War in Art

The mention of "Soviet art" conjures striking communist propaganda, but as Billy Beck notes in reference to a gallery of Soviet-era paintings of WWII,
Russians--Not Soviets
That's what I see in this collection of "Soviet War Paintings". . . .

Without knowing some of the artists at work in that collection and accounting for their berths in the savage reality of Soviet politics, I see little obvious propaganda in these paintings. I'm no expert but I know what I like and some of the technique runs a bit more toward Impressionism than I ordinarily enjoy, although I must say that the themes are admirably exploited. [bold added]
I agree completely with that assessment, and I thank Billy for that identification. I hope I would have made the same one without his help. As he said, the style of many, if not most, of those paintings is too Impressionistic, and many of the themes are too naturalistic for me, but taken as a whole they are a gripping account of a terrible time. The scenes of soldiers returning home could easily have been American paintings.

One painting in particular struck me, and I stared at it for some time. It's the last in the 1943 group. Click here and scroll down slowly though the paintings depicting that year, until you get to "The Last Letter" by Nemenskiy. The mother and wife sits at the end of the bench, off-center in the painting as if to highlight her desolation, staring blankly, sadly, seeing nothing. The letter, obviously detailing some horrible news -- likely the death of her husband in battle -- is crumpled in her hand, forgotten. Her young son knows what the letter contains without her having to say a word, and he clutches her tightly from behind. Both mother and son are inside their sparse cottage, but are wearing heavy coats and boots against the chill, as heating fuel is scarce and expensive. This is the personal cost of war.

Some paintings evoked the battlefield paintings of earlier centuries. Note how this painting has similarities to so many of the historical paintings shown here.

Another striking thing I noticed in these paintings was how strange it seemed to see tanks and fighter planes in paintings that look so much like the historical paintings of cavalry battles in the Thirty Years War (stylistic differences notwithstanding). This made me question why seeing paintings of tanks should be any different, and of course, it isn't.

After looking at all of the paintings in the gallery, I went searching for a similar gallery of American WWII paintings, and found this. The gallery is a pain to navigate, and I wish it had thumbnails at least, but I highly recommend poking through it. It's from a PBS documentary of U.S. combat artists, described thusly:
During World War II more than 100 U.S. servicemen and civilians served as 'combat artists'. They depicted the war as they experienced it with their paintbrushes and pens. Their stories have never been told, and for fifty years their artwork, consisting of more than 12,000 pieces has been largely forgotten -- until now.
I don't know how these official combat artists compare to the artists compiled in the Soviet gallery, but the American art seems more journalistic to me. Still, very interesting.

Thanks to Billy for sparking this historical, cultural, and artistic vista-widening.


mtnrunner2 said...

Interesting stuff.

I think the better paintings are effective precisely because they are universal, i.e. they could apply to combatants/citizens from any country.

Communist countries are one of the few places that large-scale history painting and romanticism survived during the 20th century. Most of the West succumbed to the self-imposed idiocy known as abstract expressionism, and similar trends.

There is actually a healthy realist tradition in the U.S., even if it isn't romantic. When I lived in NYC, I found quite a few contemporary galleries to enjoy. I've totally lost track of what's going on there, but here are a couple of links to some esteemed galleries/artists that are in the realist tradition (in addition to galleries such as Quent Cordair that may be already known to Objectivists):





I do have to mentally filter out aspects of some of the work (for example Sklarski tends towards environmental messages, even though her technique and compositions are amazing).

avi said...

12000 paintings by 100 artistss makes... one work of art per artist per day. This is absolutely amazing.