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Édouard Manet
The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, about 1867-8
Oil on canvas
193 x 284 cm (75.9 x 111.8 in.)
The National Gallery, London

Throughout art history, war and military have been frequent subjects, as wars have always been present, characterized by extreme violence, destruction, and mortality. In the 19th century, artists like Francisco de Goya and Édouard Manet began addressing the casualties and suffering of war more explicitly, exemplified by Goya's The Third of May 1808 (1814) and Manet's series on The Execution of Emperor Maximilian. These works highlight the brutality and senselessness of war through their dramatic compositions and emotional intensity, setting the stage for future artists to continue exploring the impact of war and military conflict in their art.

In the 20th century, artists used images of war and the military to critique and protest. One notable artist who employed war imagery in his work is Pablo Picasso. Picasso expressed his anger in response to the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in his piece entitled Guernica (1937). Depicted in Picasso's unique style of Cubism, the oil painting portrays the horror and chaotic scene of the war through fragmented figures representing the victims of the bombing.

The advent of photojournalism during World War II and the Vietnam War revolutionized the way war was documented and experienced by the public. Iconic photographs, such as Joe Rosenthal's Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima (1945) and Nick Ut's The Terror of War (1972), which depicts a young girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam, played a crucial role in shaping public opinion and awareness about the realities of war.

Jenny Holzer
Oil on linen
147.3 x 111.8 cm (58 x 44 in.)
© Jenny Holzer
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

In the 21st century, artists continue to use war and military imagery in their work as a means of reflecting on social and political issues. Some artists focus on the impact of war on individuals and communities to explore themes such as trauma, displacement, and loss.

American neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer has created a series of works that use text to reflect on the impact of war on society by highlighting the experiences and perspectives of those directly affected by war. The Radacation Paintings (2005-ongoing) is the series by Holzer often incorporating declassified United States government documents heavily related to American military activity. This series includes many documents that are almost completely blacked out which were already done so before they were released (Holzer only worked with those that have already been published - more classified information the administration generates, the less the public is allowed to see) and the works allows to remind of what really goes on the behind scenes and how the truth was distorted, hidden behind.

“I wanted to see secretes.”

Jenny Holzer

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