05/10/2019, 7:43 PM
From the name of the military genre popular in art, its focus is already clear: an illustration of everything related to military affairs. The subject of inspiration for military genre painters of all time was famous battles in history and their heroes, feats of arms, triumphs and defeats, battles on land, at sea and in the air, military equipment and ships, banners and other related paraphernalia.

Of course, such a fertile topic could not be ignored by regular propagandists of patriotism, ideologists and agitators of all stripes, times and continents.

What is military art? This is a genre that glorifies the war and the heroic deeds of its participants, creating an artistic dimension of patriotic mythology, the pathos of high achievements on the battlefield, designed to evoke patriotic feelings and promote the recruitment of participants in new wars for the glory of the motherland and its leaders.

Speaking of leaders. They liked to commission paintings depicting them as victors and conquerors of enemy lands, tradition started with the Egyptian pharaohs. The most prominent pharaoh of Ancient Egypt was Ramesses II, by whose order the court painters of the military genre immortalized his victories over the hostile Hittites in the images of the temple complex of Abu Simbel and the Ramesseum, a mortuary temple in western Thebes. Similar works of military art have been preserved in the monuments of other cultures of the Middle East region.

The masters of military art from Ancient Greece liked to apply drawings of the corresponding subjects on ceramic products such as vases, kylixes, amphorae, craters and other pelikes. In addition to vessels, the heroic deeds of the Hellenes were embodied in statues and reliefs on the walls of ancient Greek temples. 

The military art of Ancient Rome is represented by monumental forms: triumphal arches and monuments in the form of columns with relief spiral wrapping around them. Scenes of campaigns and victories were intended to testify to the power of the Roman Empire. Evidence of military triumphs adorned not only public places. In Pompeii, archaeologists have discovered a mosaic with a battle scene between the troops of Alexander the Great and the king of the Persian Empire, Darius III. 

In the Middle Ages, images of battles were created in the form of drawings on tapestries and in the form of miniatures on the pages of books. However, as an independent genre, military art began to take shape in Europe in the 16th century. In different eras, there were many outstanding artists of the military genre.

In the 15th century, in the Italian city of Florence, the early Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello created works of the military genre. While painting churches and palazzos, he left outstanding works, among which The Battle of San Romano is a three-part frieze that depicts scenes of a battle between the armies of two cities in Italy that took place in 1432. The author of the work captured this incident after a quarter of a century. The frieze was located in the hall of the Palazzo Medici, the residence of the Florentine leaders. 

Paolo Uccello had a wonderful sense for an artist – subtle humour. His work of military art called Saint George and the Dragon contains, at first glance, a traditional motif for European art, a warrior slaying a dragon. But in Uccello’s interpretation, we see a gentle dragon on a lady’s leash and this significantly changes the meaning of the picture, depriving the knight’s act of any practical necessity. 

The first half of the 16th century includes the work of the German painter Albrecht Altdorfer, who produced artwork in the military genre, which has two names –The Battle of Alexander, or The Battle of Issus. It is rightfully considered the major masterpiece among his works. On the canvas, two armies converged in battle – Alexander and Darius. The battle painter has a specific view of this event: the warriors of antiquity are dressed in armour from the era of the European Middle Ages. The majesty of the panorama of the battle is emphasized by two luminaries – the setting sun and the moon replacing it. But in the background of the work we see an even more impressive sight and that is a landscape with extraordinary beauties of nature. The artist hints that the wars of people are mortal coil and vanity in comparison with the beauty and grandeur of nature, the world under the moon. This military artwork was supposed to be the first of a series of works about the famous battles of antiquity.

From time immemorial, paintings depicting naval battles have also been popular. In this genre, the military painter Willem van de Velde the Younger gained fame, creating his works in the 17th century. And in his works we see the contrast between nature and the mischiefs of its children: his sea battles oppose with the calmness of the sea, gleaming in the rays of the sun. 

There were artists of military art who painted their works with a profound knowledge of the subject matter, because they themselves were witnesses and participants in battles. Among them was the German painter Peter von Hess. He participated in battles with Napoleon’s troops in 1813-1814, and after the war he traveled to a number of countries of the Old World: Austria, Switzerland, Italy. But his house and workshop were in Munich. There he produced his works, paying attention not only to the great battles with many participants, but also to stories from a soldier’s life. This military painter caught the era of restoration after centuries of non-existence of the statehood of Greece. He devoted dozens of works to the struggle of the Greeks for independence.

Some painters, however, preferred to create anti-war military paintings. And they also succeeded. Because they did not praise the war but conveyed the horror of its consequences. Among the anti-war artworks of military painters of the 19th century, one of the most eloquent works belongs to the brush of the Russian artist Vasily Vereshchagin. The one is the painting The Apotheosis of War by Vereshchagin painted in 1871. The frame framing this picture is provided with the following text: “Dedicated to all great conquerors, past, present and to come”. The war artist painter placed in the centre of the picture a large pile of human skulls with traces of sabres and arrow holes. In the background are the ruins of the city and burnt trees. Above the terrible pyramid, carrion crows describe circles. And above it all, the blue of the sky overtops.

In the ХХ century, one of the most famous anti-war works was created in May 1937 by Pablo Picasso Guernica. The painting was created right after on April 26, 1937, the Luftwaffe air bombed Guernica, a Basque Country town in northern Spain. The shock the artist has experienced from the sight of the destroyed city is also transmitted to the audience of this painting in the style of cubism.

And it seems that the sculptor from the USSR Yevgeny Vuchetich dreamed of putting an end to military art. He is the author of a sculpture called Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares. A man with a mighty hammer in his hands forges a weapon of war into a tool designed for peaceful labour. The concept of the sculpture, created in 1957, is borrowed from the Bible, which says that in the future people will forget how to fight and beat swords into ploughshares. The author of this work, a veteran of the Second World War himself, has expressed his attitude to the war quite clearly. His work, which embodied the dream of mankind, adorned the waterfront of the East River in front of the Headquarters of the United Nations in Midtown Manhattan, New York City.

The art of depicting war is the only genre that we wish not to have a future. But so far, the time for the conversion of weapons, which was foretold by the biblical prophet Isaiah, has not come, and the painters continue the sad tradition of creating works in the military genre. The work of contemporary military artists can be bought online at the Jose Art Gallery website