Visual art as a means of conveying the suffering and sorrow felt during or after war is a powerful idea and invokes powerful human emotion, as Franciso Goya’s Disasters of War series does. I think there’s a fundamental reason why this is the case; there’s a fundamental, human reason why you can read facts and statistics, even books about pain and death, but art is something that really hits you. Especially art dealing with war and death, one of the articles states it as “a horror at once specific and universal” (Horror is a Constant 2).
Going into more detail, themes like pain caused by war in art are very prevalent in modern and historical contexts. The first article gives an explanation about how a gallery will show a set of works dating from 1800-2014, titled after that famous Goya series, all about the atrocities of war and art related to that. There’s work about Napoleon and the wars he faced, about the horrors in concentration camps, Vietnam; everything relating to war and suffering in art.
Shifting gears, I’d like to think more about why this is the case. Why do we, as humans, have such a strong emotional response to this type of art? Why is it so pervasive in art throughout many centuries? I think there are many reasons. For example, the main ideas that result in war and are a result of war are the same. War begins as a power dynamic, a political play, an economic incident; war begins because one side wants control over something the other side has. However, this is irrelevant to the discussion of pain and suffering as a result of war in art.
A more pragmatic idea to consider, is that the feelings caused by war are universal. There is the feeling of loss; loss can be of personal life, like George Clausen’s Youth Mourning (When Modern Art 3), or it can be the loss of the way of life, loss of security or safety. There is the theme of grief, which can stem from loss. There are the themes of survival, hope, but ultimately there are the themes of pain and suffering that make the art so resonant with us.
I think the main reason the human race keeps going back to war/suffering/art is because art is personal. There is something strikingly personal and human about a 7 year old boy walking past the dead bodies of adults at a concentration camp just after being liberated (Horror is a Constant 4). One article talks about trying to “reconnect with that human experience” (When Modern Art 2) because the numbers just don’t cut it. Talking about statistics and figures about death and suffering is not as powerful as a photo or painting or carving about it.
This is why art about war is so important to our collective culture. We need a way to share the deep and powerful emotion that suffering caused by war creates, and the best way to convey this emotion is through the art that is made about it. It makes it real, it makes it personal, it makes it powerful.