Art History Research Paper: Narratives of War
Select and fully identify four works of art that include images of war. Discuss how each work conveys the narrative and how it describes attitudes towards war. Throughout history, works of art have depicted narratives of war. These images describe not only the events of warfare, but also the general attitudes towards war. Prehistoric warfare prior to the 3rd millennium B.C. was nearly nonexistent, as evidenced by Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic Art. Such works focused on fertility, hunting, and animals. Not until the rise of city-states did art depicting war become common. Attitudes towards war have also changed significantly in the last five millennia: from the power of kings, to the importance of armies, to the focus on individuals, and finally, to a dominant anti-war view in art. Many of these changes took place because of individualist philosophies, sometimes embedded in art. Four images that portray narratives of war are Ashurnasirpal II at war (875 B.C.), The Burning of the Sanjō Palace (13th century A.D.), Death of General Wolfe (1770), and Guernica (1937). Ashurnasirpal II at war is an early example of historical narrative in relief. The 39” high Limestone relief is dated to c. 875 B.C. and shows the Assyrian king leading one of his military campaigns. Ashurnasirpal II was known as both a great general and effective administrator, who often resorted to brutal means to expand the Assyrian empire. He conquered Mesopotamia and what is now Lebanon, violently ended a rebellion in the city of Suru, and forced enslaved captives to build a new Assyrian capital at Kalhu (Nimrud). This relief was located in his palace in Nimrud, which provided a partial biography of the king. In the relief, Ashurnasirpal II is standing in his chariot, leading one of his campaigns to expand his empire. He is drawing a bow at a safe distance, while his officers stab and trample the enemy. The
winged god of Assyria, Aššur, hovers above him, wielding another bow. To the Assyrians, Aššur was the highest god and protector of the Assyrian empire. Stylistically, the relief is somewhat primitive, but successfully uses overlapping perspective and spatial separation to convey the narrative. For example, the king overlaps his officers to highlight his importance. He is also on the very left side of the block, alluding to the fact that he is the initiator of these events. The artist portrays Ashurnasirpal II as a ruthless and powerful king. The narrative itself is fairly simple: the enemy is being crushed; and so is the attitude: the king is all-powerful and great. The imagery is very clear, and the relief is one of the most uncomplicated depictions of war. The Burning of the Sanjō Palace is part of the scrolls depicting the Heiji Monogatari Emaki (Tale of the Heiji Rebellion). The image in Gardner’s Art Through the Ages is only the leftmost part of the scroll, while the crescendo of the work is actually in the middle. The scroll is horizontal, ink and color on paper, and measures 16 ¼” × 23’. It was written during the Kamakura period in Japan and depicts the 1159 A.D. Siege of the Sanjō Palace, a brief armed skirmish in the capital. The scroll is an epic story, and the action unfolds from right to left. During the Heiji disturbance, a faction (led by the allied Fujiwara no Nobuyori and Minamoto no Yoritomo) staged a coup, surrounded the Sanjō Palace at night, captured the sovereign, and set fire to the buildings. The cart carrying the sovereign is shown multiple times in the scroll, along with Nobuyori and Yoritomo, who are also duplicated. The attackers’ primary motives were to bring changes in government. Although the 500-man army succeeded in battle and helped Yoritomo temporarily gain power, they were soon defeated and killed by their rival Kiyomori. The Heiji scroll extends the Chinese landscape scroll style to include action; specifically, this style is called Yamato-e. The action is a very hurried and confusing flow of warriors marching through the scene, crushing the opposition. The leftmost side of the
scroll shows the restoration of peace, as the lone archer brings a close to the turbulent narrative. The approach the artist takes emphasizes the importance of the actual warriors and the necessity of the combat, as they were simply “restoring order.” The Death of General Wolfe is the famous 1770 neoclassical painting by Benjamin West, depicting the last moments of James Wolfe. General Wolfe was the British commander in the battle (part of the Seven Years’ war) and although victorious, he was shot to death by the French. Wolfe’s death aroused considerable feeling in London, and West decided to paint his death just eleven years later. James Wolfe is shown as a modern hero who gave his life for British victory. The scene resembles the theme in Lamentation over the Dead Christ, as Wolfe’s friends surround him and stare solemnly. The clothing West painted was controversial at the time, as he depicted nearly-accurate military uniforms, rather than classical attire. The contemporary clothing was so unusual that King George III refused to purchase the painting, even though West was the official painter to the King. Despite this stroke of historical accuracy, West’s realism is blended with a staged Baroque composition. West’s painting places importance on the consequences of war and its human elements, creating a much more personal picture of war. Picasso’s Guernica (1937) not only described the consequences of war, but was a historic event in itself. Picasso painted his overwhelming emotional reaction to the bombing of Gernika, Spain during the Spanish Civil War. In his own words: “The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. […]In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.”
Guernica is a highly abstracted mural painting, mixing cubism and surrealism. Yet it stays very emotional, as it depicts the death, suffering, and helplessness of civilians. Although Picasso did not paint the immediate causes of this pain, it is almost self-evident: it could only be war. The painting is both a narrative in the sense that it depicts an inevitable stage of war (death), but also because the reaction was a narrative in itself: it remains one of the most successful anti-war images created; a tapestry copy is even displayed at the entrance to the UN Security Council. From the unquestionable actions of kings in Ashurnasirpal II at war to the anti-war imagery in Guernica, art has provided historical and social insights on war. Artists have even been successful in swaying the minds of the public, as Benjamin West created a shift towards historical realism in Death of General Wolfe and Picasso created an anti-war sentiment with Guernica. Attitudes towards war have changed from unquestionable obedience (mostly by necessity) to general openmindedness and anti-war philosophies (though this still varies by the level of strife). Art has both documented war and changed peoples’ attitudes towards the violence it depicts. Bibliography Kleiner, Fred. Gardner's Art Through the Ages. 10th ed. New York: Harcourt, 1996. “Guernica.” Art: A World History. 1st American ed. New York: DK Publishing, 1997. “The Death of General Wolfe.” History of Art. 13th printing. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1968. “Heiji Scroll – Introduction.” Bowdoin College. 2006. 22 Jan 2007.
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