How do visual artist choose to depict their direct experience of living through a war?


To answer this question I will focus on visual artists who, through their work, depicted their experience of living during a time of war in the art they created. Did creating about their experience help them or destroy them even more? What means of expression did the artist take? To answer the question I contrast work from the World War I with the work of Otto Dix as an anti-war catharsis, World War II and Henry Moore’s humanitarian portraits, Vietnam and Maya Lin’s memorial to the war in Iraq with Wafaa Bilal’s performance art memorial. The analysis of the visual representations of the works of the artist who fought and/or witnessed each major conflict offers an understanding of the reasons why they depicted the horrors of war for the masses as relating to different ways of dealing with the heavy psychological baggage the artists carried within them that propels the creative mind to lighten the load but yet commemorate a direct experience to warn, express sympathy, remember and promote awareness of living through a war together with the need to express that the loss of life in war is unnecessary.


World War I—Otto Dix

One of the prominent artists of the World War One era who fought for Germany was Otto Dix. During the war many enlisted men’s occupation was as a war artist, yet Dix was a rare artist and soldier as his occupation was as a machine gunner. Most war artist sat on the sidelines of major battles and depicted exactly what was occurring while Dix was on the front line and had a first hand account of the horrors of the war. He kept with him a small sketch book to pass the infrequent down time that he had in the trenches and these sketches later became the basis of much of his work after the war providing the material for a major work of fifty prints called simply: The War. After the war the direct impact it had on him psychologically was evident in Dix’s frequent discussions of a dream he had describing bombed out houses in which he had to crawl through to make it out alive (Fox, 2006). Dix returned to studying art after the war but could not shake it from appearing in his work and was continually haunted by the brutality of war. His training in landscapes came in handy as he tried to capture the desolate fields of Flanders, carved with military trenches and filled with bodies to emphasize the burden that was placed on soldiers in his work (Apel, 1997). Dix was at the forefront of post war German avant-garde painting showing his own rejection of the war he was part of and the country that he fought for. In his work Dix showed more of anti war propaganda than that of glorifying it: his works are of post war shame. In terms of why he choose to depict his direct experience of living through a war, he offered an explanation in own words, interviewed by Maria Wetzel (1963):

Not that painting would have been a release. The reason for doing it is the desire to create. I’ve got to do it! I’ve seen that, I can still remember it, I’ve got to paint it.

Dix may have had what psychologist call today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The images of what he saw left a deep cut within his own psyche and through his work he was able not to completely heal his own self but to make the bleeding recede and begin the healing process. His reasoning behind the horrific images that he produced seem to come off as a warning to those in power to the realistic nature of war (Fox, 2006). Dix choose to depict his direct experience of living through a war to help with his own well being and as a spokesman and a soldier who participated in the war: Dix’s work combined a form of therapy with anti war imagery—this is why he created such visually horrific works.


World War II—Henry Moore

From Albert Richards, who was a British war artist, to Henry Moore who depicted drawings of the underground London shelters during the Blitz of German war planes, World War II affected almost all whose country played a role. From Germany’s standpoint on degenerate art and looting and destroying many priceless pieces in the pursuit of Nationalism, to many artists fleeing their home country to escape the Nazis, art seemed to take a back seat to the overall war effort. Yet despite all that was happening many artists still had to express the world around them. Henry Moore, most notably known for his sculptures, turned to drawing the scenes of thousands of men, women, and children covered in quilts and blankets taking shelter from the raining of bombs over head while trying to pass the night as comfortable as possible. The shelters used during these attacks and the people inside them left a visual record in Moore’s memory and would be the basis of a series of drawings that would capture the essence of the innocence and severe nature of those affected by the war in Britain (Ashford, 2007). Moore depicted his scenes from memory adding his own personal aesthetic to forms which show a correspondence to his sculptural figurative work. The three dimensional quality of the drawn figures relates to his sculptural practice, giving each figure its own war hardened skeletal frame. What made Moore want to depict his direct experience of living through a war? The relationship between the figures and the surrounding space sets the atmosphere of the time. Almost using the blankets as a safety net or cocoon, he provides a visual clue to the safety of the shelters and how it protected the people within from the chaos above. In Moore’s own words:

[The] poor looking women and children waiting to be let in to take shelter for the night – and the dirty old bits of blankets and clothes and pillows stretched out on the Tube platforms – it’s about the most pathetic, sordid and disheartening sight I hope to see.

Many artist of the time chose to allude to battle as symbols of the war’s cruelty, yet Moore showcased the war’s effect on those who were at the center of the devastation (Welsh, 2010). He depicted his direct experience because the war brought out a humanist perception of the scenes he witnessed. But unlike Otto Dix, Moore’s work seems unrelated to an anti war campaign filled with brutal imagery of war tattered landscapes: he depicted a universal suffering in all those who had no choice but to take shelter and let the war play out above and beyond. Moore may have intended his drawings from the Blitz to be an extension of his sculptural practice. During the time of war he was not able to produce large forms made of stone but rather small sketches that he would later turn into drawings. The events at hand played a major part of the art that could have been produced at the time. After the war, Moore returned to his sculptural practice often with visual links between the drawn crowded figures in the underground tubes to his post war sculpted reclining forms made of stone and bronze.


Vietnam—Maya Lin

Vietnam was a war that many disagreed with. The media played a major role in broadcasting the brutality of the Vietnam Conflict more so than any other war due to the large number of the American public having a household television. The draft played a major factor on who went to fight the war, where most of the draftees were of poor working class families. Only the wealthy and educated families were able to receive deferments from the draft. America as a country was in turmoil as civil rights and anti war protest flooded the capital. One of the most powerful pieces of art to come from the war was by Maya Lin, a 20 year old Yale undergraduate, that was dedicated to the soldiers who were killed in the conflict but also included the ones who were missing in action after the war was over. Congress granted the Vietnam War veterans’ committee to build a memorial in Washington, D.C. and Lin’s design consisted of a wall of black stone with all 57,661 names engraved in chronological order. She stated her intention of the memorial was to evoke a specific experience of living through a war:

I went to see the site. I had a general idea that I wanted to describe a journey… a journey that would make you experience death and where you’d have to be an observer, where you could never really fully be with the dead. It wasn’t going to be something that was going to say, ‘It’s alright, it’s all over,’ because it’s not. (Parr, 2008)

Much controversy soon followed after the design was approved. The memorial was non traditional as many other war monuments usually contained images of the war or statements about sacrifice and the power of the American military. Besides the general public’s backlash to the memorial, many Vietnam Veterans were vocal about their disapproval calling it a “black gash of shame”, that reminded many of trenches from the battlefields of Vietnam. The fact that Lin was of Asian descent raised a huge issue as well (Goodman, 1982). When looking at the piece as a whole, we must remind ourselves of the purpose that memorial monuments serve to their general audience. Memorials are objects of the public’s commemoration of events to be remembered: they serve as stories of lives lost, a place to mourn and grieve, a continuation of sacrifice that lives on long after the reason to construct such a work. It serves as an object of national identity. Lin’s intention seems to be one of a genuine interest in expressing the nation’s views of the overall conflict and to do this she took a minimalist approach as if to strip away political agendas and anti war propaganda to reveal the honest reality of war, the loss of life in a war, and remembering those who served and died in the war (Abramson, 1996). The power of a name, let alone almost sixty thousand of them, gives actual life to the individuals, putting their boots on the ground for the last time. Lin had no personal attachment to the war in Vietnam, yet she felt strongly enough for the men and women who sacrificed their life, for that they shall never be forgotten.


Iraq— Wafaa Bilal

Not since Vietnam, had the United States invaded another country trying to restore order through its use of military force but the invasion of Iraq by the United States only caused more turmoil than actually helping the situation. The loss of American soldier casualties in the invasion of Iraq was incomparable to the number of innocent Iraqi civilians that were killed during the bombardment during the invasion. Artist Wafaa Bilal’s performance art deals with the invasion of his home country and the loss of Iraqi civilians. He performed a twenty-four hour live tattooing session broadcasted live on the internet which involved getting the names of Iraqi cities which formed a map on his back without a border: 5,000 red dots represented dead American soldiers and 100,000 dots in invisible ink, only showing itself under ultraviolet light, represented the official death toll of Iraqi civilians. Many of the Iraqi civilian deaths were never brought up in the news coverage of the Iraqi war and most still go unnoticed by the American public. Bilal seeks an engagement with his audience by providing a virtual and physical platform where one can see the staggering number of casualties of the result of the invasion (Kamat, 2010). Using his own body as a personal monument, Bilal carries around with him everyday the impact of the war. Most monuments after being constructed seem to become less and less populated by the general public as if once you have visited a site there is no need to revisit it. Having each dot representing an actual human being whose life was lost creates an open ended and almost incomplete process of mourning the victims. Imagine carrying around every individual’s name of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. Maya Lin used large slabs of black stone to depict those lost to war, yet Bilal’s performance piece is as effective if not more direct. While trying to encapsulate all the death tolls of a war that lasted many years within 24 hours seems to be an act of self-perseverance. The pain suffered from those families and loved ones whose life was lost being transferred into the pain of being permanently tattooed on one’s own skin shows the need to empathise with grief (Kamat, 2010). Having a live public audience and also having the performance being streamed on the internet live, Bilal confronts the viewer with the large number of those killed at a brute and barbaric way using his own flesh as a landscape of death.



Through works of art during the wars stated above, the impact lives long after the wars were ended. The impact lived with either the individual who participated in the war and had a first hand account of the horrors they witnessed as in the case of Otto Dix, or with one who saw humanity take cover underground as the war played out above as with Henry Moore. Monuments were constructed for the general public but also personal ones were made for those who lost their life as in the case of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the tattoo piece of Wafaa Bilal. But why were these visual artist compelled to make work about war? Any event that involves death at such a large-scale as war tends to have become a question of life. As if issues and problems that occur on an everyday basis seem irrelevant to the bigger picture of mankind destroying one another. Visual artist who depict their direct experience of living through a war seem to need to express that the loss of life in war is unnecessary to the greater good of the world we all share. From the timeline of the wars I have covered it seems that nothing has changed when it comes to the value we place on a person’s life. The artist that were discussed tried to show the general public the horrific outcomes that war can only guarantee, that through their work maybe they might prevent the next war to come.


Fox, Paul. “Confronting Postwar Shame in Weimar Germany: Trauma, Heroism and the War Art of Otto Dix”. Oxford Art Journal 29.2 (2006): 247–267.

Apel, Dora. “”heroes” and “whores”: The Politics of Gender in Weimar Antiwar Imagery”. The Art Bulletin 79.3 (1997): 366–384.

Ashford, David. “Children Asleep in the Underground: The Tube Shelters of Brandt and Moore”. The Cambridge Quarterly 36.4 (2007): 295–316.

Welsh, David. Underground Writing: The London Tube from George Gissing to Virginia Woolf. 1st ed. Liverpool University Press, 2010.

Parr, Adrian. Deleuze and Memorial Culture: Desire, Singular Memory and the Politics of Trauma. Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Goodman, E. (1982, September 25) Appropriate Vietnam Memorial – controversial, painful. Youngstown Vindicator. Retrieved from

Abramson, Daniel. “Maya Lin and the 1960s: Monuments, Time Lines, and Minimalism”. Critical Inquiry 22.4 (1996): 679–709.

Kamat, Anjali, and Wafaa Bilal. “Interview with Iraqi Artist Wafaa Bilal”. The Arab Studies Journal 18.1 (2010): 316–329.

Image List:

Shock Troops Advance under Gas from The War, Otto Dix 1924

Grey Tube Shelter, Henry Moore 1940

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Maya Lin 1982