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Painting the War

As World War II raged on throughout the globe in the 1930s and 40s, the artists found themselves in the most difficult conditions, thus compelling them to create exceptional pieces as an expression of self preservation. Here are a few of the many who left a profound impact with their work:


1. Guernica - Pablo Picasso (1937)

Guernica is considered as one of Picasso’s most famous pieces, bringing out a powerful political statement in reaction to the Nazi’s casual bombing practice on the town of Basque in Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Spain being his birthplace, he was driven by his sense of patriotism and justice to paint this masterpiece which symbolises the tragedies of war and how it inflicts suffering upon individuals, especially innocent civilians.


In his piece, Picasso made sure to use the shades of grey, white and blue-black to express the bleakness as an aftermath of the bombing and it is also said that he specially ordered house paint that had the minimum amount of gloss to create more impact.


There is a wide range of interpretations of this painting which often contradict each other. The focus mostly revolves around the depiction of the horse and the bull by Picasso. According to art historian Patricia Failing:


“The bull and the horse are important characters in Spanish culture . Picasso himself certainly used these characters to play many different roles over time. This has made the task of interpreting the specific meaning of the bull and the horse very tough. Their relationship is a kind of ballet that was conceived in a variety of ways throughout Picasso’s career.”

Some critics rule out the possibility of the painting being a political message for Guernica. For example, the rampaging bull which is a motif of destruction here could be a projection of his ego. However the bull could also represent the onslaught of Fascism and as Picasso had said, the bull was a symbol of brutality and darkness while the horse represented the people of Guernica.

On completion, Guernica was displayed around the world in a brief tour, causing it to gain popularity, along with helping the Spanish Civil War to gain global attention. This painting is currently displayed in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.


2. Woman in an Underground Shelter Feeding a Child- Henry Moore(1941)


This painting is a part of Moore’s most celebrated series of ‘Shelter Drawings’, being inspired by the sight of Londoners seeking refuge from the bombs of the Blitz in the tunnels of the Tube network during the Second World War. He seemed to be especially captivated by the scene of a mother and child reclining against the wall.


Moore has used his signature style in this painting, by giving a wash of watercolour on a water-resistant surface, overlapping it with strokes of wax crayons and delicate lines of pen and black ink which accurately bring out the women’s facial features and helps define the mass of the bodies. The use of colour creates an effect of classic drapery which covers the mother and the child and also goes on to highlight the curves in the tunnel walls and the figures lined up against them.


What makes this painting exceptionally beautiful is the fact that it perfectly captures the visual harmony between the main subjects of the piece, the mother and child, as well as the clustered figures sitting together in the tunnel. Moore successfully encapsulates the intense monumentality of the huddled shelter-ers and remarkably adds a poetic timelessness and stillness to the figure of the mother protecting and feeding her child during the raging storm of conflict.


This painting continues to be one of the finest examples of the suffering of the human spirit in a situation of adversity and is an authentic expression of the tragedy of war and its direct impact on the ordinary mass.


3. L’air bleu- Marc Chagall (1937)

Chagall was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant Cubist painters of his time, and L’air bleu still stands as one of his best works. Even though this piece portrays a scene of purity and hope, it is believed that this painting was symbol of foreshadowing of his turbulent future in the war.


Chagall has portrayed himself and his wife Bella, lying down on scattered blossoms of purple lilac while floating over a small town which resembled a shtetl in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in western Russia, which he must have imagined from his memories of Vitebsk, his birthplace. The night sky is a deep shade of blue, which adds to the atmosphere of innocence, purity and hope in the piece. We can also observe a cock serenading the lovers with a melody on its violin instead of crowing and a goat reading from a book that lies open in front of it.


He has splendidly merged the symbols of everyday life with a folk tale or a myth, thus giving the painting a dreamy appearance of a fairy tale, something which was very typical of Chagall.


However, this peaceful setting comes along with a sense of foreboding, like the calm before a storm, to signify his struggles as a Jew in France during the onset of the Second World War. He was aware of the dangers that lay ahead of him due to his faith, and he knew that he had to become a French citizen to avoid any trouble. Even though he managed to acquire the citizenship with the help of Jean Paulhan, an editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française, he had to flee when France ceased to be a sovereign nation, to escape the fate of the other refugees.


Chagall described the scenery of his painting with a few lines in his autobiographical poem ‘My Distant Home’:


"It rings in me–

The distant city.

The white churches,

The synagogues. The door

Is open. The sky blooms.

Life flies on and on."


4. Verwaltungsoffizier (Unsere Zukunft liegt in der Aktenmappe) - George Grosz (1929)


This painting was made when George Grosz left Germany for the United States, and depicts a scene of a variety of different of people on a street in Berlin.


Grosz has used watercolour along with striations of black ink on paper, and with the extensive use of the pale blue colour, he has successfully created the atmosphere of a chilly winter morning.


In the piece we can see a portly bureaucrat who is smoking a cigar, while crossing the street with a briefcase in his hand, a woman who is huddling in her coat to escape the cold and a blind man in the distance who seems to have lost his way.


It is easy to notice that Grosz intended it to be a deeply cynical scene as the officer is carrying documents in his briefcase which are vital in determining the future of the very people he is walking past. People like these were the one's who allowed the Nazis to rule Germany, by being loyal to the Third Reich since the beginning. The blind man in the background is symbolic of the officer, who is blind to the consequences of his actions. As Ralph Jentsch put it:


“Nazi power would not have been possible without millions of willing helpers from all classes, like this Verwaltungsoffizier, only carrying documents from one office to the other.”


5. Vision of the Atomic Age - Salvador Dali (1948)


The catastrophic explosion of the atom bomb at Hiroshima in August 1945 had left a huge impact on Salvador Dali, which compelled him to paint this piece. Soon after the bombing he devoted himself to painting many pieces on the devastation, or in other words, ‘his threefold synthesis of classicism, the spiritual and concern with the nuclear.’ He wrote:


“Since then, the atom has been central to my thinking. Many of the scenes I have painted in this period express the immense fear that took hold of me when I heard of the explosion of the bomb.”

In this piece we see a post-nuclear landscape where we see breaking up of particles as well as objects. We see how Dali has shifted his focus from making objects appear as if they are melting to bring out a sense of unconsciousness in his work, to disintegrating the objects instead. It was, according to him, “the pictorial solution of quantum theory.”


Dali’s use of watercolour in the upper right hand corner of the sketch captures the remnants of the mushroom cloud, and symbolises the root of the destruction in a creative manner. The most highlighted section of the painting seems to be the two figural depictions comprised of fragmented rocks and seem to morph into disjointed organic forms, thus embodying the magnitude of the destruction. There are heavy geometric shapes suspended throughout the painting, while there is an omnipresence of fragments of rocks and particles in the supposed imaginary space of the piece.


This painting is the epitome of contradiction, exploring the themes of both coherence and disintegration at the same time, along with the representation of his fascination with technology; thus making it one of his best works.

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