Author Article by Theodore Rabb: Tracing the depiction of war, from heroes in Assyria to misery in Guernica

Augustus of Prima Porta

Augustus of Prima Porta

How have artists across the millennia depicted warfare? Theodore K Rabb’s wide-ranging book The Artist and the Warrior: Military History Through the Eyes of the Masters examines an array of masterpieces from the ancient world to the twentieth century and reveals evolving attitudes towards war and warriors. Here the author gives an introduction to his book, explaining how the warrior and the artist (two unlikely companions) have been inseparable since the beginning of recorded history.

Author article by Theodore K Rabb

My earliest memories are of World War II, and we have lived for more than half a century under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. It is thus not too surprising that, like most historians since Thucydides, I have been unable to stay away from the subject of war for long. Whatever time or place we study, violence and conflict loom large. Even our myths are full of battles and death. And in this grim catalogue we see humanity only rarely at its best. We have reason, therefore, to celebrate a story about the military across the ages that also embraces some of mankind’s supreme achievements of inspiring creativity.

That story is the one I seek to tell in this book. It brings on to the scene the person who is, in some ways, the antithesis of the warrior: the artist.

Soldiers by their very nature are accustomed to a regular diet of physical danger, brute force, speedy action with little reflection, outdoor effort regardless of the weather, and a harsh disregard for life – all in the company of many like-minded comrades. Painters, sculptors and architects, by contrast, tend to operate in calm surroundings, and rely on a slow development of ideas, a mainly indoor existence, and usually solitary work as they represent, reflect upon, or try to shape the human condition.

Yet the two have been in contact since the beginnings of recorded history, and it is that interaction that is the theme of this book. Inevitably, the relationship has been a one-way street, because the fighting man pays little heed to the world of the arts. But the response of artists to the violent combat of their times has repeatedly produced enduring masterpieces. How have they changed across the centuries? How have they differed from place to place? And what do they tell us, more generally, about the attitudes to warfare that they reflect? Those are the questions that I have aimed to answer.

To do so, with such a vast terrain to cover, I have restricted myself to works that I consider masterpieces. Firmly enforced, that definition has resulted in a much more limited territory – though still rich enough to support an account ranging from ancient Assyria to Picasso’s Guernica. The focus is primarily on Europe, but excursions take us to Japan, India, the Middle East, and America. Whether it be a battle scene, a portrait, an allegory, or a memorial, the subject and its treatment become windows into the attitudes of an age. And the succession of masterworks enables us to see how outlooks have shifted and developed from antiquity to the twentieth century.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica

Pablo Picasso, Guernica

The tale that the book tells centers on a slow but profound transformation, from the celebration of heroism and valour to the piercing evocation of the miseries of war. To suggest how and why that change took place requires both a narrative of military practices and a close look at the ways artists responded to the warfare they knew. The second is my main concern, and takes me to Assyrian reliefs, Greek ceramics, Roman sculptures and medieval manuscripts in the early chapters; and then to the panels, canvases, bronzes, engravings, drawings, photographs, films, and monuments that have adorned the centuries since the Renaissance.

By restricting myself to masterpieces, moreover, I have been able to remain with the likes of Piero della Francesca, Titian, Velázquez, Rubens, Goya, Manet, and Picasso as the story moves towards the present. Thanks to the lavish illustrations I have been allowed, the book has become a cornucopia of superb works of art, which give life and meaning to the reactions that warfare has inspired across a vast span of human history.

The Artist and the Warrior

The Artist and the Warrior

Theodore K. Rabb is emeritus professor of history, Princeton University. A historian of early modern Europe, he has published many books during his career and has contributed major reviews in history and art to the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, and numerous other journals.

The Artist and the Warrior: Military History Through the Eyes of the Masters is available now from Yale University Press.

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