The depiction of war in various forms of art – in paintings and sculpture, including fresco and bas relief – has a history which goes back many centuries, and is a topic which was examined by the speaker, club member Peter Holt, at a recent meeting of the Bakewell and District Probus Club.
A very early example illustrated by Peter is the Lachish Relief (now in the British Museum) dating from about 700 BC. This carving commemorates the siege of one of the chief cities of Judah, Lachish, by the invading Assyrian army of King Sennacherib. It shows, in great detail, the triumphant Assyrians and the defeated defenders of the city; thereby attempting to record for posterity the invincibility of Sennacherib.
Subsequent conflicts throughout history have similarly been used as the subject for art works but how reliable as an accurate record of the events shown are they? Peter pointed to examples of paintings that were produced years – even decades – after the battles which they portray. In 1858, the artist, Daniel Maclise, commenced work on the walls of Westminster Palace on two great monumental works ‘The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher after the Battle of Waterloo’ and ‘The Death of Nelson’ although these battles had been fought forty or fifty years earlier. Both of these works show the horrors of warfare but also suggest heroism. It is up to the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions.
Art has frequently been used to make a statement about warfare and the politics behind it, with the result that it has been suppressed by authoritarian regimes uneasy about the messages which it delivers. An example is the way that the Bauhaus movement in pre-war Germany was abolished by the Nazi government. Other artists were more successful in drawing attention to the brutality of warfare. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ remains one of his best-known works. And other famous artists, such as Goya and Manet have produced pictures in the same vein.
The speaker concluded by looking at samples of current Ukranian war art which indicate how the whole nation is involved in a fight for survival with an uncompromising enemy. Here art is seen as a worthy weapon of war.
Details of the Bakewell and District Probus Club, including reports of earlier meetings, can be found on its website at www.bakewell probus.org