How can art heal the world? Anti-war paintings of the past that tried to change the future

Smart Art — Art History Escape Digest, March 2022

The month of March 2022 turned out to be an especially dark period in the world’s history. The ongoing war in Ukraine has no mercy for the innocent lives, nor does it spare the local museums that become victims of the cruel missile strikes and shelling attacks.

While cultural workers are bravely trying to save the precious artefacts, we at Smart Art looked back in history which seems to be relating itself over and over again despite the loud voices of artists who tried to prevent such horrors in the future by rigorously capturing its aftermath in their works.

The anti-war paintings are still striking, poignant and sobering in their effect on the viewer.

However, seems like even their power has its proper run-out date. Otherwise, why do some people repeat the same unforgivable mistakes over and over again?

Perhaps, they just don’t go to museums, read good books and study the undecorated ugly and hard-earned truths of the past…

The Smart Art — Art History Escape app tries to ensure that the lessons of the past would be never forgotten. This is our recap of the thematic anti-war pieces and their stories that were brought to you this month [and not only!].

You are always welcome to download the app for free on your iPhone or iPad and discover over 900 original stories of the brilliant artworks of the past.

Workers move the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin of the Bohorodchany Iconostasis in the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum as part of safety preparations in the event of an attack in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, on March 4, 2022. The doors of the museum have been closed since Russia’s war on Ukraine began on Feb. 24. Bernat Armangue — AP (source)

Each epoch has its own Apocalypse…

Seems like ours is happening right now.

Several stories from the app’s Medieval Monday Series became the subtle notions of the lessons on the importance of peace.

Have you ever heard of Pax et Treuga Dei? This is the Latin title for the Peace and Truce of God — the first mass peace movement in history which was born in the Middle Ages.

The vast and once-powerful Carolingian Empire [which was mainly based in the lands of today’s France, Germany and Italy] collapsed in the second half of the 9th century, and its western parts were all bogged down in violent feuds.

Catholic Church was trying to call the fighting territories and parties for a peaceful dialogue and brought up some special spiritual sanctions as a threat.

The featured manuscript illumination from c.1460 attributed to Jean Fouquet (c.1420–1481) shows the most bloody and traumatic experience of late Carolingian times — the Battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye in 841.

In fact, these were two non-related movements at the beginning which were launched at separate times and places, but by the 11th century, they became synonymous as the Peace and Truce of God.

The set of measures taken gradually evolved and granted protection from violence to non-combatants who could not defend themselves.

First sanctions were applied for robbing peasants or the poor from farm animals [except for the horses, though], striking the clergy, doing harm to children and women.
Additional measures, including protecting ecclesiastical property, agricultural resources and unarmed clerics, as well as limiting the scale of the local nobility’s involvement in the territory conflicts, were quite successful too.

According to the 20th-century French historian Georges Duby, in the 11th and 12th centuries, many villages grew up in the shadow of the church as if under the shield of immunity, where violence was prohibited under peace regulations.

As a result, the pact set the foundation for future universally accepted rules of conduct in the region and beyond.

The Fall of Babylon manuscript miniature from the so-called Apocalipsis in Dietsche, the Flemish Apocalypse prepared by an unknown master in the 15th century.

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”

This is the sad [or well-deserved?] destiny that awaits the once-bustling diverse city when the angel in the top-left corner of this stunning Medieval miniature casts the great millstone into the sea saying:

“Babylon, that great city, will be thrown down with like vehemence, and will not be found ever again.”

These prophetic lines from Apocalypse inspired numerous manuscript illuminators that included dedicated illustrations to their versions of the hand-painted Book of Revelation.

In the full Smart Art story, we gradually unfold the story of the unfortunate end to the splendid ancient city which back in the day was often presented as the antagonist of Christ, God, and his people, that seems to be dangerously close to what the world is going through these days again…

A detail from The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, c.1340, by Barna da Siena

This poignant scene of enemies discarding their weapons and embracing under the sponsorship of an archangel looks like another perfect illustration of the Medieval Monday mood these days.

Two enemies reconciled by an archangel, are embracing after casting away their weapons.

Interestingly, the painting was indeed commissioned to commemorate the end of a feud!

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain

Did you do that? — No, you did

This dialogue is believed to have happened at the Parisian studio of Pablo Picasso during the Nazi occupation at the time of World War II when one German officer asked him that question upon seeing a photo of Guernica, 1937 [created in response to the bombing of a Basque town by fascists at the request of the Spanish Nationalists].

Picasso’s reply made it into history, just like his monumental artwork.

In our dedicated Collection Highlights, we assembled several masterpieces of the anti-war theme. These and other paintings, from Rubens and Goya to Dalí, Lavery, and Dame Laura Knight, are crucial to studying, remembering and preventing the deathly horrors of military conflicts that happened centuries ago and, alas, are still burning today.

By the way, the British painters John Lavery and Laura Knight were particularly famous for their pictures made on the fronts of the World Wars.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919, Imperial War Museum, London, UK

Their compatriot, John Singer Sargent, was also nominated as a war artist by the British Ministry of Information.

The Government commissioned him to contribute the central painting for a Hall of Remembrance for World War I.

Gassed, 1919 is a huge, nearly life-sized [91*240½ in / 231*611 cm] oil on canvas that shows the injured soldiers in the aftermath of a mustard gas attack on the Western Front in August 1918 witnessed by the artist with his own eyes.

Mustard gas was an ‘indiscriminate weapon’ causing widespread injury and burns, as well as affecting the eyes. The eyes of the soldiers, blinded by the effect of the gas, were then bandaged, and they were assisted by medical orderlies.

Sargent’s picture gives clues about the management of the victims, focusing on the tactile relationships between the blinded men.

“The nearer to danger, the fewer and more hidden the men — the more dramatic the situation, the more it becomes an empty landscape.”

A powerful testimony of the effects of chemical weapons and the horrible consequences and methods of war conflicts, this chilling image of war highlighted the overall sense of loss and suffering mixed with the routine “live goes on” details in the background.

Paintings of Tamara de Lempicka. Right: The Refugees, 1937 Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Saint-Denis, France. Left: Escape, 1940, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France

“There are no miracles, there is only what you make”

Another featured war-time story was dedicated to the Russian emigrant painter Tamara de Lempicka, was no stranger to the feelings encapsulated in her poignant paintings.

Tamara Rosalia Gurwik-Gorska spent most of her childhood and youth years in Saint-Petersburg frequently travelling on holidays abroad.
Alas, the Russian Revolution of 1917 overturned the otherwise wealthy and comfortable life of her family, and Tamara and her husband had to flee the country to France to escape the Bolsheviks.

An icon of Art Deco, she was praised for her colourful society portraits and extravagant nudes, and at the same time criticised for the featured pictures.

Like how could’ve “Baroness with a Brush” delivered the message if she had arrived in the US on a luxury liner and apparently had no experiences of such horror?

Whatever the case, one can’t take it away that every time Tamara found herself in exile, she still managed to reinvent her life in the new city, country, and circumstances back again counting on no one else than herself.

“It doesn’t matter how it begins, if it ends well”

- was her favourite motto in life.

“To all great conquerors, past, present and to come”

We will wrap up this month’s digest with a short story that we published almost a year ago, on 8 May, the annual commemoration of the end of World War II.

Vasily Vereshchagin, The Apotheosis of War, 1871, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

The Russian Vasily Vereshchagin was a classically-trained war artist. He used to travel with the Imperial Russian Army to the country’s southern border in Central Asia and make sketches that would later turn into large-scale paintings.

Just like the modern war photographers would do yet with their camera instead of paints and pencils.

The quote above is Vereshchagin’s own inscription to this powerful Apotheosis of War, 1871 which came out of one of such trips during the Russian conquest of the land that would be later known as Russian Turkestan.

The Russian Turkestan existed in that form up until the end of the Empire in 1917. During the course of the next decades, it was divided into the now-existing Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Good for him, Vereshchagin didn’t even try to conceal the ghastly consequences of any military operations, no matter how justified they might sound in the cabinets of the decision-makers.

His painting is a remembrance, a timeless message, and a warning. If only it could prevent all wars somehow…

Well, eventually, there were many more interesting stories, quizzes, and discoveries that we’ve shared with you within the Smart Art — Art History Escape. We would be thrilled to have you as our reader and invite you to explore our 80,000+ collection of paintings, Medieval to Modern!

My name is Marina Viatkina and I am an art history writer and collecting advisor. You may read my other art-related articles, watch videos or reach out to discuss this blog and address your art enquiries here or on my website



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Marina Viatkina

Marina Viatkina

Art | History Writer & Collecting Advisor → | Founder of Smart Art — Art History Escape app →