War Continues to Affect Artists, Shape Art

The bloodshed of World War I likely ‘deflowered’ English prose and provided the nightmarish visions that informed surrealist landscapes. Does war affect art? Of course it does—it affects artists.

“What do you think an artist is?” wrote Pablo Picasso. “An imbecile who only has eyes if he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet?...Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world, shaping himself completely in their image.”

War influences artists and, therefore, shapes art. It did with World War I, and it does today with the Iraq War, Afghanistan War and the War on Terror.

World War I: Writers

The Great War changed how artists and others looked at society. Veterans came away disillusioned and cynical; the general public began to question the status quo. As a consequence, literary and artistic styles evolved.

Writers like Hemingway rejected pretty turns of phrase in favor of stripped, unadorned prose—the beauty of which comes more from the impact of the words than from the sounds they make rolling off the tongue.

“From the fiction of Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and John Dos Passos to the savagely critical paintings and etchings of George Grosz and Otto Dix, World War I reshaped the notion of what art is...” reports the Los Angeles Times. “During and after World War I, flowery Victorian language was blown apart and replaced by more sinewy and R-rated prose styles.”


There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

—Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

According to the New York Times, post-1918 war writings carry a number of recurring themes, including “a suspicion of authority and a tendency to mock those who wield it; a strong sense of the unbridgeable existential division between those who fight and the people back home; a taste for absurdity, sarcasm and black humor; and the conclusion that, whatever the outcome or justice of the war as a whole, its legacy for the individual veteran will be cynicism and disillusionment.”

WWI: Artists

During and after World War I, many visual artists abandoned existing styles for new ones that better enabled them to express their ideas. (Their new ideas.)

According to Oxford University scholars, “avant-garde artistic practices that had been developed to challenge traditional means of representation (Cubism, for example), lost their resonance with many artists, who felt that their abstract fissures and voids were too removed from current political and social realities.”

The Surrealists, for example, created works that evoked the chaos and emotion found on the battlefield.

“The whole landscape of the Western Front became surrealistic before the term Surrealism was invented by the soldier-poet Guillaume Apollinaire,” wrote Modris Eksteins (L.A. Times).

The war was impactive enough to change artists’ views on society and drive their art in new directions.

Before the war, Fernand Léger—a leading Cubist—painted “images of cities, people and objects that were fractured into geometric shapes and juxtapositions of bright colors,” according to Oxford scholars. After the war, Léger returned to more concrete, often classical subjects. “It is thought that this shift was a direct result of the artist’s experiences in World War I, between 1914 and 1918.”

Iraq War

Fast-forward to 2015…

Despite being driven out of their country by war, many Iraqi artists have continued working and even created work based on their war experiences.

“It is important to note that Iraqi artists, despite being hard-pressed amid the post-war chaos in their country, have not been silent; drawing on their rich artistic tradition to make works that responded to the conflict all around them,” reports BlouinArtInfo.com.

Hana Malallah has created abstract paintings with “seemingly burned surfaces evoking the tragedy of the war,” while Qasim Sabti has created “painted collages made from torn books salvaged from the looted libraries of Baghdad after the invasion.”

According to the Huffington Post, U.S. soldiers “figure prominently” in the works of Kareem Risan, whose “Walls of Wartime represent the walls of Baghdad and the accumulation of the markings left by passers-by who have witnessed the devastation of their homeland over the years.”

War on Terror

Artists in recent years have also used the War on Terror as a subject for their work. Specifically, they’ve “created major projects centered on U.S. torture, detention and violence related to the War on Terror,” according to Hyperallergic.

One striking example is the art of Rajkamal Kahlon, whose Did You Kiss the Dead Body? series includes “military autopsy reports and death certificates of detainees killed while in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan that were first made public by the ACLU in 2004.”

Kahlon told Hyperallergic that she'd heard of the autopsy reports in 2004 but didn’t work with them until 2009 because of the emotional nature of the material. “I can’t work on the reports for a long time because it’s very difficult material. Scientific, bureaucratic and full of mundane horror—spending prolonged sessions reading and drawing on them exacts a big psychic and physical toll.”

Disseminating Emotional Experience

“How is it possible to be uninterested in other men?” wrote Picasso. “And by virtue of what cold nonchalance can you detach yourself from the life that they supply so copiously?”

As a part of humanity, artists are affected by war. As thoughtful beings, they continue to create works that challenge us about war.

Kahlon said the War on Terror autopsy reports made her angry and nauseous, and it’s exactly that experience she wants to share with us. 

“What I really would like to have happen in my work is that you’re forced to react with an emotional and visceral response that then perhaps makes you rethink what you think you know. It begins in your own experience in your own body.”

As it did for her. As it's done for many, many other artists over the years.

Charlie Smith