Illustration Chronicles explores a history of illustration through the images, illustrators and events of the past 175 years. By selecting one work from each year, the site explores the contexts in which illustration has existed and picks a unique topic every few months to highlight the diversity of the discipline. This – our fourth selection in the series – looks at illustration's relationship with war and presents a variety of ways in which illustrators have approached and reacted to it as a subject.
Our impulse to wage war is as old as our impulse to make art. At first, these two activities seem to stand in direct opposition – one symbolising our desire to destroy and the other symbolising our need to create. On first impressions, they may seem to be in direct opposition to one another. Yet, is this separation really that clear cut? Are war and art truly polar opposites, or do they have more in common than we might initially think?
In this essay, we'll look at some examples of art's relationship to war, and explore how this relationship has developed, changed and evolved over the centuries. Specifically, we'll look at how history has depicted war and try to examine the reasons behind why such images were made.
Our first example of this dates back more than four-and-a-half thousand years and comes from the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Iraq. Consisting of a wooden box inlaid with mosaic, the Standard of Ur (c. 2600–2400 BCE) presents two central scenes. The first – dubbed "peace" – shows a banquet with a king, guests, music and an animal procession. On the reverse, we see a far less joyous scene – it is one of humanity's very first depictions of war. Here, the king is once again central to the narrative, but, this time, he stands at the centre of the scene, commanding the Sumerian army. We can tell that he is not only in possession of bodyguards, soldiers, and four-wheeled chariots – but also that he has several prisoners who are bound and beaten.
While the original purpose for this image remains enigmatic, it's clear to see that the waging (and winning) of war was already a central part of our understanding of power. As former British Museum director Neil MacGregor puts it: the Standard of Ur shows a “superb and alarming early illustration of the military-economic axis”. More than four-and-a-half thousand years ago, we had already decided that this enterprise was a useful way to feed our desire for wealth and power.
Throughout much of history, war is shown as neither barbaric nor immoral. Indeed, it is frequently presented as something to revere and worship. We see examples of this repeatedly within early civilizations, with many cultures being quick to associate the act of war with the divine. The god of war is a figure that repeats in many ancient cultures, from Nergal (Mesopotamia) and Montu (Egypt); to Ares (Greece) and Odin (Norse).
In Rome, the god Mars was so highly revered that his importance ranked only second to that of Jupiter – the king of the gods. Throughout much of the year, festivals and rituals were held to praise him, and in October, a large celebration would take place both in his honour and as a way to mark the beginning of the Empire's annual military campaign.
This divine worship led to the Roman Empire becoming one of the most powerful military forces in history. They were eager to celebrate this achievement, and they often did so through art and stories. Arguably, the most impressive example of this is seen in Trajan's Column (107–113 CE). Often cited as one of the oldest examples of a visual narrative, this 35-meter high monument commemorates Emperor Trajan's victories in the Dacian Wars (101–102 CE and 105–106 CE).
Through a detailed sequence of one-hundred and fifty-five carved bas-reliefs, this column seems to be the embodiment of the old adage that "history is written by the victors". This illustrated story is presented as a tale of conquest; it's a bloodless victory where wartime horrors are downplayed and battle scenes are nearly nonexistent. This was no accident. The column had been constructed for the people of Rome, and it was used as a tool for propaganda. It presented war not as a bloody and gruesome activity but as a noble enterprise that helped expand the Empire. The Romans understood that art had the power to push a political ideology and, for that reason, art quickly became an integral part of Roman life.
Another example that emphasises the idea of war as a noble enterprise is seen in the Bayeux Tapestry (c.1070). Made in the late eleventh century – this Romanesque embroidery illustrates the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England. An important example of sequential graphic storytelling, it was made to honour William the Conqueror's victory at the Battle of Hastings (1066).
Unlike Trajan's Column, the brutality of war is slightly more evident here. In battle scenes, we can see depictions of men and horses that are strewn dead across the lower areas of the image. Yet, despite these horrors, this work would have also served as a form of political propaganda. It chronicles the strength of the Normans and recognises that many men gave their lives to serve this important moment in history.
Throughout history, we can see plenty of examples of people turning to art as a means to document and preserve the accomplishments of their people. A good example of this can be seen in Japanese gunki monogatari (or "war tales"). Produced primarily between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, these tales would often come in three main forms: written, oral and illustrated.
The Tale of Heiji is one such example, and below we can see a detail of it in its illustrated form. Drawn on a series of long handscrolls – known as emakimono – these works start and end with a small written account of the tale followed by a detailed sequential drawing.
It is difficult to decipher how accurate these tellings are, and – while based on fact – storytellers and artists would have certainly taken some dramatic licence in their telling. Scrolls like this would have been a very effective way to preserve history, but they were also a useful tool for men to grow their reputation and be thought of as strong and powerful leaders.
The medium of the handscroll itself would have initially come east to Japan by way of China in the sixth and seventh centuries. During the thirteenth century, China's influence also travelled west – this time by way of Mongol conquests. While the invasion of Persia had a devastating human and economic effect on the country, the patronage of the Mongols allowed for art – and particularly book art – to flourish.
Over time, miniature painting became a significant genre in Persian art – with rich and complex scenes depicting religious, mythological and historical themes. The patronage of the work is often clearly evident in the subject matter. The image below is a detail from a scene that celebrates the Siege of Damascus (1400) – a relentless and bloody attack that saw the city captured by the powerful ruler Timur, and its citizens either taken into slavery or brutally beheaded. It is a horrifying moment in the country's history, and yet, its depiction here is arguably shown as a rather beautiful scene.
While artists in the Middle East were producing these bold, energetic and highly ornamental works, an artist in Switzerland was also making work that felt bold and energetic. His name was Urs Graf (1485–1529), and while the Persians used small brushes to paint their scenes, Graf chose to simply express his vision through drawing (a medium that, up until this point, was held with very little regard).
During the Renaissance, soldiers had become a popular subject matter for artists and Graf was no exception. Yet, what is unusual in his case is that, in addition to making art, he himself also worked as a soldier.
Life as a soldier of fortune was common for many Swiss men during the sixteenth century, but none of them documented military life quite like Graf. His work never shied away from the violence of battle and his depictions of soldiers often showed them in a less than heroic light.
Yet Graf's depictions were in the minority, and as the Renaissance developed, the spectacle of war continued to be seen as a cause for celebration. Graf's grotesque drawings sit in striking contrast to the epic grandeur of something like The Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529) by Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480–1538). This scene depicts a battle from 333 BCE in which Alexander the Great's Hellenic League defeated Darius III's Achaemenid Empire.
Despite the historical backdrop of this work, the soldiers are painted in armour from the sixteenth century. Some historians are quick to suggest that the reason for this anachronism is to draw a parallel between this historic event and a similar conflict that was arising between Europe and the Ottoman Empire at the time it was made. Others feel that the artist intended to suggest that history repeats itself; and that there exists no fundamental difference between the battles of our past and the battles of today.
It is difficult to know exactly how Altdorfer himself would have wished for this work to have been interpreted, but – as we travel closer to the present day – we can start to see more examples of images that carry a much clearer intention.
One of the strongest examples of this can be seen in the work of Jacques Callot (c.1592–1635). Born in the Duchy of Lorraine, Callot was a baroque printmaker and draftsman who is best known for producing a series of etchings known as The Great Miseries of War (1633). Based on the devastating impact that Louis XIII's troops had on Callot's home state during The Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), Callot's series of eighteen etchings have been called the first "anti-war statement" within European art.
Up until this point, it is difficult to find examples of artworks that actively take a stance against war and Callot's work stands out as a rare example. Despite being commissioned by the courts of Lorraine, France and Spain – as well as by a string of noted publishers – it would seem that this work was not a commission. For this reason, it is assumed that he selected the subject matter himself. When it was first published, The Thirty Year War had been raging for fifteen years, and Callot's intention would surely have been to inflame political passions. Sadly, the war would go on to be known as one of Europe's deadliest and most destructive conflicts, and Callot's work stands as a striking reminder of this great horror.
After Callot, we tend to see more examples of work that actively opposes war. The reason for this is manyfold. Certainly, the invention of print in the fifteenth century brought about a whole new culture within image-making. Pictures could now be easily shared, sold and even hidden when required, and print became the go-to medium for the distribution of ideas. The print revolution marks a moment in time when artists could start to begin to assert independence over the images that they were producing.
A second factor within this change is the role of the Enlightenment. This intellectual and philosophical movement encouraged a rational approach to social and political issues within eighteenth-century Europe. Tolerance, reason and humanity became the three fundamental principles during this era, and a new shift in perspective radically shaped the mindsets of many artists. These new principles quickly turned to revolution, and revolution quickly turned to violence. Yet, the social framework for these ideals had already firmly taken hold when violence erupted.
One artist who was vividly drawn to this type of thinking was the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya (1746–1828). An admirer of Callot, Goya's The Disasters of War (1810–1820) is now often considered to be one of the most significant works of anti-war art ever made.
A protest against the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808, Goya's poignant observations highlight the extreme suffering and violence that the war brought. Much like Callot, this body of work is a powerful record of the atrocities of war. The grim realism of his images has led many critics to consider this work a precursor to war photography.
Interestingly, less than forty years after Goya completed this series, photographers were already beginning to appear on the battlefield. Art still continued to both glorify and oppose war – but there was now a new eagerness for artists, image-makers, photographers and illustrators to play a role in documenting these conflicts.
The first official attempt at war photography was made by the British government at the start of the Crimean War (1853–1856). While the technology was still in its infancy, another technology was already revolutionising image-making. Advances in lithography were making illustrated newspapers cheaper and easier to produce and artists were being sent on assignments to document events, illustrate stories and bring images from the world directly to the people.
One such artist was William Simpson (1823–1899). He was eager to create the most accurate illustrations he could, and when an invitation arose for him to travel to Crimea as the world's first War Artist he jumped at the chance. Little did he know what horrors lay in store for him. It is his story that will be our first in-depth stop on this exploration of war and illustration. ⟶