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Violence in Painting: From the Myth to ​the Contemporary Spectacle




As a point of departure one can start with the question, where does human violence come from? One of the most controversial theories that attempt to answer this question is called the killer ape hypothesis (Dart, 1953), which posits that interpersonal aggression was a driving force behind human evolution. Dart’s theory proposes that the ancestors of humans were more aggressive than other primates and that through evolution the urge for violence remained an integral part of human psychology.


This thinking was further supported by Lorenz (1966) who claimed that aggression of many animals, including humans, towards members of their own species is essential for the preservation of the species. The evidence for such theories has come from not only Palaeolithic cave art, but also from skeletal remains of early humans. In fact the most ancient archaeological evidence of what could have been a prehistoric massacre comes from a site in Sudan containing a large number of skeletons with arrowheads embedded in them (Antoine, Zazzo & Freidman, 2013). In support of such views, Jones (2008) has added that there is growing evidence from neuroscience and anthropology suggesting that the study of evolution and genes supports a better understanding of human violence and warfare. 


However, several authors have challenged the hypothesis that human beings are inherently violent. Whilst the Seville Statement on Violence (UNESCO, 1986) rejects any genetic basis to violence or warfare; Haas and Piscitelli (2013) have stated that ambiguous evidence from rock art or low numbers of recorded skeletal remains do not support the idea that humankind is intrinsically violent. Still, putting aside the pre-historic findings and the argument whether aggression is hard-wired into the human psyche or not (based on early humans development), undeniable evidence since the beginning of recorded history shows that human acts of violence have been committed throughout the times. 


Depictions of violence


By reviewing the recorded history, one can safely establish that violence in all its guises has not only been practised, but it has also been represented and transmitted orally and in written and pictorial form since the time that early humans developed complex communication skills to communicate symbolically. Shea (2016) posits that although the origin of symbolic communication remains open to interpretation, there is some agreement that possibly around two million years ago, Homo erectus used “pantomime” to communicate, allowing our ancestors to transmit information about their experiences. From archaeological finds of several early human skeletons showing injuries, one can assert that information relating to (violent) attacks between different groups has been transmitted for many millennia. 


Taking a leap in time to the Stone Age; where several figurative art cave paintings have been dated to be from around forty thousand years ago, with more recently a cave painting in Borneo being dated to be as old as fifty-two thousand years old (Aubert et al., 2018), numerous depictions of violence are to be found. Of the many cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic (e.g., Fig. 1), there are several representations of human beings pierced with arrows, possibly depicting confrontations between groups or, as some suggest, perhaps even human sacrifice or punishment (Otterbein, 2004).



fig 1 cave painting.jpg

Fig. 1 Cave Painting, Upper Palaeolithic.

Travelling in time towards the present, from Ancient and Post-Classical History to Modern (inc. contemporary) History, violence has always been an important theme in art; as can be seen in the 11thcentury Bayeux Tapestry (Fig. 2) depicting the conquest of England in the year 1066 by William, Duke of Normandy.

fig 2 bayeux tapestry.jpg

Fig. 2  Bayeux Tapestry, 11thcentury.

Looking more specifically at Western painting, depictions of violence against both individuals and groups in acts of rape, murder, torture and war have been represented for millennia from Greek and Roman murals to the latest contemporary paintings of Anselm Kiefer (Fig. 3), amongst many others.

fig 3 anselm kiefer war.jpg

Fig. 3 Anselm Kiefer, The doctrine of War; Battles, 2004-2010.

Adopting a deconstructionist perspective, one can argue that the depiction of violence in contemporary society has served as an “apparatus” (see Agamben, 2009) to serve the mechanisms of capitalism. As Zizek (2008, p.6) puts it, “Let’s think about the fake sense of urgency that pervades the left-liberal humanitarian discourse on violence: in it, abstraction and graphic (pseudo)concreteness co-exist in the staging of the scene of violence-against women, blacks, the homeless, gays…”


Project objectives


This project aims to take a combined theoretical and practice-based approach in order to ask:


How has violence been depicted in art, and more specifically painting, throughout history?


From a theoretical perspective this project aims to review available written and visual records of violence, and to deconstruct how violence is portrayed in painting. From a practice perspective this project aims to adopt painting as a framework in order to depict and deconstruct both historical and contemporary events of violence from a phenomenological perspective (incorporating personal and cultural references).


Epistemological position


Whilst naïve realists and social constructionists tend to position themselves at opposite ends, a different epistemological perspective called critical realism posits that although we are limited by perception and cognition, we can partially access, know and communicate reality, even if only in a limited way (Bhaskar, 1998). Critical realists argue that there is a reality that can be known and they recognise the role of cognitions and interpretations in understanding that reality. Epistemologically, this project follows a critical realist position where the lived experience of violence and its representation are perceived as subjective, but also as an objective external reality.


Methodological approach 


This project will adopt a qualitative approach to researching violence and its representation in art. Qualitative research is concerned with the description and interpretation of the meanings that phenomena have for the people who experience them. According to Langdridge (2008), a qualitative paradigm (e.g., phenomenology) has an epistemological focus on experience and narrative rather than on the notion that there is a real knowable world that can be objectively studied. Unlike most quantitative research, analysis in qualitative research does not locate itself “outside human society, looking in” (Ashworth, 2008); instead it recognises its stance as set within a culture. 


Whilst taking a qualitative approach, this project will consider formal (composition) and technical (materials) analysis of representations of violence in painting, with a stronger emphasis on examining violence from an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) approach that I will adapt to arts-based research (ABR) thinking. IPA was first developed in the UK by social psychologist Jonathan Smith (1991) and has since become a widely used approach in qualitative research. IPA is interpretative and acknowledges the researcher’s viewpoint and belief system and accepts the idea that understanding requires interpretation. In turn, and according to Leavy (2009), ABR can be defined as a “transdisciplinary approach to knowledge building that combines the tenets of the creative arts in research contexts,” adopting “methodological tools used by researchers across the disciplines during any or all phases of research, including problem generation, data or content generation, analysis, interpretation, and representation.” One of the main tenets of ABR is the idea of the artist-researcher engaging in art making as a way of knowing (McNiff, 1998).




In relation to “data collection” and the more theoretical aspect of my research, I will visit museums and galleries, read artists monographs, books, articles, and on-line content. I will also attend group crits, tutorials, lectures, seminars and conferences in order to discuss ideas with other artists and further contextualise my practice. The artists that I identify the most with their themes (not strictly visually) and/or visual language, and that I intend to research more closely are: Albert Oehlen, Anselm Kiefer, Armen Eloyan, Dale Lewis, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jonathan Meese, Paula Rego, Philippe Vandengerg, Rita Ackerman and Rose Wylie. The authors that I envisage to refer to in terms of analytical thinking around art practice (inc. painting) within a socio-political context are: Giorgio Agamben, Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, John Berger, Jacques Ranciere, Paul Virilio, Pierre Bourdieu and Slavoj Zizek, amongst others. 


In relation to my studio practice, in this project I will employ painting as the main grounding for exploring the theme of violence whilst I will also try to incorporate ceramics in an installation-based approach to representation. I intend to use mixed media (e.g., oil, acrylic, ink) on large canvas in the hope that scale might have an impact on how the visual imagery and meaning of the work (i.e., representation of violence) is perceived. The large canvas with the chaotic imagery that I intend to use might in itself emulate the idea of the spectacle of violence. Furthermore, I intend to use a more gestural(ly) figurative language mixed with abstract elements, and I will to try to deconstruct the representation of some of the visual references.




Agamben, G. (2009). What is an apparatus?: And other essays.Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.


Antoine D., Zazzo A., Freidman R. (2013). Revisiting Jebel Sahaba: New Apatite Radiocarbon Dates for One of the Nile Valley’s Earliest Cemeteries. American Journal of Physical Anthropology Supplement 56: 68.


Ashworth, P. (2008). Conceptual foundations of qualitative psychology.  In J.A. Smith (Ed.), Qualitative psychology: A practical guide to research methods (pp. 4 – 25).  London: Sage Publications.


Aubert, M., et al. (2018). Palaeolithic cave art in Borneo. Nature. Retrieved 17 October 2019.


Bhaskar, R. (1998). The possibility of naturalism: A philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences(3rd edition). London: Routledge.


Bourke, J. (2017). War and Art: A Visual History of Modern Conflict. London: Virago.


Dart, R. (1953). The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man. International Anthropological and Linguistic Review. 1 (4): 201–217.


Haas; J., Piscitelli, M. (2013). The Prehistory of Warfare: Misled by Ethnography. In Douglas P. Fry (ed.). War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 168–190.


Jones, D. (2008). Human behaviour: Killer instincts. Nature. 451 (7178): 512–515.


Langdridge, D. (2008). Phenomenological psychology: Theory, research and method. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.


Leavy, P. (2009). Method meets art: Arts-based research practice. New York: Guilford Press.


Lorenz, K. (1966). On Aggression. London: Methuen Publishing.


McNiff, S. (1998). Art-based research. London: Jessica Kingsley.


Otterbein, K. (2004). How War Began. Texas A&M University Press.


Shea, J. (2016). Language and Symbolic Artifacts. In Stone Tools in Human Evolution: Behavioral Differences among Technological Primates (pp. 84-109). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, J. A. (1991). Conceiving selves: A case study of changing identities during the transition to motherhood. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 10(4), 225 – 243.


Zizek, S. (2008). Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York : Picador.

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