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Printmaking Cycles and Warfare Documentation

September 8, 2011

I spent some time at the Belligerent Encounters: Graphic Chronicles of War and Revolution, 1500 – 1945 at MAIC today.  The word belligerent is often used as a softer adjective for people who are stubborn or argumentative, but the show reflects the actual dictionary definition of”belligerent” as being “warlike; given to waging war.”  There is a varied collection of mass propaganda posters from various sources, some singular art works including one work by Egon Schiele and a lot of traditional printmaking works from many artists.

There is a very large selection of the Devastations of War by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828). Goya’s etchings were so dangerous during his time, they were printed after his death.  If you have not seen these historical works, it is worth the trip.  This is the largest grouping of the Devastations of War cycle that I have seen in one place.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes: And There’s Nothing to Be Done (Y no hai remedio)

There were two excellent lithographs by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) from the French Napoleonic era and a few printmaking works by Édouard Manet (1832–1883) regarding the overthrow of French Imperial rule in Mexico.  Géricault had such amazing draftsmanship and it is unusual to see etchings of warfare and its results from Manet.

The exhibitors put Max Beckmann’s Hell (Die Hölle) series of lithographs from 1919 across from Otto Dix’s long series of brutal etchings War (Der Krieg) from 1924.  Goya expressed emotional and psychic trauma over war, with some etchings using symbolism, while others express witnessed events.  The Dix and Beckmann printmaking cycles are more documentary and Modern in in expressing things the artists actually saw and were aware of, as soldiers and as well citizens, as the impact of WWI took its toll on their society.  These are works which are more literal and less symbolic.  The whole of the artist’s printmaking works come together with a common message, in a sort of strange juxtaposition to the colorful various mass communication posters, to de-glamorize warfare and the role of a soldier.

The Hunger, plate five from Die Hölle (Hell) by Max Beckmann, lithograph, 1919

Gas victims – Templeux-la-Fosse, August 1916 [Gastote – Templeux-la-Fosse, August 1916] by Otto Dix, etching, 1924

There is a nice online collection of the works of Otto Dix here.  Our contemporary printmaker with a large-scale cycle of woodcut prints regarding our current conflict in Iraq is Sandow Birk, who is firmly in good company of many centuries of previous artists that have used printmaking to communicate about wars which occurred during their lifetimes.  It’s not an easy show to look at, which is a good purpose for the show because generations of the people of America has been largely insulated from first-person connections to war and the impact of war.  Conflicts that have taken place within our borders have been minor and usually singular, as opposed to the kind of ongoing dangers and disasters people face when living in an area where warfare is being actively engaged in for a sustained period of time.

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