I’d wager a guess that if I asked you to name what comes to mind with “war art,” you would either offer up works highlighting the horrors of war (The 3rd of May, 1808, Guernica, The Massacre at Chios) or propaganda pieces (here’s looking at you, Napoleon). There’s another important role that artistic depictions of war, political turmoil, and civil crises play in history: the building of national identity.
As an art historian and not a journalist, I’m still naively fascinated by the interplay of international and intranational (why is this not a word already?) conflict. I’ll use Scotland as my main example. It has a long, tumultuous history of war with England and complicated relationship with France, but it’s also had its fair share of civil unrest. Still, Scotland went a long way in bridging a wealth of religious, class, and regional gaps. There was a phenomenon that dovetailed with the romantic art movement in the late 18th and early 19th of Scottish history painting using horrible events from the country’s past as a point of national pride.
The Romantic Movement in art was very concerned with heroism. Scotland, a culture that had previously not been on the cutting edge of art history, emerged as a leader of the genre thanks not to a painter, but to writer and poet Sir Walter Scott. Scott was not only beloved in his native land, but achieved global fame. A bit like Alexandre Dumas, his works of historical fiction inspired renewed interest and a rosy perception of the events that his books were based on. For example, A Legend of Montrose, published in 1819, uses the bloody conflict between the Covenanters and Royalists in the Bishops’ Wars as a backdrop for a dramatic romance. These wars between Scotland and England were also a civil war for Scotland. They’re named such for the fight between a large faction of native Scots’ preference for Presbyterianism and the English kind Charles II’s imposition of Anglicanism. The Marquis of Montrose was a Covenant leader who famously switched to the Royalist side, leading to his 1650 execution for treason.
Many painters – Sir George Harvey, David Wilkie, James Drummond, etc – rode the tide of romantic history following Scott’s popularity. James Drummond’s Montrose shows the traitor going to his execution dressed in rich highland clothing: sort of ironic since the army he raised on behalf of Charles II did much of its damage in the Highlands. This artistic choice is very important to the issue of national identity, though. “Tartanry,” or the adoption of Highland (the more rugged, poorer part of Scotland at the time) by all classes, went hand in hand with the creation of a Romantic Scotland. Montrose is presented as a misunderstood, tragic hero. The drama of the painting is heightened by the figure of the Marquis of Argyll, Montrose’s former ally turned greatest enemy. Of course, in the mid seventeenth century, the English Civil War and its fallout was nothing to celebrate. Many Scottish citizens died in the conflict, and the Covenanters are still thought of as Presbyterian martyrs.
An overly simple answer to what heals a culture’s battle scars is time. Either the conflict ends and a long healing process follows, or the conflict continues to cause unrest. I still believe the role of artistic response to conflicts is underrated. Part of the formula definitely is time. At least a century passed before the opinion on some of Scotland’s most violent history changed from despair and pain to patriotism. We’ve seen this in American art as well, in depictions of the Civil War.
This artistic elevation of war isn’t as apparent today. Perhaps it’s the death of Romanticism (in all art forms) and a commitment to realistic, often caustic responses to war (hi, David). History moves faster now, too. The turnaround for art after an event is usually within a five year span as opposed to a century. It’s undoubtedly for the best that we don’t glorify brutality, but that process is often entrenched in the fiber of our cultural being.