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Our PickThe Art of War

The Art of War

Published: 26th Dec 2021 12:20 am

By Pramod K Nayar

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 “Not a spot is to be left without some marks of blood and carnage”.

 The 20th century poet Wilfred Owen, who had encountered war as a soldier, said that his subject is not poetry but war and the pity of war. The poetry, he said, is in the pity. How best to portray the horrors and pity of war has been the subject of debate and agony for many artists.

In war paintings, the subject is not war, but the ‘pity of war’


Zdzisław Beksiński, a Polish Holocaust survivor, was an artist in the Baroque and Gothic traditions. Beksiński sought to capture the dehumanising Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Central to Beksiński’s vision of these totalitarian regimes is radically different from Goya, Rubens and Picasso, and close to Dali when seeking a new grammar to depict the horrors of dehumanisation.

We can discern two major grammars of dehumanisation: faces erased in the horror of war, or the horror writ large on the faces of the victims.


In one Beksiński painting, emaciated human bodies sit entwined and communicate the condition of the inmates in the Nazi camps. It is difficult to assume the painting represents living people, since it is inconceivable that a person so emaciated can be alive.  In another, we can make out the profile of a person walking or standing. Drawn as lines, the person appears to be holding the hand of a child walking by the side. The hand holding the child’s hand is skeletal. It appears as though the person is slowly disappearing.

Beksiński’s painting (dated to the 1970s) resonates with a similar attempt by the graphic artist Igort who in his The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks drew shadow-people. Theseare images of persons who are dissolving, drawn as bare outlines. The persons are dissolving due to starvation: Igort is drawing the lives of the millions of Ukrainians who died in the Holodomor, the famine which Stalin created to control the region. Beksiński’s shadows are persons who are reduced to wispy creatures as the dehumanising regime causes them to lose their ontological integrity in eroding bodies.

Beksiński often leaves his paintings untitled. This signals what he sets out to do: capture the dehumanisation which can no longer be labelled, catalogued or classified as humans do unto other humans what they would not want done to themselves. There is no adequate descriptor, Beksiński implies, for these visions of utter, despicable horror.

In his stunning installation piece, Glowa, from 1957, Beksiński in the immediate aftermath of Nazi Germany, a helmet sits on a head. The helmet is remarkably similar to the Nazi one. The head beneath it is hollowed, almost skull-like. It does not require a Nazi face: the helmet is terror enough. The face/head could belong to any body: all it requires is for a human to wear such a helmet and he is transformed into the tormentor. The apparatus, like the Nazi Swastika, is terrifying for what it has come to symbolise.

Faceless persons people all Beksiński works. In one painting, a head occupies what could be a vault or shrine dedicated to the dead. The head is draped with white fabric, and there is some resemblance to a Christ-like image. The eyes captivate us: the large, empty eyes with no pupils. They are just elliptical structures sitting in the space meant for eyes. What do such sightless eyes see? Is what they saw responsible for the loss of sight? The entire structure is situated on a promontory, on top of a stone edifice which could be a mausoleum. Adjacent is a shrivelled and dead tree adding to the gloomy brooding atmosphere. In Bez Tytułu, Beksiński again paints an adult and a child figure. The adult looks mummified, and the child is skeletal with empty eye sockets. In another painting, in the place of the head on a human figure, there is a bright light, and from behind the figure, skeletal hands reach for the person. These are all faceless.

Beksiński presents what the critic Kelly Hurley identifies as the key feature of the Gothic: the dissolving body. Echoing the process by which the bones of those who had been gassed were destroyed by pouring lime, he points to systems that work towards the erasure of the human. Where Goya, Rubens and others portrayed faces contorted with horror as a means of capturing the horrors of war, Beksiński chose to erode the face.

Where Goya, Rubens and others portrayed faces contorted with horror, Beksiński seeks to capture the erasure or diminishing of the human with his faceless, dissolving and shadowy bodies


In Beksiński, the larger implication is: war erases identities, except as either victims or perpetrators, and in the process departs from the grammar of European paintings of the scenes of mass suffering.

A History of Massacres 

Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Battle of Anghiari’ (1505?) survives only in a fragment, but even here the horror of war is visible. Rubens’ The Massacre of the Innocents (1610-11) took the Biblical theme as its subject, and presented pleading mothers seeking to protect their infants and children, as their tormentors Herod’s soldiers closed in. What is evident is that the mothers could not stop the brutality directed at the innocents, the infants. (Rubens also drew the central section of the Anghiari painting from a 1553 engraving, which was based on a Da Vinci cartoon.)

Goya’s The Disasters of War series of 82 prints (1814) depicted executions, capturing the terror on the faces of victims. A garrotted priest, a woman struggling between soldiers, an old woman attacking a soldier who is about to molest a young woman — Goya’s landscape of horror marches through multiple iterations of the unthinkable. Picasso’s Guernica (1937), arguably the best-known war painting from the 20th century, depicted brutalised people and animals. A single light bulb resembles the classical arrangement in torture chambers, illuminating the horror that war perpetrates. Dali’s The Face of War (1940) was a nightmarish concoction — a typical Dali — with skulls occupying the eye socket and mouth of a large human head.

Landscapes of war’s horrors march through multiple iterations of the unthinkable 


A lacerated corporeality permeates all these canvases. All of them capture the immense possibilities of what one human can inflict on another. In the words of the critic Susie Linfield, these paintings ‘are the revelation of something that ought not exist’, but do. Collectively and individually, these images of persecuted and brutalised bodies induce discomfort in the viewer. War paintings such as these capture what the disability theorist Tobin Seiber wrote: “the emotions some bodies feel in the presence of other bodies”.  Such paintings propose a different history of humanity.

Drawing a Different Humanity

In a chapter titled “How to compose a battle” in “Treatise on Painting” in his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci offered the following instructions:

The countenances of the vanquished will appear pale and dejected. Their eyebrows raised, and much wrinkled about the forehead and cheeks. The tip of their noses somewhat divided from the nostrils by arched wrinkles terminating at the corner of the eyes, those wrinkles being occasioned by the opening and raising of the nostrils; the upper lips turned up, discovering the teeth. Their mouths wide open, and expressive of violent lamentation. One may be seen fallen wounded on the ground, endeavouring with one hand to support his body, and covering his eyes with the other, the palm of which is turned towards the enemy. Others running away, and with open mouths seeming to cry aloud. Between the legs of the combatants let the ground be strewed with all sorts of arms; as broken shields, spears, swords, and the like. Many dead bodies should be introduced, some entirely covered with dust, others in part only; let the blood, which seems to issue immediately from the wound, appear of its natural colour, and running in a winding course, till, mixing with the dust, it forms a reddish kind of mud. Some should be in the agonies of death; their teeth shut, their eyes wildly staring, their fists clenched, and their legs in a distorted position. Some may appear disarmed, and beaten down by the enemy, still fighting with their fists and teeth, and endeavouring to take a passionate, though unavailing revenge. There may be also a straggling horse without a rider, running in wild disorder; his mane flying in the wind, beating down with his feet all before him, and doing a deal of damage. A wounded soldier may also be seen falling to the ground, and attempting to cover himself with his shield, while an enemy bending over him endeavours to give him the finishing stroke. Several dead bodies should be heaped together. Not a spot is to be left without some marks of blood and carnage.

Da Vinci obviously seeks a brutal realism where nothing is left to imagine. But this was easier said than done for, as the critic Steven Conn argues about American Civil War paintings:

The magnitude of the Civil War simply shattered the narrative frameworks within which the painters and writers had given meaning to events…the scale of death and destruction was so extensive that it defied easy, formulaic comprehension.

The realist merges with the nightmarish in most of the paintings, as a result of the breaking of the frames of imagining war.

The artists described here are all grappling with several interrelated questions: how to represent this historic event (war) with all its destruction, as a history of the human? What was the purpose of this war? How can one communicate the reasons for something like this in the form of one painting or drawing? War, which disrupts history, disturbs the conventions of writing history or painting because its sheer horror defeats attempts at capturing the nightmare, is a troubling event for these painters.

Any different history of humanity needs to foreground the unmaking of humanity. Any individual, writes the critic Elizabeth Anker about Human Rights novels, is “imagined to inhabit an always already fully integrated and inviolable body: a body that is whole, autonomous, and self-enclosed” and informed by the “dual conceits of human dignity and bodily integrity”. That is, even when we wish to capture large-scale violence, we require a face or a body to focalise attention on.

Even war, then, could have a face, in the words of WH Auden:

And after he was dead, his traces

Were visible for years, in faces

That wore the expression alas upon them,

And plains without a blade of grass upon them.

When the artists efface the body or the face in a war, they make a larger comment. The singular feature of any individual, the face, is what is effaced — implying that there are no individuals in war, only victims and sufferers. If, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says, the face is where the ethics towards the Other begins, war and torture set about erasing the face because there was no ethics towards the Other. The faceless faces of war in several of these artists recall what the 18th century poet William Blake wrote in “The Divine Image”:

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face…

But the “pity of war” is perhaps best captured in the human without a face.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)


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