Otto Dix War Triptych 1929-32
Pablo Picasso Guernica 1937
Painting has been a method of expressing the world the one lives in and recording the events that take place around them. Unlike taking a photograph or writing a history book, you are capable of expressing emotion and dialog in a painting. War affects somebody every day in some part of the world, so it is not surprising that there is a significant amount of art based off of war. It is painful, terrorizing, and unfortunately prevalent. This class takes aim to look at how the art world reacts to war and how art can be used as a tool to create a voice for those who do not. To start out with Otto Dix’s War Triptych and Picasso’s Guernica makes sense and gives us a solid historical base to work off of. Both of these paintings and artists are significant in the art world and have an influence on their audience as well as their fellow artists. These paintings are both about war and express a lot of emotion, but they also begin a dialog.
You immediately start to ask questions to yourself and may even be motivated to do a little research on the paintings. The first thing that I wanted to know is what war each painting pertains to or if it was just one battle. Then I would want to know if a city or government commissioned it or if the artist for his viewers created it. This is an important piece of information and helps direct you on why it was created in the first place. I would find a painting that was created by the artist will to be much more powerful in significance. Paying a great artist to do something does make the image much renown, but it loses its meaning. The artist may not even feel the way they do about the issues that are being presented. They may have been directed to paint it in a particular manner, showing what they want the people to think. This is an issue that haunts war photography and is something to be aware of when looking at these images.
Once you get an idea of why and what the painting is about you can then dive more into the subject matter, and you can appreciate the techniques used to convey the artist’s message. Why has the artist chosen to present certain images? This becomes more of a significant question when looking at Picasso’s Guernica. There are cows, light bulbs, ghostlike bodies, grotesque figures, and horses. It is clear that there is a lot of symbolism occurring in this painting and it then may motivate one to ask what they mean. I have no personal knowledge of what any of this signifies but I can tell that it does have to mean to those who know what is going on. I am sure that in its time and place that the society that it was made for understood what the painting represented better than someone in today’s time.
When you begin to look into the imagery of the Dix’s War Triptych, it is clear what you are looking at, so you want to know what exactly is going on. It seems to be a day in the life of a soldier when you look at it in order. The concept of a triptych helps solidify this idea but when you look at it is clear that it is a soldier marching into battle, fighting, and then ending his day sleeping in the trenches. The one figure that stands out is this demon like ghostly figure on your far right panel. It makes you wonder what this man signifies. Is he the spirit of the soldier or the spirit of war taking the souls of man’s son carrying them on into eternity? When you look at Guernica and consider what the scene is showing you it could be anywhere from a representation of an entire war, a battle, or a moment in time during a fight. Picasso’s work is much more up for interpretation without historical knowledge of the painting.
Symbolism is a critical part of art and war. It is a tool for influencing the viewer to think a certain way about the subject. It can also hold historical significance, which will then guide the audience to feel a certain way about what is being presented. I find that it is important, in this case, to have historical knowledge of the paintings. It may be good to take a first impression of the work without previously knowing anything to create a formal analysis but to properly appreciate and understand the piece you must be informed. This is also important if these paints are used again to remind us of the past and to learn from our mistakes to keep from making them again. In Picasso’s work, in particular, could be misunderstood very easily because of the abreaction of his figures and the symbolism he chooses to use. It is crucial to understand what not everything is what it seems, especially in art. Though in these painting there was certainly a very common theme.
Both paintings represent pain, death, and suffering which is, of course, a common characteristic of war paintings. The work by Dix is much more graphic and realistic. It affects the viewer by making them feel uneasy or wanting to look away but at the same time drawing them in. This is a very common aspect of the grotesque and how the artist uses it. The abstract figures in Guernica are also very grotesque not only because of the abstraction but because of the facial expressions and gestures that are being made. This evokes the emotion of pain and suffering. It is clear that something terrible is happening, there is chaos, and it will be some time before things go back to normal. The graphic nature of these war paintings is also connected to whether it was commissioned and what it is representing. Is it a moral booster for a country? Is it to show the public the horrors of war? These are all important questions to think of.
My next thought, which should have been one of my first, is to look at the formal qualities of the work. Both paintings are very dark in nature, which makes you feel as if something is depressing or upsetting taking place. Guernica seems to have a lot of jutting and outreached imagery. It pulls our view and creates an edgy feel when taking it in. The figures are all pushing energy outward as if a bomb were going off. In Dix’s work, he creates an atmosphere for the viewer. He puts the audience directly into the scene as if you were marching into battle alongside the other soldiers. The colors used indeed create the feeling of death and suffering. Death is a common theme not only in the actual figures but also in how Dix set his scene. The landscape is barren and gives no hope for the future. The triptych helps “tell a story” and guide the audience through the work. Guernica takes the audience and puts them in the scene by using their whole range of vision with this large painting.
Both of these works help create a dialog about not only how to look at war paintings but also how to look at how the art world react to war in general. Much of the questions that were asked centuries ago still hold true today. It is good to start with a strong historical base to continue thinking about what people are doing today. It is also important to understand what these images represent in case they have presented again to us in times of war. They meant something then, and they can mean something again today. If the questions about the paintings still hold true, then the significance of the work as still holds true. I think that painting is a powerful tool for recording history because it not only shows you what happened but can also express emotion and how it affected society.