Friday, January 7, 2011

Combat Art: Worthwhile?

An art genre that has been virtually invisible for decades is Combat Art or War Art -- there's no definitive name for it. In the broadest sense, it can be any art where war is the subject. But for the purposes of this post, I'll narrow things down so that it means works by artists sent into war zones by military organizations for the purpose of recording events they encounter. For background, check out the links here, here and here.

Why combat art? The first link noted above offers a justification by Brigadier General Robert L. Denig, Director of Public Relations for the United States Marine Corps about the time America entered World War 2:

The combat photographer must snap his picture of an action as it happens. If he is busy taking part in the action, as he so often is; if it happens so fast he is unable to adjust his camera in time; if conditions are not good, the action is never recorded- and the picture is never made.

The artist, on the other hand, with his photographic eye, can take part in the action, and then paint any moment of it from memory at his leisure.

The painter can provide his own lighting; he can give a picture any degree of intensity he desires. He can reconstruct a scene from whatever angle he considers most dramatic, centering attention wherever he wishes.

I disagree, for the most part.

The most famous war paintings created before 1850 tended to be done by artists who were seldom witnesses to the events depicted. By mid-19th century, photography had been invented and improved to the point where cameras could be brought to scenes of battles (siege sites, aftermaths of combat), but were too cumbersome to record combat itself. This remained the case up to the time of the Great War. For example, the turn of the century Boer and Spanish-American wars were mostly recorded by sketch artists hired by newspapers and other publications. The Great War marks a transition where photographers and sketch artists coexisted. And by the time of World War 2, photography became the best means of recording warfare visually.

My disagreement with General Denig? I base it on the combat art I've encountered over the years. Nearly all the on-the-spot sort of work is no better than contemporary photography. Most often, the scenes were not actually combat -- instead, they showed the often dull daily life in the military. Furthermore, in my judgment, the really fine depictions of combat from, say, 1940 on have been done after the fact, often by artists who were not on the scene. No change, really, from pre-1850 times.

Although I'm sure I missed a really outstanding example or two, below are examples of Combat Art I found on the Web to document my case:

La Mitrailleuse - Christopher Nevinson, 1915
This is perhaps Nevinson's best-known painting. It abstracts what he possibly viewed in more ways than one.

Self Portrait - Sir William Orpen, 1917
Orpen was a top portrait painter who went to France to depict the Great War. Unfortunately, he totally botched the image of the British "tin plate" helmet; see below for a more accurate treatment.

Marines in France by Harvey Dunn
Although famed illustrator Dunn was in France for the war, I doubt he captured this image on the spot even in sketch form; if this was real combat he stood a good chance of being killed in such a setting and viewpoint.

Gassed - John Singer Sargent - 1919
This mural can be seen at the Imperial War Museum in London. Sargent witnessed this behind-the-trenches event and worked it into the painting, adding details to a quick sketch to make an interesting composition.

Sighting the sun by McClelland Barclay, 1941
Barclay was a successful illustrator in the 1920s and 30s who entered the U.S. Navy as a commissioned officer and war artist. The ships in the background of this painting are not realistically portrayed and the perspective is off. Some of Barclay's painting were used in Navy recruiting posters. Unfortunately, he payed a high price, being lost when his ship was sunk in the Pacific.

Mission briefing by Alex Raymond
Raymond was yet another famous artist before he joined the Marines. Although he did some commercial illustration, he was best known for his comic strips Secret Agent X-9, Jungle Jim and -- especially -- Flash Gordon. The non-combat scene shown here is typical of World War 2 combat art.

Moving Up - Howard Brodie
This Brodie scene, like much WW2 combat art, could just as easily been photographed.

Landing at Saipan - William Draper
Yet another case where the artist probably would have been killed if he actually was in the position suggested by his painting. The marines shown are clearly part of the initial attack wave. Draper would have to have been in a Japanese slit trench or bunker to capture this in person.

Ambush at Saipan - Theo Hios
Here is a sad example of both modernist sensibility and likely absence from the fight shown.

Surprise Attack in the Suburbs of Metz - Alphonse de Neuville
This depicts an event from the Franco-Prussian war. De Neuville was not there. But nevertheless, it is probably the best combat scene in the set of images above.

To summarize, in the era beginning with the development of the compact Leica camera, just about anything a combat artist might have captured directly, a photographer could have done an equally good or better job of recording the event. War paintings of superior artistic quality seem to be generally done much later by men who were not on the scene (though they might have been exposed to war or military life otherwise).


kev ferrara said...

Cameras capture the light reflecting off facts for the brief instant that the aperture is open to capture it.

An experience is so much more than the light bouncing off facts. The point of great narrative art is not to give you the facts, but to give you the sense of the experience, using the facts as needed. Because the experience is more truthful than the facts.

That some viewpoints taken by narrative painters necessarily put the viewer in a position of danger is exactly the point.

Some of the examples you give are rather tame and decorative, and I would say, inappropriate to the task. However, Harvey Dunn's WWI pictures, which reside in the Smithsonian, have the force of experience. Which is why they couldn't be used for their original intended purpose, as propaganda for the war effort.

Donald Pittenger said...

Kev -- What images I posted were dictated by what I could scrape out of the Web. Nevertheless, they give the same impression found in publications I've seen. Basically, "combat art" by men commissioned for the job by the military tended to depict scenes that just as easily could have been photographed, in my opinion.

Dunn is a rare case that proves the rule. As an illustrator he sought emotional connection and impact, and this clearly shows in the image I posted. Even his sketches of behind-the-lines scenes show swagger.

I wonder about the scene I posted. It's remotely conceivable that he was half a block away, hiding in rubble or perhaps peeking through a broken window and saw two Marines patrolling. More likely, he witnessed a training exercise which inspired the painting.

What's interesting from an artistic standpoint is that he doesn't highlight the men, but rather blends them into background and foreground shadow forms.

kev ferrara said...

I always thought that particular Dunn was too design-y -- which cost the picture some experiential force. I don't think it is a factual picture. But, again, it is truthful. There are at least 15 other Dunn pictures from that war that have more force, especially when seen in person.

All Pyle's students could, through the imagination, provide the truth of a scene without providing the facts. Frank Schoonover, for instance, was lauded by WWI veterans for his depictions of battles he was never at …or even near.

Incidentally, (and apologies in advance for a picayune point) but the phrase "proves the rule" has gotten gummed up since it was originally coined. You cannot prove a rule by pointing out an exception to it. This makes no logical sense. The correct usage is "proofs a rule" ... ("proofing" being the test for alcohol purity in the old days when an innkeeper might water down a bottle of gin to make a little extra money.) Thus, Dunn's work tests the rule.

Thanks for the enjoyable blog!


David Apatoff said...

Don, I recognize that much of the most evocative war art is not done on the spot by by eyewitnesses, but by imaginative artists removed from the experience. Stephen Crane, who never saw war but whose book, The Red Badge of Courage, is often cited for its authenticity, is a prime example.

Putting that aside, I think your definition of a war artist as one who is commissioned by the government to put together official images may eliminate some of the most interesting test cases, while focusing on propagandists. Goya, for example, was not commissioned by the government to paint the war but was the prototypical war artist. He did not witness the May 3rd executions, but he was a first hand witness to some of the disasters of wars and was tormented by what he saw. Do you think that showed up in his work?

One "official" war artist I like is Ivor Hele, the Australian artist who was able to satisfy his military clients while simultaneously producing some first class war art from sketches that were made on site, while bullets were flying.

Donald Pittenger said...

David -- Agreed that there are exceptions. But most of the official war art I see in books and the Internet are non-combat scenes of the kind I discussed in the post.

To simplify the post, I didn't deal with artists hired by corporations and publications, the latter probably having war correspondent status.

When combat is in progress, I would assume that it would be difficult for an artist near the action to do more than scribble an occasional sketch -- a photographer with a Leica would do a better job.

From your first two paragraphs, I gather we can agree that the best combat art usually comes from someone who has be in or near the action and can recreate a sense of it back in the studio.

David Apatoff said...

Don, yes we definitely agree that the best combat art is created back in the studio. It seems to be a disappointingly unromantic fact of art that the best work is done a safe distance from the source of one's passionate inspiration. It's a little like sex and art; artists who try to work while their nostrils are still flaring generally produce third rate art. (This is known as the "you can't drool and draw" rule). I guess artists require some distance for reflection.

Joker said...

I'd be interested in your opinion on works by such artists as Alfred Reed, Kerr Eby, and Tom Lea, all of whom saw a great deal of action. Reed followed the Union army during the American Civil War; Eby served as an ambulance driver in World War One and made combat landings with the Marines at Guadalcanal, Bougainville (where he contracted the disease that would kill him shortly after the war); Lea went to war as an artist aboard the USS Hornet, and later experienced Peleilu with the First Marine Division. Eby's combat work on Tarawa consists mostly of charcoal scribblings which he jotted down during the battle, and later turned into more polished pieces. Certainly he and Lea captured the horror of war more than the romanticism, and sometimes (I think) did so more evocatively than the photographers.

I also wanted to point out that Sergeant Theo Hios (Ambush at Saipan) was an enlisted Marine and member of the Fourth Division photo pool - he served with the 24th Marines at Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima (where he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor) as a combat photographer who carried a carbine along with his camera. He saw more than his share of action, yet felt compelled to express his experience in paint as well as film. Though I am not a particular fan of the piece you have listed here, Hios did serve on the front lines at Saipan, and there are many mentions of Japanese ambushes against his regiment. Odds are he did see something very like the action he depicted there; I couldn't say which has more artistic validity - that painting, or a picture of the action.

(Also of interest: Hios did some of his paintings in the field. If you go to this link:

and scroll to page 5, you may see a photo of Hios on Iwo Jima, paintbrush in hand.)

Geoff Roecker

Donald Pittenger said...

Geoff -- Your knowledge of combat artists looks a lot deeper than mine. So I would have to research the names you mention before offering an opinion. That can't be immediately, because the wife and I are driving to California tomorrow morning for her two weeks of watching tennis at Indian Wells.

Thank you for your interest in my posting.

VICTOR said...

Came across this site by accident. Am frankly off put by the glib generalization of combat art. I wish to point out that artists like Howard Brodie (an old friend and mentor) and Kerr Eby actually did draw while the bullets were flying. They also had incredible drawing chops and were able to fill in the details after the fact. Howard in particular had a great visual memory. Brodie's drawing of an execution of a German soldier at the Battle of the Bulge was done right there- it also was the only drawing of his ever censored by the military. The current National Geographic has a very interesting if too short piece on combat artists from the Civil War-called "specials". And contrary to the comment you sort of toss off - these artists did get wounded,did suffer the same ravages as the troops they were covering, were on occasion captured and even died as spies because- well because they were drawing battlefield positions for their reference. Winslow Homer returned a changed person after what he went through covering the Civil War for Harpers.

Camera work takes but a split second- drawings take time and an artist's perspective. There's a discovery process that takes place as the marks are put down in the heat of the moment, a jumble of lines that tell a story. There's a humanity in drawing/painting that is different from photography, a humanity arising from an intimacy with the subject.

Your comment about combat art spending a lot of time covering mundane aspects of military life is true- war is what the cliche says- composed of long stretches of boredom interrupted by bursts of chaos.

Your acknowledgement of Geoff Roecker's deeper knowledge of the subject is also on point. You really should do some more investigation before laying judgement. I'll be passing this posting to my fellow combat artists.

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Dr Pittenger, what a philistine you are!

william wray said...

You forgot the greatest combat artist ever Ivor Hele.