The most famous images of war were created by men. Whether that be the Tapestry of Angers, Boccioni’s Charge of the Lancers, or Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari, which is unfortunately lost but witnessed in the works of Rubens and Biagio di Antonio. How, however, is the experience of war expressed by women? The answer to this question is not straightforward, because the relationship between images of peace and war is complex. One could interpret the depiction of an enchanting landscape or a mother with a child as an expression of peace, which in turn is understood as the absence of war. In fact, primitive depictions do not include fighting, but symbols of fertility and hunting rituals. Only with the development of writing did legendary figures, military leaders and the war stories of the Bible, in which women actively intervene, appear.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes could be considered the first female war painting; a war against a despot. The role of women in war is particular, and therefore the painter tells the same story differently than her contemporary Caravaggio, with a more intimate style, because it is also a battle between the sexes/genders. Later, in the art of the Romantic period, women were elevated to heroes, as in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, while Angelika Kaufmann and others make their home the ideal place of peace.
In the 19th century, the existential evil of war was represented in individual figures. Käthe Kollwitz wrote on a poster dating from 1924, “Never war again!” which symbolized with bold charcoal strokes the suffering of people and their bitter experiences in wartime. She was one of the few women, along with Dix, Beckmann or Grosz, who with their implacably honest view of the horrors and cruelties of war, who appealed with their male counterparts to compassion and humanity, along with Tolstoy and Picasso who symbolized the opposites of bad war and good peace. Finally, art against the wars in Vietnam and Korea emerged in the 20th century, which saw artists take a stand and interpret the theme in their individual way. At that time, in 1965, Chiara Lubich commissioned a mosaic as a sign of peace.
In 2015, in Berne and The Hague respectively, the 100th International Peace Conference of Socialist Women and the International Peace Congress of Bourgeois Women’s Rights Activists took place. For these events, an exhibition on the topic of women in war and peace was held in the Women’s Museum in Bonn. In their works - films, installations, photographs and paintings - women discuss the consequences of war. In the work Burnt Moments, the artist Eva Horstick-Schmitt, together with eleven friends, burn reportage images from Kosovo in a performance at the Brandenburg Gate to commemorate the victims. From this senseless destruction, a new work was created by scanning the remains of the images and enlarging them. In the work Eva-Jenseits von Eden (2003/04), an image shows the wounds and brutality on the skin instead of the actual body of the woman. Marlen Seubert’s Projektfläche Haut also visualizes the existential threat to women for whom the consequences of war are particularly negative; while, at the same time, they play a key role in peace building.
“How can art and culture take shape in wartime, what can female writers or directors do, can art do something against war?” These are questions from female artists in 2022 at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. As President of the Akademie Jeanine Meerapfel, states “It’s about bearing witness, about preserving history, about creating a document”. Many women artists are unable to think about art during the war and, like Sasha Marianna Salzmann does, they start helping people instead.
Art does not only serve to draw attention to the danger or destruction of a city, as in the case of Picasso’s Guernica. In addition, the global threat requires global signals in terms of human rights and care for the environment. Maria Cristina Finucci, for example, has highlighted the micro-plastic dimension of war with her project HELP. This work is made from collected and crushed plastic bottles, with which she creates huge islands by the whirlpools of the sea, which is a declaration of war on nature. In the bodies of marine animals, in fact, there are millions of particles that will be their undoing. It is a war that we all play a part with our style of living. It is a chemical war. We can speak of a new paradigm of art that the artist is developing together with the universality of a transmedia discourse. We do not read war in images, nor do we feel it through strong colors, but we are the protagonists of art that makes us aware of our violence.
Finally, peace becomes the encounter itself in the case of performance artist Marina Abramovic who sits at a table for hours and opens her eyes for three minutes on the person in front of her. It is about exposing oneself and recognising what is happening, as in the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. It is an act of peace and a new secret of female art.
By Yvonne Dohna Schlobitten