the people heroically onwards over the bodies of the fallen, in a painting of nationalistic pride and spirit.
In “Black Aeroplanes” this figure seems to replicate Liberty’s gesture linking this ordinary Spanish mother to the icon of struggle and sacrifice, but here we see Liberty in reverse – a parody of the empowerment seen in Delacroix’s painting. This woman is far from the bringer or wielder of political change, she is the opposite, crying out in anguish because of her powerlessness and the injustice of suffering through events far beyond her control.
This larger than life-size figure, with her strong profile and muscular neck, is enhanced by the strong relief and realism of Ferrer’s painting technique, which renders the bodies with sculptural solidarity. Light is cleverly used, for example illuminating with photographic quality the face of the grieving elderly woman, every line and crease of her tragic expression is visible and thus heightening the emotional intensity of the image.
The small portion of a destroyed house in the background is symbolic of many. These aerial bombings that fascist forces under Franco’s orders had carried out on several Spanish cities in Republican areas, affecting thousands of civilians, were seen by many to represent ‘a benchmark atrocity for humankind,’ the exemplar of a new kind of warfare which was more senseless and criminal than any that had gone before. Anyone and everyone could become a target, unsuspecting woman, children and elderly people in their own homes.
Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso takes the same subject of an aerial bombing, specifically the complete ruination of the Basque country village of Guernica which took place on the 26th April 1937. It could be said that Picasso’s image marks the apex of all anti-war sentiments in 20th century painting.
The event of the bombing of Guernica quickly gained a wider political significance amongst the Spanish people; the utter destruction of a peaceful community became symbolic of Fascist brutality in a universal sense. The event particularly resonated within the Spanish consciousness because the town of Guernica embodied the heart of Basque culture, a historic place which represented ‘the very spirit of their ancient pride and freedom.“
Picasso’s painting from the outset, therefore, was confronted by the huge task of doing justice to the magnitude and horror of this event. He chooses to communicate it, in the same way as Black Aeroplanes, by focusing solely on the innocent lives that were destroyed.
The paintings sheer scale (3.5 x7.8 m) and the very raw nature of the emotion it conveys becomes almost overwhelming. Its monochrome scheme of black, white and shades of grey obtains the immediacy and impact of newspaper images and seems to share the objective of photo-journalism and war reportage in documenting the truth and the facts of the event.
The painting features a number of characters: a bull, a horse, a cockerel, a mother and child, a dead soldier, and several other women, all of which are frozen in horror, mid-action, with tortuous often screaming expressions of grief. The figures are set within an interior, although this space is not easily recognizable and it has been flattened, distorted and terminated in many places, appearing more like an amalgamation of overlapping shapes and planes in a surreal, cubist vision. This is a type of painting which sees forms and spaces literally shattered apart, just like the place and the people it is trying to capture.
We can make out the setting by its few recognisable features; an arc lamp on the ceiling ‘which presides like an all-seeing eye, complete with bulb pupil’ and emits rays of light in sharp teeth, a small window in the top right hand corner and what seems to be an open door, through which a figure emerges holding another lamp. This roughly implies the dimensions of the room and the shadow in which it is cast; a blackness which encloses the figures and engulfs them on all sides.
it is hard to tell where one body figure ends and another begins, which are dead and which are still alive. The bodies and limbs and splayed out, sometimes entirely disconnected. The animals have suffered the same terrible fate as the humans; the body of the horse in the centre of the canvas, its legs flailing wildly in different directions, seems to be pierced by a spear and shows a large diamond shape wound on its side. It opens its mouth to reveal a pointed conical tongue, as if emitting a piercing, primordial howl.
Similarly audible is the screaming woman beneath the window, her hands thrown in the air, surrounded by triangular shapes which suggest encroaching flames. To the left, a ghostly face appears to float through the top of the door frame; her expression struck with horror at what she sees. Directly beneath another woman seems to stagger forward dragging her arms and legs, in the process of keeling over. The most tragic character of all is the mother on the far left side who, with head flung back and mouth open wide, screams over her dead infant child.
Both “Black Aeroplanes” and Picasso’s “Guernica” use the image of women and children in pain to render an emotionally charged, outraged image of ‘the fatherland ravished by the fascists’. They operate as specific political statements against Franco and his army but also can be viewed as universal comments about the evils and senselessness of war; the suffering that mankind is capable of inflicting upon itself.
Whilst in Britain Branson and Moore also explored anti-war feelings in terms of representing the trials and hardships that civilians in London endured, they chose subjects, or moments, which were more detached. (Perhaps Britain had no cultural equivalent to the loss of Guernica for Spain). The British painters rather stress a gritty acceptance of events, and the feelings of anxiety and dread in both paintings are soothed only by the smallest flicker of hope which is found in the resilience of the human spirit.
All four artists coincide in the realization of the inconceivably destructive potential of modern warfare, the terrible things already accomplished, and what might be still to come.
 K Brunner, Picasso: Rewriting Picasso, London: Black dog publishing, 2004, p. 76.
 R Arnheim, The Genesis of a painting: Picasso’s Guernica, Los Angeles & London: Berkeley, 1962, p. 19.
 Arnheim, p.19.
 Brunner, p. 60.
 Arnheim, p. 18.
© 2016, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.