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War Paint

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Theodore K. Rabb. The Artist and the Warrior: Military History through the Eyes of the Masters. Yale University Press. 288 Pages. $45.

War brings out the best and the very worst in man: Heroism, self-sacrifice, and endurance among the virtues; cruelty, cowardice, and treachery among the vices. Add color and spectacle and it is little wonder that war has inspired artists throughout history. When it comes to heroics, Jacques-Louis David’s colossal canvas Bonaparte Crossing the St. Bernard Pass delivers, and then some: In his portrait, which was ordered by the king of Spain, David shows Napoleon as the warrior superhero, astride a rearing stallion, his windswept cloak clinging to his body, and with the names of his predecessors Hannibal and Charlemagne carved in the rock face. Never mind that in reality, Napoleon had to resort to a lowly but surefooted mule for the descent, and, losing patience, at one point even got off to slide on his rear.

Early in the year 1800, Napoleon’s career was in urgent need of repair: As a result of Nelson’s destruction of the French fleet, Napoleon’s expeditionary force was still stuck in the sands of Egypt, where shamefully he had abandoned it. The Austrians were on the move in Italy. But with his surprise move across the Alps, ending in his victory over Baron Melas, the Austrian commander, at Marengo, he was back in business. To celebrate this feat, David was forced to work from a dummy, as Napoleon had proved unwilling to pose, but understandably, when Napoleon saw the finished work, he promptly requested three copies for himself.

At the other end of the spectrum we find Francisco Goya’s 82 prints, titled Disasters of War, from the Peninsula War: In 1807, the French and the Spaniards had invaded Portugal to eject the Brits, but it did not take long for Napoleon to betray his Spanish allies and become an occupier. His troops were living off the land, which makes sense when you have a huge army to feed, but does not endear you to the locals. The Spaniards responded by waging “guerrilla” war, little war, the origin of that term.

The attacks triggered savage reprisals from the French troops, and Goya’s prints show the sufferings of the civilian population. They feature nameless victims, priests being murdered, women being raped, people dying of famine or facing execution. Thus plate 37, This Is Worse, shows a mutilated body, its arms missing, impaled on a tree trunk; the figure brings to mind a classical marble torso — and indeed Goya partly relied on a sketch of the Belvedere torso in Rome — except this version is flesh and blood. A few prints show French soldiers being hacked to death. The message is that war is hell: Though Goya’s sympathy lies with his countrymen, heinous deeds are committed by both sides.

The contrasting ways of representing war, as highlighted by the examples above, are examined in Theodore K. Rabb’s crisp The Artist and the Warrior: Military History through the Eyes of the Masters. Originally, the two protagonists in the book’s title coexisted peacefully, with the artist celebrating the deeds of the soldier, but over the centuries the relationship has developed into one of “skepticism and even antagonism” on the artist’s part,” which Rabb, perhaps a little too readily, accepts as “the natural relationship between these two very different occupations.”

As he makes clear in the foreword, owing to the fluctuating quality of the works that various wars have inspired, he bases his selections on artistic merit and concentrates on the masterpieces, rather than taking his point of departure in the historical event itself. This means that just because a historical event is important, say Trafalgar or Waterloo, this does not automatically ensure its inclusion, as Napoleon no doubt would be relieved to hear.

The roman artists certainly knew how to honor military heroes, including one not their own, Alexander the Great, who defeated the Scythians and the Parthians and went all the way to India, and who all subsequent military men strove to emulate. The Alexander Mosaic, found in Pompeii and now housed in the Museum of Naples, shows Alexander in full attack while a wild-eyed king Darius is in frantic flight looking back over his shoulder. Though parts are missing, with its forward sweep, the mosaic conveys the idea of Alexander as an irresistible force, scything everything in his path.

Among emperors of the homegrown variety, Rabb chooses the six-foot marble statue of Augustus found in 1883 in the ruins of his wife Livia’s villa in Prima Porta, outside Rome, which has Augustus dressed in military garb and with arm outstretched, in the act of addressing his troops. Rabb notes the calm and relaxed pose of the figure: The statue oozes self confidence. Augustus’s breast plate features two sphinxes, referring to his victory over Mark Antony in the battle of Actium. His consular baton symbolizes the legitimacy of his power, and his bare feet underscore his divine status: He is the embodiment of the authority of the Rome.

The model for all later man-on-horseback statues is also found in Rome: the eleven-foot bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, most of whose reign was taken up battling the Germanic tribes. Though not in military garb, his gesture is still that of the conqueror, notes Rabb, and the artist has deliberately made him bigger than his horse proportionally. Quite a lot bigger, actually — one step further and the effect would have been comic, like Clint Eastwood on his mule in A Fistful of Dollars. As it is, this is one emperor unlikely ever to be thrown by his horse.

Of monuments marking Roman victories, the Titus and Constantine triumphal arches speak for themselves, but the most impressive architectural feat is still Trajan’s column, constructed from twenty drums of marble, which immortalizes his two wars against the Dacians. What is fascinating about it, notes Rabb, is that it combines celebration with reportage and includes every aspect of the warfare, including the digging of moats and building of fortified encampments, the crossing of the Danube by a bridge constructed by boats, and the performance of religious sacrifices.

The emperor himself is shown in a wide variety of situations — addressing his troops, interrogating a prisoner, and receiving the severed heads of Dacian warriors — while the defeated king Decebalus is about to commit suicide by slitting his throat. It is safe to say that the Romans weren’t big on compassion: Vanquished barbarian enemies were taken in triumph, sold as slaves, trained as gladiators, or put to work in the mines. That was only their just desserts for having opposed the might of Rome.

Drawing on ancient classical models and adding some touches of its own, the Renaissance produced its share of impressive warrior images, many of them inspired by the wars between the Italian city-states. Of all the equestrian statues in the world, Rabb singles out Andrea del Verrocchio’s monument to Colleoni as the most impressive in its portrayal of naked power. Colleoni was a soldier of fortune who became captain-general of Venice: The statue, placed outside the church of Santi Giovanni è Paolo, shows him tall in the saddle, single-minded and unshakable in his purpose. One almost senses the peasants bowing their heads in submission as he passes.

At this point Rabb registers a slight shift, as additional attributes show up in the portrayal of the warrior. The duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro, who in one of his campaigns had been up against Colleoni, certainly had the battle scars to prove his valor, including a lost eye. But Montefeltro was no mere soldier. He had an impressive library and was a patron of the arts. An early Renaissance portrait by Pedro Berruguete shows Montefeltro absorbed in a book while Piero della Francesca, in an altarpiece, shows him deep in prayer. Montefeltro is the scholar- soldier, proving that that guts and brains are perfectly compatible.

The same aspects are stressed in Donatello’s bronze statue of David in Florence, which turns the Old Testament story into a contemporary comment on the Medicis’ struggle with the Viscontis of Milan: As Robb notes, the Visconti emblem featured a crown with feathered wings, and Goliath’s winged helmet clearly makes him a Visconti warrior. But David is no triumphalist victor thumping his chest. With his foot resting on Goliath’s severed head, he is lost in thought, and again conveys the Renaissance ideal of mind and muscle combined.

But according to Rabb, the truly revolutionary change occurs in the 16th and 17th centuries, when gunpowder is transforming warfare, making it less a test of individual bravery and skill, and hence a less ennobling affair and one less worthy of the artist’s admiration. War was becoming impersonal, and death random.

Religious wars and civil wars are considered the most ferocious: The Thirty Years War devastated whole regions of Europe, with Germany losing as much as one third of its population, and “split apart the long tradition of unstinting praise for the warrior,” writes Rabb. From now on, the focus increasingly centers on the inhumanity of war, and on its victims, be they innocent civilians or crippled soldiers.

Rabb sees Pieter Breughel as the prophet of this new vision with his painting The Massacre of the Innocents, in which the biblical scene has been transferred to Europe. It shows Spanish troops, tasked with suppressing the Dutch protestant revolt, entering a Flemish village and killing Flemish children with ruthless abandon on a winter’s day. As Rabb notes, a version of the painting was later bought by Rudolf II, the Habsburg emperor who was Philip II’s nephew and an admirer of Breughel. However, as he found Breughel’s motif a little too critical of his uncle, he had the children painted out and animals put in instead, turning it into a mere scene of plunder, a kind of Massacre of the Innocents-lite.

While Titian would still do his Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto celebrating Philip II‘s victory over the Turks, with a chained and sorry looking Turkish prisoner at Philip’s feet, Diego Velazquez, some 60 years later in his Surrender of Breda, shows himself subtly in tune with the new spirit. His depiction of the Spanish commander-in-chief Ambrogio Spinola presents him accepting the surrender of the Dutch leaders. But significantly, the latter are not treated like the vanquished Roman foes on Trajan’s column or like the unhappy, hog-tied Turk in Titian’s painting; rather, they are accorded courtesy and respect. The emphasis here, Rabb notes, is on “gentleness and reconciliation.”

More direct is Horrors of War by Peter Paul Rubens, who in the past had not shown himself averse to portraying martial glory, but here, in a commission by the grand duke of Tuscany, paints Mars ready to go on a rampage as he tears himself loose from the embrace of Venus and is dragged along by Fury. Pestilence and Famine join the party. At the bottom, a terrified mother clutches a child; an architect, compass in hand, has been knocked over; and under Mars’s feet lies a trampled book, proof that war is the destroyer of art and architecture, of civilization itself, as Rubens carefully explained in a letter.

But as perhaps the most intriguing proponent of the changed view Rabb picks Jacques Callot, the baroque printmaker and draftsman from the independent Duchy of Lorraine, which was invaded by Louis XIII’s troops during the Thirty Years War. At first glance, Callot’s series of seventeen etchings The Miseries of War, measuring only 8 to 9 centimeters by eighteen to nineteen centimeters, seem rather innocuous in their elegant workmanship. Then you take a closer look.

Carrying titles like Pillage of a Cloister and Plunder of a Village, they record the misdeeds of a group of marauders terrorizing the countryside; they engage in an orgy of rape and murder until finally being brought to justice. Number 11, The Hanging, is the most horrific: It shows a tree full of looters strung up for their misdeeds, with the army looking on. On the side, a condemned man is given the final blessing by a monk, on the other side two thieves play dice on a drum to decide who is next for the hangman’s rope. Underneath is a text written in French: “In the end, these infamous and lost thieves hanging like evil fruit from the tree, prove that the crime, terrible and dark as it is, is also the instrument of shame and revenge, and that it is the destiny of evil men to incur, sooner or later, the justice of the heavens.”

As art historian Diane Wolfthal has pointed out, it is not so much war as such that Callot opposes but its abuses: In Callot’s day, looting was deemed acceptable, but in certain cases exceptions could be made: Clergy, travelers, women, and children were not to be harassed — and these are the very ones who appear in Callot’s prints being brutalized by the marauders. By contrast, the virtuous soldiers are shown being rewarded by the king.

The shock effect deriving from the contrast between detached style and violent content in Callot’s prints brings to mind the 2000 installation Hell, by the British Chapman Brothers, consisting of nine model landscapes with some 5,000 miniature toy soldiers. Normally toy soldiers are associated with childhood innocence, but here the tableaux formed a swastika and were peopled by Nazi troops torturing and butchering Russian soldiers, operating gas ovens, and crucifying prisoners. When destroyed by warehouse fire in 2004, the installation was reconstructed as F—-g Hell, and has by now multiplied into 30,000 tiny creatures of evil.

According to rabb, in the period 1640–1800, warfare became more restrained and drill and discipline were stricter — signs of the military’s greater integration in the state. “We must be most careful to leave the peasants with enough grain not only to live, but to sow their ground for another harvest, particularly if we have reason to think that the next campaign will be waged in the same area,” wrote French cavalry Brigadier Turpin de Crisse in 1754, displaying enlightened self-interest. Much energy was spent on what Rabb terms “territorial jockeying.” During this period painters of course would still paint battles and successful commanders, but in muted form, and often displaying “documentary instinct” rather than the passion Rabb requires from a masterpiece; they therefore get short shrift. A little too short, perhaps: What’s wrong with Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe?

But passion returned with a vengeance with Jacques-Louis David and the French Revolution, which saw the emergence of revolutionary nationalism and huge armies. As the chief proponent of revolutionary ardor, David started out by painting ancient Roman and Greek heroes from the days of the republic to serve as the model for the revolution. He became its chief choreographer, creating spectacle and costumes and he backed it in its most virulent form, portraying Marat, the nastiest of its pamphleteers, as a murdered martyr in his bathtub, complete with religious iconography.

When the revolution had devoured its own, David switched to glorifying Napoleon, the Hitler of his day, but according to Rabb, his portrait of Bonaparte traversing the Alps represents “the final flourish” in a long heroic tradition. Not that there haven’t been plenty of men on horseback since, both paintings and statues, but, says Rabb, they appear tame by comparison.

From this point on, the victim takes center stage: “The future (at least in the creation of masterpieces) was to belong to the Goyas, not the Davids,” Rabb writes. Goya is believed to have based his Disasters of War on Callot’s Miseries, but, as Wolfthal has noted, they are more direct in their effects, employing as they do fierce clashes of light and darkness, distortion and close-ups. They were not, however, published until the 1860s, more than three decades after his death in 1828, perhaps because Goya did not want to alienate his establishment customers in the Bourbon dynasty.

Of Goya’s oils, the most revolutionary is The Third of May 1808, a night scene in which French soldiers by lantern light execute Spanish rebels. The central prisoner, dressed in a white shirt, his arms outstretched, strikes a Christ-like pose, and Rabb sees the painting as representing the “the beginning of modern art.” Thus Goya’s influence is immediately apparent in Manet’s portrayal of the execution of Emperor Maximilian, where street urchins on top of the wall watch the scene in amusement like spectators at a puppet theatre, while behind the firing squad, the sergeant in charge fiddles with his rifle, displaying an attitude of massive unconcern.

In the 20th century, the horrors on the battlefield reached new heights. During World War I, John Singer Sargent, otherwise known for his elegant society portraits, was asked by the British government to visit the front and record his impressions. Rabb highlights Gassed as the true masterpiece of that war. Recalling Breughel’s rendering of the biblical parable in his painting The Blind Leading the Blind, Gassed shows a line of nine soldiers, all blinded, each with the hand on the shoulder of the one before him, and guided along by a corporal. In the foreground the wounded are strewn, and to the left another line of blinded soldiers arrives.

From the same war, Rapp mentions C.R.W. Nevinson’s Paths of Glory — the title a reference to Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard, where “the paths of glory lead but to the grave” —  which shows two lifeless Tommys before the German barbed wire, and which was banned by the censors. On the German side, Rabb selects George Grosz’s savage caricature The Card Players of maimed veterans at the gambling table with various body parts missing. A fitting memorial to the carnage of World War I is found in Sir Edward Lutyens’s austere red brick Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, which has turned the triumphal arch into a monument of sorrow.

Rabb ends his book with Picasso’s Guernica from the Spanish Civil War: Movies have now taken over as the chief renderer of war, and he singles out Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, which centers on the mutiny of French soldiers in 1917 and the execution of three of them, as the cinematic successor to Goya’s Disasters of War.

Invariably, in any book of this kind, one may quibble with some of the author’s omissions. David’s younger contemporary Theodore Gericault’s first major effort, The Charging Chasseur, from 1812, comes to mind: The painting features an officer of the Imperial Guards on a wildly rearing gray steed with a magnificent leopard saddle blanket, twisted in the saddle to fend off of some unseen enemy — surely the ultimate rendering of the white-hot passion of battle. But Gericault merits only a single sentence in the book, his art dismissed as “done in an elegiac mood, lamenting the end of Napoleonic glory.” Among the pacifist efforts, one misses Otto Dix’s World War I triptych War, with the main panel showing a rotting landscape over which a decomposed body in a shredded uniform hovers like some hideous angel of death, pointing the way to hell.

More generally, since Rabb has made plain his approach from the beginning, one cannot blame him for sticking to it. But the flip side of restricting yourself to masterpieces is that the selections become a little too predictable, and, as Rabb himself freely acknowledges, leave out whole swathes of military history. In addition to the 1640–1800 period mentioned above, there is nothing from the British Empire during the Victorian period, a not unimportant period in world history, but unfortunately not one distinguished by great art.

But the question one would have liked the book to probe more critically is where the artist’s by now reflexive concern for victims has led him — indeed, how well qualified the artist has shown himself to be when it comes to weighing matters of war and peace. Though routinely ascribed godlike gifts of intuition and insight, there are, after all, plenty of artists whose grasp of reality has been tenuous at best, and who have displayed double standards to an alarming degree. Just as one would hate to take one’s political guidance from the heroic efforts produced from David, magnificent though they are, so one would decline to be led by Pablo Picasso, recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize, who passionately condemned fascist crimes in Spain but was perfectly happy to lend his name to the communist cause until his death in 1973.

This issue becomes especially important in a democratic age: Surely, there is a difference between the wars of the past, where autocratic rulers fought it out among themselves with little consideration for those paying the price, and today’s wars, where democracies take up arms against dictatorships or religious fanatics. Which again leads one to question how “natural” or appropriate the adversarial relationship between the artist and the warrior really is in our own age.

In the post-World War II era, focusing single-mindedly on civilian suffering to the exclusion of every other consideration all too often seems to provide the artist with a convenient excuse for engaging in facile pacifism — occasionally to the point of actively supporting the other side out of some misguided sympathy for the underdog. Such mindless pacifism seems a cop-out, moral cowardice masquerading as high principle. Only a fool would glorify war, but ultimately it is the warrior who guarantees the artist’s right to paint or sculpt or the filmmaker’s right make films as he pleases. And in doing so, the warrior still performs acts of courage and self-sacrifice which merit the artist’s appreciation. The Iwo Jima Memorial proves that it is possible to hit the right note: It does not glorify war, but it portrays the Marines’ grim determination in the cause of freedom. It is the perfect tribute to the democratic warrior.