David Carlson: The art of war


What images come to mind with the word “war?”

For much of human history, artists working for pharaohs, emperors, kings, queens, sultans and tsars portrayed war, especially victorious battles, as glorious moments in history.

However, much of how war has been portrayed changed with the advent of photography.

Even when viewed today, early wartime photography from our nation’s Civil War can shock us with the brutality of battle.

Those of my generation will remember how photos from the Vietnam War sickened viewers and bolstered those opposing the war.

I’ve yet to see a romantic wartime photo from Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Despite being realistic, photography is still not always objective.

Someone, perhaps a military leader or a newspaper executive decides what should be photographed and what should not.

In addition, a surfeit of photographs from warzones can numb us to the reality of war. We can see so much of a war that we’re no longer disturbed by those images.

This is where a piece of art can more effectively convey the realities of war than the most realistic photographs.

These are pieces of art that force viewers to see and to feel. A painting that has this power for many is Picasso’s “Guernica.”

“Guernica” is actually a huge mural, being 11 feet by 25 feet, and to see it in person must be overwhelming. But it’s not the work’s massive size but rather its subject matter that stops us, forcing us to feel what war, real war, is like.

Picasso’s mural depicts the aerial attack by Nazi forces, at the behest of Gen. Francisco Franco, on a small town in Spain in 1937. But as with all great art, the message of “Guernica” is not limited to a moment in the past.

“Guernica” is so compelling because it doesn’t depict the result of battle, corpses strewn across bombed-out settings, but rather the moments when living human beings stare into the face of death. Every figure’s mouth in “Guernica,” whether the mouth of a human being or an animal, is open, caught in a scream.

To see “Guernica” is to grasp what Kristallnacht felt like to German Jews in 1938, what Lakota Sioux experienced at Wounded Knee, what Londoners felt in the first moments of the Blitz, what Japanese civilians felt in the second the A-bomb fell on Hiroshima, what Tutsis in Rwanda experienced when Hutu forces broke into their homes, and what New Yorkers in the Twin Towers experienced when the planes hit on 9/11.

To stand before “Guernica” is to hear the screams of Ukrainians when Russian missiles hit apartment buildings; it is to hear the terror of Israeli children when Hamas broke through the kibbutz’s defenses; it is to hear the cries and prayers in a hospital in Gaza as Israeli bombs destroy all hope.

“Guernica” is too human a painting to be dismissed as political.

Picasso’s “Guernica” is not a window showing scenes from places far away. Instead, the painting is a mirror in which we see what we do as human beings to one another — over and over again.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].