Academic journal article Policy Review

War Paint

Academic journal article Policy Review

War Paint

Article excerpt

THEODORE K. RABB. The Artist and the Warrior: Military History through the Eyes of the Masters. YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. 288 PAGES. $45.

WAR BRINGS OUT the best and the very worst in man: Heroism, self-sacrifice, and endurance among the virtues; cruelty, cowardice, and treachery among the vices. Add color and spectacle and it is little wonder that war has inspired artists throughout history. When it comes to heroics, Jacques-Louis David's colossal canvas Bonaparte Crossing the St. Bernard Pass delivers, and then some: In his portrait, which was ordered by the king of Spain, David shows Napoleon as the warrior superhero, astride a rearing stallion, his windswept cloak clinging to his body, and with the names of his predecessors Hannibal and Charlemagne carved in the rock face. Never mind that in reality, Napoleon had to resort to a lowly but surefooted mule for the descent, and, losing patience, at one point even got off to slide on his rear.

Early in the year Boo, Napoleon's career was in urgent need of repair: As a result of Nelson's destruction of the French fleet, Napoleon's expeditionary force was still stuck in the sands of Egypt, where shamefully he had abandoned it. The Austrians were on the move in Italy. But with his surprise move across the Alps, ending in his victory over Baron Melas, the Austrian commander, at Marengo, he was back in business. To celebrate this feat, David was forced to work from a dummy, as Napoleon had proved unwilling to pose, but understandably, when Napoleon saw the finished work, he promptly requested three copies for himself.

At the other end of the spectrum we find Francisco Goya's 8z prints, titled Disasters of War, from the Peninsula War: In 1807, the French and the Spaniards had invaded Portugal to eject the Brits, but it did not take long for Napoleon to betray his Spanish allies and become an occupier. His troops were living off the land, which makes sense when you have a huge army to feed, but does not endear you to the locals. The Spaniards responded by waging "guerrilla" war, little war, the origin of that term.

The attacks triggered savage reprisals from the French troops, and Goya's prints show the sufferings of the civilian population. They feature nameless victims, priests being murdered, women being raped, people dying of famine or facing execution. Thus plate 37, This Is Worse, shows a mutilated body, its arms missing, impaled on a tree trunk; the figure brings to mind a classical marble torso--and indeed Goya partly relied on a sketch of the Belvedere torso in Rome--except this version is flesh and blood. A few prints show French soldiers being hacked to death. The message is that war is hell: Though Goya's sympathy lies with his countrymen, heinous deeds are committed by both sides.

The contrasting ways of representing war, as highlighted by the examples above, are examined in Theodore K. Rabb's crisp The Artist and the Warrior: Military History through the Eyes of the Masters. Originally, the two protagonists in the book's title coexisted peacefully, with the artist celebrating the deeds of the soldier, but over the centuries the relationship has developed into one of "skepticism and even antagonism" on the artist's part," which Rabb, perhaps a little too readily, accepts as "the natural relationship between these two very different occupations."

As he makes clear in the foreword, owing to the fluctuating quality of the works that various wars have inspired, he bases his selections on artistic merit and concentrates on the masterpieces, rather than taking his point of departure in the historical event itself. This means that just because a historical event is important, say Trafalgar or Waterloo, this does not automatically ensure its inclusion, as Napoleon no doubt would be relieved to hear.

THE ROMAN ARTISTS certainly knew how to honor military heroes, including one not their own, Alexander the Great, who defeated the Scythians and the Parthians and went all the way to India, and who all subsequent military men strove to emulate. …

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