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:
This is perhaps Nevinson's best-known painting. It abstracts what he possibly viewed in more ways than one.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This Brodie scene, like much WW2 combat art, could just as easily been photographed.
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.
Here is a sad example of both modernist sensibility and likely absence from the fight shown.
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).