From a mural in Paris of a young girl waving a Ukrainian flag while crushing war tanks beneath her feet to a 13-by-13-meter painting of a white dove holding an olive branch in Ukraine’s national colors on a building façade in Frankfurt, artists all over the globe are showing solidarity with Ukraine through powerful art.
The heartbreak of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being felt all over the world. We see a portrait of Ukrainian combat engineer Vitaliy Skakun against the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag painted on a brick wall. Skakun was only 25 years old when he sacrificed himself to blow up the Henichesk bridge in an attempt to prevent Russian troops from entering the region. Next to the painting of Skakun is a portrait of Polina, the pink-haired 10-year-old schoolgirl who died tragically when the car she and her family were fleeing in came under fire from a Russian sabotage and reconnaissance group.
But while we see artistic tributes for the heroes and the victims and works promoting peace and prayers, we also see depictions of anger and resistance. In Poland, we see street art of Russian President Vladimir Putin portrayed as Voldemort. And in Sweden, we see pixel art on a pedestrian crossing sign for a school road; replacing the black silhouette of an adult holding a child’s hand is a depiction of Hitler walking hand in hand with Putin.
In these times of irrational war, political conflict, and social oppression, we look back at how artistic freedom and visuals have helped voice out visceral reactions against war to resolve feelings of frustration and spark activism.
Condemning Destruction Through Creation
Art matters in times of war for its ability to create propaganda – whether it’s to stimulate animosity or to evoke a sense of pride and nationalism. Through the generations, we’ve seen word leaders commission art during times of war to generate support and funds for soldiers and citizens. We’ve also seen artists producing works independently to express their political ideologies.
In January 1937, the Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a mural that would help raise awareness of the Spanish Civil War. Initially, Picasso felt dispassionate about the work. But some months later on April 26th, Nazi Germany at the request of the Spanish Nationalists carried out an aerial bombing that would claim hundreds of civilian lives in the Basque town of Guernica. The bombing devasted the city, leaving countless victims to die under the rubble of the destroyed buildings. A massive fire also raged until the following day.
Abandoning his initial sketches for the project after reading the eyewitness accounts of the attacks, Picasso chose to portray brutality, turmoil, and anguish. Guernica (1937) would be celebrated as one of Pablo Picasso’s most iconic works. It’s a towering 11.5” x 25.6” oil-on-canvas regarded as one of the most powerful political paintings in history.
Picasso used shades of gray, blue-black, and white to express the bleakness of the attack’s aftermath. Within the composition are two of Picasso’s signature images, the minotaur to depict fascism and the harlequin to symbolize duality and mystical power over death. Also prominent in the mural are a woman with a lifeless baby, a skull, a dying horse, and a warrior whose head has been severed from his body. The open mouths of the people and animals indicate cries of pain and suffering.
The Artistic Response to War
We’ve had a long history of anti-war art. Reacting to World War I, Dada artists were some of the first to protest political disruptions in society through artistic revolt. In large-scale photomontage Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the First Epoch of the Weimar Beer-Belly Culture (1919) by Hannah Höch, we see the artist’s depiction of the political chaos caused by the clash between the Spartasists and the old Weimar government. The piece is also regarded as a commentary on gender disparities in conservative society. Dadaists from German cities to New York also began expressing their attitudes towards the war in Europe through their works, including Marcel Duchamp, Raoul Hausmann, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, and Man Ray.
Another famous artwork fueled by politics is Gloriosa Victoria (1954) by Diego Rivera. The oil-on-linen addressed the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état that the CIA backed to overthrow the Guatemalan president. The mural communicates a powerful narrative. In the center is a depiction of U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles – with his right hand he shakes the hand of Guatemalan Air Force Colonel, Carlos Castillo Armas who wears a jacket with a breast pocket stuffed full of American dollars. And Dulles left hand? It clutches a bomb that bears the face of the U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Behind the key figures are the director of the CIA, the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, military officers, and a Catholic archbishop. At the men’s feet are dead, bloody bodies – most of which are children.
At the height of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, we saw artists take a more direct approach in condemning war through paintings, sculpture, public performances, installations, and video. While Abstract, Conceptualism, Pop, and Minimalism were still prominent art movements at the time, protest art also shifted towards satirical and cartoonish representations.
Some of the most profound works depicting the turbulent times of the Vietnam War include Vietnam II (1973) by Leon Glub and Q. And babies? A. And babies (1970) by the Art Workers’ Coalition. In 1968, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama voiced her anti-war activism and fierce political conscience by staging demonstrations in New York. In protest of the war in Vietnam, she featured naked dancers with body paintings opposite the New York Stock Exchange. Kusama released a statement on the performance titled Anatomic Explosion, saying, “The money made with this stock is enabling the war to continue. We protest this cruel, greedy instrument of the war establishment.”
Fighting Back with Art Attacks
On February 24th, 2022, the day that Ukrainian painter Volo Bevza was meant to inaugurate his solo exhibition in Kyiv, Russia dropped bombs on major Ukrainian cities. Bevza fled from Kyiv to Lviv, a city that has remained relatively safe despite the airstrike alarms that could often be heard ringing through the skies.
Bevza and his girlfriend, photographer Victoria Pidust, met fellow artists on their first day in Lviv. There was a workshop for bronze and metal sculptures close to the place where they had sought refuge. To overcome their shock and actively contribute to defense efforts, the artists would join others in making steel “hedgehogs,” large barricades made of steel I-beams that were designed to prevent war tanks from penetrating a line of defense.
The barricades are made with precision and technical consideration. Because of the limited resources, the group of artists and volunteers produced hedgehogs in different shapes, sizes, and even colors – at some point using old railroad tracks. But as visually stunning as the barricades are due to their form and arrangement, we recognize that the hedgehogs serve a greater and heart wrenching purpose. Bevza reminds us of this reality, saying “It looks like art, but it’s not.”
While it’s been said that true art serves no actual function except to exist, we know that art is one of the oldest forms of communication. Messages are skillfully shaped by materials and techniques. And in times of war, art and artists aggressively play their role – whether it’s to declare defiance, rally support, raise funds, show solidarity, or divert their artistic skills to actively protect their lives and defend their freedom.