Visual Arts: How to make insult from injury

There is no easy way to make art out of war. Yet `war art' is a form with which we are profoundly comfortable. Why?

A new exhibition of work by Goya, Dix and Callot explores the contradictions of the anti-war war picture.

Non se puede mirar; "One can't watch this" - that's how Goya captions one of his images of atrocity. A huddled group of civilians, men, women and children, on their knees, weeping, hiding their heads, are begging for life. Their attackers are invisible, off-stage - represented only by the bayonetted muzzles of their rifles, that just poke in at the picture's edge. It's a brilliant, weird and rather show-off trick. The scene, of course, is all too watchable.

Everyone enjoys war art. We feel warmly about it, we settle down comfortably with it, we know what to expect and what we want from it: pity, outrage, fear, a kind of wonder. Its invitations are familiar. Naturally, when I say "war art", I don't mean pictures that celebrate heroic deeds or the splendour and steadiness of the line of battle. I mean pictures that force you, or allow you, to know and see the worst. The worst: for anything less would be a dereliction of duty - or of pleasure. Anti-war art, then? Hmm. Try this show.

Disasters of War offers a feast of the worst. It is a South Bank Touring Exhibition, just arrived at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. It takes its name from the title of Goya's great series of etchings made in the 1810s (a title that always sounds odd in English, with its suggestion of mere mishaps). It includes prints from Goya's Disasters and from two other series also. There's Jacques Callot's Miseries of War, made back in the 1630s, and Otto Dix's War made in the 1920s.

The three sets form a kind of tradition. Goya knew the Callot; Dix knew both his predecessors' work. The three artists were each partly or wholly eye witnesses to what they depicted (Goya sometimes uses the caption "I saw this"; Dix served on the Western Front). Each series contains astonishing visions. Exhibiting them together is obviously a very good idea. This is an essential show. It tours on to Durham and Wolverhampton.

Showing the worst is the common thread here, and likely the first thing we pick up on. At least, scanning Callot's small and incident-packed images, I realised that what mainly led my eyes was the search for something particularly depraved or gruesome, so as to report it. My thinking was that Callot was the least known of these three, and that producing a piquant horror would be the best way to get the unfamiliar reader's interest; to say, here's a serious war-artist. So: in Plundering a Farmhouse, you find the farmer hung up and roasted in his own fireplace.

There's plenty more. Callot provides a kind of catalogue of excesses. A group of scenes showing some typical military atrocities on the civilian population are followed by another group showing the typical punishments meted out to the malefactors (hanging, firing squad, the wheel, the stake). Each image is a wide long-shot. The cruelties are enacted by a crowded cast of spiky, dandified, insectile little figures, with an air of witty malice.

Goya's vision is heavier and blanker. It's an unrelentingly repetitious barbarism he lays out - massacres, rapes, corpse-mutilation - a violence that seems mechanical and gratuitous, and which accumulates without climax or development ("The Same", "Likewise" are common captions).

Dix, on the other hand, offers no scenes of combat or violent action; rather, a series of disconnected visionary flashes, bringing unbelievable sights into view - shell craters lit up by flares at night, corpses strung out on the wire like Christmas decorations, flesh mingling into mud, or caught in incredible tableaux, like the dead man sitting there with plants growing out of his shattered skull as if it were a flowerpot. And we watching viewers, where do we stand? Are we saying, "I want this to stop" - or "Show me another, please horrify me some more"?

The dilemma turns up in an odd way. Reading through the catalogue, you notice how a single thought recurs. "There is no need to stress the relevance of these works to the present" (says the curators' introduction), and "Its relevance is as strong today as it was in the circumstances of his time" (the essay on Goya), and "Has anything happened since then to make it irrelevant today?" (the essay on Dix).

It's a curious, double-binding formula, because it's not quite clear if they're praising the artists for being abidingly relevant, or blaming the world for being unteachably warlike. It sounds like they'd ideally want to say: these works are now fortunately quite irrelevant. But they wouldn't really want to say that, would they?

It's telling too that the essay on Callot doesn't claim continuing relevance for him. It's not that his facts are out of date. The savageries he depicts have all been repeated in the Yugoslav wars. It's a matter of attitude. And, true, Callot does seem modern in the way he focuses on suffering and violence as such, aside from issues of partisanship or merit.

However, the decisive difference, the thing that makes Goya's and Dix's wars "recognisable" to us and Callot's not, is that their wars are shown as senseless. Callot's excesses are crimes and punishments, but not madness. Madness, senselessness, meaninglessness: these are the essential aspects of the modern war picture.

In Dix, say, the fact that combat is edited out might sound like a decorum, but actually it's part of a larger omission: no one is shown doing anything militarily useful. All purposes are removed - no fighting, only its effects. The Western Front becomes a holiday in hell.

This tendency is still more pronounced in Goya. In his war, senselessness is a general condition of all action. His figures - be they victims, aggressors, resistors - move somnambulistically. Whatever they do, they stumble into it. The difference between living and dead is only a nuance of inertia. But Dix's war-world is still redeemed by an astonished incredulity - he cannot believe he saw it. And the tarnished vision of humans so prominent in his paintings is usually suspended in these etchings; his soldiers are wretched, but not cockeyed sickos.

In Goya, evil is done and suffered with a blind and helpless predictability. One can hardly say whether his point is that war causes universal dehumanisation; or that war is only the most vivid proof- cum-symbol of humanity's inherent brutishness. His scenes are a reminder that emphasising the "senselessness" of war is a doubtful anti-war gambit - a satisfying insult to war, but a pessimistic doctrine when it comes to keeping the peace. For what could be the cure for senselessness?

Probably the totally anti-war war-picture is an impossible idea, and it's hardly worth calling this an irony, or being extrmely troubled by it. Turning from the heroic paths of glory is one thing. But a humanitarian indictment turns out to require just the same visual support as a theatre of sadism. However you show them, the horrors will be too interesting, too exciting, or too remote, or too inevitable. One shouldn't even expect to find a right way of seeing the subject. But watch on anyway.

`Disasters of War' is at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery; till 4 October, admission free

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high