An important precedent for European artists had been set by Pablo Picasso's mural-sized painting, Guernica (1937), named after a Basque town bombed by the German Kondor Legion during the Spanish Civil War. In Guernica, distended forms and disfigured characters were blown up large and linked to a vast panorama of brutality. The painting, which extended Picasso's fragmented Cubist pictorial language into the political arena, was all the more powerful for its ability to express an idyllic world shattered by the sweeping acts of anonymous warfare.
The warring powers linked art to propagandistic rhetoric. Perhaps the most unusual coupling of art and propaganda can be traced to Adolf Hitler's imagined lineage of the Germanic people from the Greek civilization of antiquity. The revival of severe forms of Greek classicism, along with a "volkish" art and architecture (art and architecture "of the people"), would result in Germany in the most spectacular public rejection of modernism in the twentieth century.
As early as 1933, the Nazi Party had stormed the legendary Bauhaus (academy of arts founded in 1919) in Dessau and padlocked its doors. In 1937, the Nazis ordered museums to be purged of artwork that they considered to have a corrosive effect on the morals of the German people. The targets of Nazi aggression were some of the greatest works of the avant-garde—the lyrical abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky; the raw energetic forms of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Die Brucke; the antimilitaristic sentiments and nihilistic acts of George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Berlin Dada. Particularly scorned were the works of Jewish artists who expressed their spirituality in their work, such as Marc Chagall, who had already lived through the Russian pogroms in the century's first decade. Many of the works of the artists in Nazi disfavor were simply destroyed, and 650 were selected from the thousands purged from the museums for a special exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) which traveled to a dozen cities in Germany and Austria. In the exhibition, paintings were poorly displayed, often at crooked angles, and sculptures were crowded together in piles; instead of didactic labels, grafitti scrawled on the walls ridiculed the objects and their makers. More than three million people attended this exhibition and a companion to it, Degenerate Music.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent eight artists to document the experiences of American combat troops in Europe. In late 1942, a second War Art Unit was created. A War Art Advisory Committee led by muralist George Biddle and composed of museum directors, curators, and even writer John Steinbeck identified artists for the special unit. Of the 42 individuals selected by the committee, 23 were already on active military duty. Although the first artists were sent to the Pacific Theater, shortly thereafter official artists were deployed to cover the various theaters. By 1943, each branch of the military had assembled its own art unit to commemorate its contribution—by land, air, or sea.
Military artists were first and foremost soldiers who assumed the additional duties of documenting the war's events with the tools of the artist. The images they generated run the gamut from portraying soldiers' and sailors' everyday routines to stirring portrayals of troops in the heat of battle. Such artists participated in the events they recorded, and at times they had to take up weapons with their fellows. When the opportunity arose, they would take out their sketchbooks and drawing instruments to make sketches and jot down notations. Such sketches matured into full drawings or were translated into paint once the combat artists had the opportunity and resources to accomplish it. Soldier-artists also served as illustrators for military publications such as the U.S. Army magazine Yank, which was created for the troops. Although civilian artists did not serve in combat, they accompanied the troops on dangerous missions and put their lives in harm's way; at least one civilian artist died when his transport crashed on the way to India.
When a failure by Congress to appropriate funds threatened to eliminate the army's War Art Unit shortly after its inauguration, the contracts of 17 of the 19 civilian artists were taken over by publisher Henry R. Luce's Life magazine. The magazine profiled war artists such as Fletcher Martin, Floyd Davis, Tom Lea, Paul Sample, and Rubin Kadish, and photographs of the artists sketching in airplane cockpits or painting on aircraft carriers often appeared next to their works.
Life also ran several contests on the theme of art in the armed services and featured soldiers' work in subsequent multipage spreads. The magazine quickly became the vehicle by which the images moved beyond their original function as reportage to achieve acclaim as works of art in their own right. Life sponsored exhibitions of war art at populist venues such as state fairs and at venerable institutions such as the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was by examining the objects firsthand—hurried pencil sketches and pen-and-ink scrawls, watercolors and oils put down on wrapping paper and pasteboard from packing boxes—that the public could fully grasp their immediacy, ponder the obstacles the artists had to overcome to record each scene, and be convinced of the soldiers' patriotic duty to make the art.
A second source of funding for the U.S. civilian art contracts came from Abbott Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company in Chicago that provided medical supplies to the troops. The company had an established record of patronage of the arts, and its director of advertising, Charles Downs, realized the power of images to rally the support of the public. Working with the Associated American Artists group in New York, Abbott Laboratories recruited a dozen artists to be sent overseas and successfully lobbied the War Department to provide the artists with the same degree of support given to photographers and filmmakers in terms of housing, transportation, and security clearance. Many of the artists, such as Thomas Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh, and John Stuart Curry, had worked on large-scale mural projects sponsored by the Works Projects Administration during the Great Depression years. Abbott Laboratories commissioned thematic sets of images, oftentimes showcasing their own products, although the stated mission of the project was to create permanent collections that were later donated to the military branches. Abbott also sponsored traveling exhibitions of these works to university galleries and museums across the country.
Although even the Museum of Modern Art in New York complied with the public's appetite for war pictures by sending art supplies to the front and mounting exhibitions from the battlefield, a small but vocal group of artists protested these images as sanitized portrayals of war—or worse, products of the American propaganda machine. Some were critical of the civilian component of the art units and those who traveled as artist-correspondents, charging that they played no direct role in the war effort.
Artists who served in the war designed camouflage patterns or condensed information into strategic charts and maps; their skills directly contributed to the war effort. Some artists objected to the lack of psychological or philosophical commentary in the images themselves, arguing that works of art should offer information beyond that of a photograph and should give a truer sense of the atrocities faced by the soldiers who were battling for freedom. The large community of European exiles gathered in New York City during the early 1940s created a more ambivalent body of images that speaks of the emotional and psychological complexities of a world at war. Paintings by Max Ernst or the Chilean artist Roberto Matta, often nightmarish plunges into landscapes ruled by irrational forces, were executed in expressionist or surrealist styles.
After the war, U.S. soldiers who had worked in the art units or as artist-correspondents, as well as those who had interest in but no actual background in the arts, were offered the opportunity to pursue formal art training through the GI Bill. It created a generation of college-educated artists who sought to distance themselves from their experiences on the battlefield. Because of the association of conservative pictorial styles with Nazi propaganda and international outrage over Hitler's extreme forms of censorship, postwar art would attempt to break from the past altogether by experimenting with nonobjective styles that would be difficult for any party or platform to co-opt.
Barron, Stephanie, and Peter W. Guenther, eds. Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-garde in Nazi Germany. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991.; Barron, Stephanie, and Sabine Eckmann. Exiles and Emigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Europe. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.; Lanker, Brian, and Nicole Newnham. They Drew Fire: Combat Artists of World War II. New York: T.V. Books, 2000.