An event as dramatic as war has a noticeable impact on society. Thus, it’s no surprise that the world wars influenced art in some dramatic ways. There were a number of art movements that came about in the early 20th century and strongly influenced artists and consequently the works that they created. The development of photography in the late 19th century pushed painting particularly away from realism, into a new broad group called expressionism. The movement sought to radically distort the world for emotional effect, presenting it subjectively. Famous artists such as Edvard Munch, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky were all expressionists whose works were influenced by the wars.
At the turn of the 20th Century in Italy, the most important avant-garde art movement was Futurism, which embraced popular media and new technologies to communicate their ideas. Their enthusiasm for modernity and machines ultimately led them to celebrate the arrival of the First World War. The Futurists were fascinated by new visual technology that allowed the movement of an object to be shown across a sequence of frames. This technology was an important influence on their approach to showing movement in painting, and thereby encouraged an abstract art with rhythmic, pulsating qualities.
However, there were many war artists who portrayed harsh but realistic visual depictions of the death and destruction that resulted from World War I. For example, Paths of glory by the British painter C.R.W. Nevison, created in 1917 depicted the death of two soldiers. Their faces are obscured and their bodies are merged with the murky earth, suggesting the loss of identity and the waste of young lives. World War One not only did a good job of changing the aesthetic part of art, but also changed the mood in which art was created. Before the war, art was happy or showed honor or beauty. After the war, art got more pessimistic, as people were able to see the full brutality of the world.
After the Great War of 1914-1918, the avant-garde artists of the mid-twentieth century spearheaded by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Alberto Giacometti, exhibited an undeniably rebellious spirit that closely resembled the early 20th century artists. However, these younger generation of artists challenged many of the traditions of their predecessors which they considered inadequate and outmoded depictions of the society. The Second World War made clear the modern and mechanized world they were entering, a world where the older expressive forms and techniques no longer seemed adequate or appropriate.
One of the art forms that developed during this time was Surrealism, a movement that sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Each artist relied on their own recurring motifs arisen through their dreams or unconscious mind. The imagery was outlandish and perplexing and was meant to jolt the viewer out of their comforting assumptions. For instance, Marion Adnams ‘Aftermath’ depicted blood through the use of the red ribbon flowing. The strong nature of death is shown with the presence of the skull and the ideology of restrictions by using the barbed wire in the background. Surrealism acted as a medium in which to express and understand the atrocities that took place during World War II, artists had to understand the danger of new technologies. Similarly, Abstract expressionism was welcomed as the first American avant-garde. These artists were influenced by Surrealism’s focus on mining the unconscious. Having matured as artists in the 1930s, at a time when America suffered economically and felt culturally isolated and provincial, they set the stage for America’s dominance of the international art world.
Thus, we see that the outbreak of both World Wars and the unprecedented devastation that followed led to a great deal of experimentation and exploration by artists in defining what exactly art should be and do for a culture. What followed was a series of artistic movements that strived to find their places in an ever-changing world.