In light of Remembrance Day, last week we explored the profound effect that WWI had on the arts. This week we will look at the artistic movements and pivotal works which were both prompted and accelerated by the events leading up to the commencement of WWII…
This new global conflict launched humanity into a terrifying atomic age, and many artists sought to appeal to humanity and look to the future in a bid to bring an end to the brutality and despair of warfare, which led to the invention new forms of expression. A significant artist influenced by the hostilities of the time was famed Spanish Cubist painter Pablo Picasso. A proclaimed pacifist, Picasso did not fight in the military and so experienced the wars as a civilian. However, he said that the conflict could be clearly seen in his work. In 1937 he painted the powerful piece Guernica - regarded as one of his best known works and, retrospectively, as one of the most acclaimed anti-war paintings in history. It was painted in response to the bombing of Guernica in northern Spain, during the Spanish Civil War, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The massacre, coined ‘a cold-blooded training mission’ was planned as a way of intimidating and terrorising the resistance, whilst testing out ferocious new bombing tactics. The atrocity horrified Picasso and so he created a grotesque, violent and fractured visual representation featuring dismembered bodies, gored steeds, terrified faces, and a fiery inferno. The canvas was monumental in size, intended to dominate and overwhelm the viewer, and its presentation in the fragmented Cubist style of the time perfectly symbolised the destruction and fractured nature of the subject.
After WWII had left the world in turmoil, Picasso created the profound piece La Colombe (Dove of Peace) in 1949, as a way of visually contributing to the disarmament and reconciliation conversation. He later developed the image into a more stylised and powerfully simplistic graphic line drawing, which has since become an iconic symbol of hope and unity, and is still associated as the emblem for the World Peace Council.
As it is often said, art is ‘a mirror we hold up to society’ to help us comprehend the world around us and the events which unfold. So, as the United States began to take a prominent role on the global stage during the Second World War, the visual arts in America were, hence, radically transformed.
At the beginning of WWII, the neutrality laws of the US were still in effect and meant that they could supply arms to European Allies but troops would not be committed. However, by 1941 American President Franklin D Roosevelt would declare that the US should abandon isolationist policies and cited the Four Freedoms (Freedom of speech, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, and Freedom from fear - which were four universal human rights which he believed all people of the world ought to enjoy, as outlined in his State of the Union speech) as a justification for war.
The Four Freedoms were staunchly promoted by the Office of War Information as core American values which exemplified ‘American exceptionalism’. In 1943, American painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell was so inspired by Roosevelt’s speech, that he spent seven months creating his own series of paintings depicting each of the four freedoms. His famous piece Freedom from Want depicts a comforting and abundant homely scene of a family sat around the dinner table, in a positive bid to demonstrate just what there was to fight for, and an effort to advocate the importance of joining the war effort.
Russian born designer Alexey Brodovitch also used the ‘Freedom of Want’ theme in his work of the same name in 1942. He began his career in Paris before going on to revolutionise fashion photography and magazine publications in America, and his Four Freedoms-inspired poster presents a far more sinister viewpoint. It depicts a white hand reaching upward, cradling a mother and child alongside livestock under the safety of shelter, and is contrasted below by a grey hand holding the charred ruins of a home and skeletal remains, and is shackled by a Swastika-emblazoned ball and chain. The image heavily denotes a warning of the catastrophic impact that would befall those who succumbed to Nazi rule, and therefore the urgent need to fight back.
As the power of art became more apparent, authoritarian governments began to both fear and covet its usefulness in spreading propaganda. Sadly, once the Nazi party came to power in Germany, a considerable amount of modern art - particularly surrealist - was stolen, burnt and destroyed under the view that its uncontrollable and so-called deviant nature was a serious threat to fascist, authoritarian, and communist ideologies. Following this ‘cultural cleansing’ Hitler planned a ‘rebirth’ of German culture and society, and sanctioned his own artwork which was conservative, grandiose, and which conveyed solely the ideals of the Nazi regime.
Following the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940, many artists currently residing there - and in other European cities - were prompted to seek refuge in the United States - largely New York - which initiated a momentous shift in the geographical centre of the art world. Artists like Piet Mondrian, Salvador Dali, and Marc Chagall took with them their abstract, surrealist, and cubist approaches, and their emphasis on illogical placement of elements and exploration of the unconscious. The cultural convergence of these European artists and the younger American painters led to a new style which became known as ‘Abstract expressionism’.
Most notable of this particular movement was American artist Jackson Pollock, who showed his first one-man exhibition in New York’s Art of This Century Gallery, in 1943. To symbolise the severe and devastating effects of war he practised a different way of using paint and presented grotesquely formed figures, combined by both Cubist and Surrealist characteristics. His piece Male and Female (1942) features figures presented in a distinctly cubist style, yet which were inspired by surrealist thinking. He applied the paint in a heavy and rough fashion to form a somewhat agonising expression of his speculation on the emerging global and cultural events. Pollock would go on to be a principle player in developing the movement and in securing the future position of New York as the hub of the modern art world.
The end of WWII in 1945 would also prove a pivotal point in art history, by redefining who could create art. The U.S. enacted the G.I. Bill, which provided veterans returning from the war with a range of benefits, including funding University education, which led to more people studying art and, thus, a greater pool of artistic talent, leading to the subsequent propagation of a ‘revolution of creativity’.