Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
16 July 2014
Review by Donald Lateiner, Ohio Wesleyan University
Art and the Second World War
By Monica Bohm-Duchen
Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013. Pp. 288. ISBN 978–0–691–14561–7.
Descriptors: Volume 2014, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

The century of total war mobilized the fine arts as well as factories and poster-designers, as artists in oil, watercolors, and stone responded to its many and increasingly pitiless and murderous conflicts. The line between battles and home front was often blurred or erased. Monica Bohm-Duchen starts early with the Spanish Civil War and ends her study with mushroom clouds over the obliterated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What is the relationship between art and propaganda? How can art address atrocities such as genocide or the eradication of cities? Bohm-Duchen grapples with these questions in twelve discrete chapters delimited by geography; she discusses hundreds of visual artists (painters, draftsmen, printmakers, sculptors, but not, e.g., poster-makers and photographers) in Spain, Great Britain and its Dominions, the United States, France, the USSR, Italy, Nazi Germany (and the concentration camps of the Third Reich), as well as China and Japan. (For the grittier ephemera of the Second World War, one may visit the Museum of World War II in Natick, Massachusetts, near Boston.[1]) Most of the book's images (150 color illustrations and 50 halftones) are reproduced in full-page format on good paper. Still, frustratingly, significant images[2] are discussed but not illustrated,[3] while thirteen others are printed twice, for no apparent reason.

Not only autocratic regimes like imperial Japan but also the Americans and British censored what havoc and gore artists might show, "for fear that they might lower public morale" (36), such as crews of torpedoed ships, panic during daytime air raids, evacuations of children, the dead and dying, and concentration camps. Images of women usually show their suffering, although Laura Knight's Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring (1943; plate 2.10) is a notable exception, like her American sister, Rosie the Riveter. The reduction of artists' freedoms, in the free states as well as in dictatorial regimes and their dependencies, provides one of the book's themes. Picturesque and heroic subjects were much safer for artists who wished to survive, be seen, or sell their works in Britain, Italy, or the Soviet Union. Victims and prisoners, not surprisingly, created images of the macabre, that is, when they could obtain, preserve, and hide the needed materials and conceal the resulting works.

A chapter on "The Commonwealth" assays the mediocre and mostly forgotten contributions of Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand artists. As the author makes clear, although the rationale is left unanalyzed, both democracies and autocracies buried the art produced for the war (finished paintings and field sketches) in locked, inaccessible warehouses, euphemistically termed "archives," shortly after the conflict ended (102, 146). As the nation most traumatized by World War II, the Soviet Union, savaged by the merciless Wehrmacht and bitter winter weather, was the exception. The official art scheme establishments of the war disbanded themselves and discontinued the artists' payroll as soon as possible. The heads of such boards were, of course, typically military officers, not art critics or artists, the English art historian Kenneth Clark being an exception, though he, too, could be and was overruled (36). Then as now, Modernism was anathema to politicians, who suppressed its creative productions as ludicrous, wasteful, or detrimental to their nations' war efforts and morale. So, blood rarely flows in the art of the Allies, and "[the] dead are German or Japanese" (73). The "good war" was not good in all respects.

In the 1930s, the American Left had mobilized against Francisco Franco, Adolf Hitler, and, though much less so, Benito Mussolini. Peter Blume's Eternal City (1934–37; pl. 4.2) is a rare, noteworthy instance of "Social Surrealism." During the war, the US government's art arm doled out more money to photographers and filmmakers than to fine art practitioners. "Art, a Weapon of Total War" was the fitting title of a 1943 New School exhibit. Thomas Hart Benton and the Regionalists produced a "rosy-tinted view of small-town ... America" (87–88). The allied nations, without conscious irony, urged their racially segregated armed forces to combat Hitler's racism. After February 1942, the US government rounded up and interned over a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans in "War Relocation [viz., concentration] Camps." The internees, mostly naturalized and native-born American citizens, produced their own art (cameras were forbidden). Bohm-Duchen forthrightly presents their responses to a crying injustice that betrayed the very principles of the nation (98–102).

Norman Rockwell produced his popular and iconic Rosie the Riveter and Ours to Fight For ("The Four Freedoms"; pl. 4.14–15),[4] but Ben Shahn's mordant satirical poster The War That Refreshes: The Four Delicious Freedoms did not elude Office of War Information chief Price Gilbert, a former vice president of Coca Cola (92).[5] Neither American nor Soviet artists took public notice of the Nazis' war against Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies. In 1945, an artist from "the land of the free" could not publish a drawing of the execution of German spies.[6] Bland and reassuring images papered over racial and class tensions to suit federal opinion makers and newspaper moguls. Meanwhile, European émigré artists significantly influenced American art and made postwar New York City prominent in the international art scene.

In her geographic organization of the book, Bohm-Duchen juxtaposes chapters on prewar and occupied France and on the "great patriotic war" in Josef Stalin's USSR. The virulent anti-Semitism of interwar France's art establishment (107–9) prepared the ground for the lethal racial prejudice of the German occupation—a fact that the French dissembled after the Allied victory in order to heal their own civic wounds. Charles Perron's nasty, thirty-foot-tall 1941 sculpture, France Liberating Itself from the Jews (pl. 5.2)[7] is an emblem of French self-delusion and propaganda during and after the occupation. Rose Valland, brave recorder of the German Reich's relentless depredations of the monuments of French and French-owned art, could only look on as the Nazis burned over five hundred "degenerate" artworks in summer 1943 (113), because they could not sell them for gold. The American journalist and classicist Varian Fry helped over two thousand refugees escape, including Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Fernand Leger, and Jacques Lipchitz. French artists not arrested for their birth or religion ignored the occupation in their work. The art scene stagnated—innovations were both dangerous and unprofitable, unlike lighthearted or complicit kitsch, like Francis Picabia's semi-pornographic Women with Bulldog (not illustrated). Franco's foe Pablo Picasso opted out of the European conflict to live in the "velvet prison" of Paris during the war.

The Soviets subjugated fine art and poster art to communist ideology and the supreme effort of repelling the Teutonic invasion (the siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days!). The struggle demanded that the pencil and brush become "weapons" (127). Mediocre and bombastic art allegedly boosted war morale and pleased Stalin's untutored, middling interest in art. The various organizations promoting and censoring the "socialist realism" movement desired pictures of heroes like old Alexander Nevski or images of resistance ("optimistic tragedy") and triumphal recovery. Rare (but not in this volume!) are images like Yekaterina Zernova's flowery, dewy-eyed welcome in Collective Farmers Greeting a Tank (1937). A list of ten unillustrated and unquoted painters and poets (134) of "Dream Factory Communism" leaves readers empty-eyed. Bohm-Duchen rightly compares Soviet and American pastoral and "patriotic appeal[s] to historical precedents" (137). Neither in Allied countries, nor in National Socialist Germany, of course, did artists picture the horrific Shoah (146), a process of racial annihilation so vicious that it defied belief even after its photographic documentation.

The Italian Fascists were more laissez-faire than one might have expected: because many Italian artists felt spiritually aligned with Mussolini, collusion was relatively painless. Exponents of Futurismo and Aeropittura were spouting a militaristic and misogynist rhetoric even before Il Duce came to prominence. Ernesto Thayaht's The Great Pilot (1939; pl. 7.3) beautifully captures the prevailing macho spirit of conquest, power, and robotic political obeisance. Italian abstraction did not seem "degenerate" to Mussolini, who lacked strong artistic prejudices. (The painter/aesthete Hitler deemed him a "fathead" about painting [268n.1]). Indeed, Mussolini rejected the Nazis' roadshow of "degenerate art" that included Futurism (164). Ferruccio Vecchi's large bronze (1939/40), Empire Springs from the Mind of Il Duce (pl. 7.9), today appears even more fatuous than its title. Mussolini's recognizable head features in both hagiographic images and caricatures like, for example, Tono Zancanaro's Long Live Gibbo! (pl. 7.14)

German war art privileged "valour, fortitude and readiness for combat...—heroic masculinity" (173). The author catalogues various Nazi-controlled art journals, all glorifying der Führer as warrior and artist, demanding self-sacrifice of the common man. The thief who pillaged the riches of European art posed as the savior of civilization. Every field army had a Propaganda Kompanie of writers, photographers, and artists (178). The United States confiscated much of the Third Reich's German art, as both spoils and historical documents, but an embarrassing controversy still surrounds oil paintings glorifying the Hakenkreuz (swastika) aesthetic. The US government ultimately returned many of these hot-potato paintings to the unenthusiastic Germans and kept others, which are hardly ever exhibited. Some German paintings, not submitted for army work or pay, evince a pensive individualism, but seldom depict the victims of Nazi imperialism, aggression, and mass murder (188).[8]

Art and the Second World War also examines works that Jewish artists produced surreptitiously in death camps.[9] Creativity had many impulses, but the pitiless terror and unimaginable horror and filth of the camps confound easy explanations for limning images of better times past. The author claims thirty thousand works of such art survive, perhaps a tenth of what prisoners produced in hellish conditions of torture and deprivation (of art materials as well as food and clothes), in the face of both casual and methodical killing. Drawing was punishable by death (193). The daring death-camp artists rarely depicted the shame and vulnerability of nakedness. Louis Ascher managed to draw a loaf of bread (1944; now at Yad Vashem); Waldemar Nowakowski produced a haunting watercolor of a Nazi holding a pistol to the head of an infant at Auschwitz (pl. 9.3–4).

The chapters on China's resistance to Japanese conquest and Japan's "holy war" to establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere shed light on an aspect of World War II less familiar to American eyes. Internal conflicts between the corrupt Chinese nationalists (Kuomintang) and the ruthless communists complicated efforts to fight the invading Japanese. Woodcuts lucidly expressed Chinese suffering in Nanking, Manchuria, and elsewhere. The Chinese government(s) on the defensive set up a National Salvation Cartoon (Manhua) Propaganda Corps. The imperialist Japanese, after atomic attacks forced their surrender, by a "wilful amnesia," cast themselves as victims of the war (227) that they had started against China, Britain, the United States, and other enemies of the Axis. From motives of conformism, opportunism, or sincere belief (231), Japanese artists generally complied with the mandates of the state propaganda apparatus. If artists wanted paintbrushes or canvases, or to exhibit their work, at least from 1943 they had to belong to the Patriotic Society of Japanese Art. Mitsuru Suzuki's After Graduation Japanese Student Pilots Depart for the Front (1943–44; pl. 11.5) exhibits the patriotic fervor of diploma-holding kamikaze war-fodder. Unlike Hitler and Mussolini in their autocratic regimes, Emperor Hirohito was never depicted. Some of the Japanese paintings show a delicacy absent from the other national traditions (see, e.g., pl. 11.12: Arai Shori's 1943 Maintenance Work aboard Aircraft Carrier). Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the occupying powers in Japan after the war, promulgated decrees (the Occupation Press Code) in September 1945 forbidding the display of art that might "disturb public tranquility" (249); even the Japanese characters for "atomic bomb" could not be printed. The American authorities confiscated as much of Japanese war art as they could find in 1951, although they eventually returned most of it.

The chapters on the Nazi war against their defenseless citizens and the Allies' atomic eradication of entire Japanese cities explore the taboos imposed on the artistic representation of intentional killing. World War II artists sought to create images "often founded on established tropes" of painters like Jacques Callot, Francisco Goya, Eugène Delacroix, and Théodore Géricault in order to contend with old and new ways of wounding and killing civilians. Indeed, Picasso's iconic Guernica (1937) inspired many attempts to influence public opinion by portraying "the secular massacre of the innocents" (9).

Her laudable aim of comprehensiveness sometimes results in a hard-breathing jog through examples that the author can discuss only superficially. She pauses briefly to examine the origin and meaning of a particular work of special significance, like Salvador Dali's Autumnal Cannibalism (1936; pl. 1.14), but whole countries and continents go unmentioned. Polish painters appear only in the chapter on the Shoah. There is no analysis of art from Africa or South America, nor from Greece, the Netherlands, Algeria, Ethiopia, or other fascist-overrun states. Nonetheless, for the times and places she does survey, Monica Bohm-Duchen has produced a carefully crafted book[10] as valuable as it is disturbing.

[1] An online virtual tour is available. The museum's holdings include many posters, an autographed picture of David Lloyd George inscribed "with admiration" to Hitler, a prisoner's pink triangle on a six-pointed star patch sewn to striped camp cloth, and US Army signs directing "white" and "colored" soldiers to separate showers.

[2] E.g., Philip Evergood's horrifying 1946 work Renunciation (254) and Peter McIntyre's Wounded at Cassino (1944), which was "so iconic that it was turned into a postage stamp" (74).

[3] A little hunting online will uncover many of the omitted images, e.g., Wounded at Cassino.

[4] Both still bestselling posters at the Rockwell Museum in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

[5] Cf. Wendy L. Wall, Inventing the "American Way": The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (NY: Oxford U Pr, 2008).

[6] Howard Brodie, Execution (pl. 4.18).

[7] Present location "unknown," interestingly.

[8] This excludes caricatures of the Jews and photographs of round-ups and executions, individual and en masse.

[9] See further, on a related topic, Bohm-Duchen, ed., After Auschwitz: Responses to the Holocaust in Contemporary Art (London: Lund Humphries, 1995).

[10] A detailed chronology and helpful country-by-country bibliography complement an essential index.

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