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