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

Part 1: From War with Love



My research investigates how violence has been depicted in painting throughout history and how it sometimes raises the idea of the unrepresentable. As an introduction to the concept of violence one also needs to look at aggression, without which violence would not occur.


From an evolutionary anthropological perspective, whilst Dart (1953) proposed that interpersonal aggression was a driving force behind human evolution, Lorenz (1966) posited that aggression of many animals towards members of their own species is essential for the preservation of that species. Later, Clastres (1980) argued that violence among early societies was a deliberate strategy to define territorial segmentation and to prevent the formation of the State. The World Health Organisation proposed a topology of violence with three categories: self-directed, interpersonal and collective violence. 


From a socio-political perspective, Benjamin (1921) posited that militarism and war are compulsory uses of violence as means to the ends of the state, and suggested that there is an acknowledged historical distinction between sanctioned and unsanctioned violence, based on legal philosophy, which in turn legitimises political and state-based violence. Arendt (1970) argued that even though power and violence co-exist, they are conceptually distinct. Bourdieu (1984) described symbolic power as representing unconscious modes of socio-political and cultural domination that is played out in everyday interactions within a social hierarchy. For Bourdieu, cultural categories are used to make certain ideas thinkable and others unthinkable, and the accepted ideas then become instruments of domination that legitimise a given social order.


From a psycho-analytical perspective, Freud (1923) distinguished between aggression that is acted out (violence) and aggression that remains as fantasy can be expressed symbolically (e.g., sublimation). Fromm (1973) proposed that aggression can be instinctual (benign and defensive) or rooted in an individual’s personality (malignant and destructive), and that malignant aggression can be vengeful, ecstatic, sadistic, or masochistic. 


Furthermore, 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…”


Violence in painting 


My own attempt at depicting violence exists in a history of representation dating back millennia, and several texts (see Aubert et al., 2018; Otterbein, 2004) have examined depictions of violence that go back to the Palaeolithic (fig. 1).




fig 1 cave painting.jpg

Fig. 1 Cave Painting, Upper Palaeolithic.

In this symposium, I focus on contemporary artists whose work depicting violence I relate to the most.


Jean-Michel Basquiat often depicted violence in his paintings and his work was acutely political. One of his most political paintings (fig. 2) depicts the artist Michael Stewart, who died after being arrested and beaten by the police for spraying graffiti on a subway station. 

fig jean michel basquiat 2.jpg

Fig. 2. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), 1983.

Jonathan Meese addresses unpalatable aspects of political history. The artist plays with ideology and symbols that he then subverts. Meese’s visual language is replete with symbolic violence (fig. 3).

fig jonathan meese 3.jpg

Fig. 3. Jonathan Meese, DR. Z.U.K.U.N.F.T. FÜHRT, WIE SAU, COOL COOLISM… (ZEDADDY), 2017.

Throughout history there have been many painters who depicted collective violence adopting a range of perspectives, from war depicted by the victors in glorified fashion, to representations of war that challenged the establishment. But as Bourke (2017) stated, before the 20th century, most artists tended to depict war in heroic tales with opulent battlefield landscapes (fig. 4).

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Fig. 4. Edouard Detaille, The French 4th Hussar at the battle of Friedland, 1891.

In contrast, Otto Dix depicted with documentary and graphic detail the horrible reality of those fighting in the trenches of World War I (fig. 5).

fig otto dix.jpg

Fig. 5. Otto Dix, The War: Wounded Soldier, 1924.

World War II left a lasting wound on European psyche and to this day artists return to the subject from a range of mediums and perspectives. Anselm Kiefer, for example, forced his contemporaries to deal with Nazism and the Holocaust when these were avoided narratives (fig. 6).

fig anselm kiefer 2.jpg

Fig. 6. Anselm Kiefer, Heroic Symbol V, 1970.

The Vietnam War was another conflict that elicited creative protest from artists. At the time Leon Golub responded to the brutality of the war, which he saw shown in the media (fig. 7).

fig leon golub.jpg

Fig. 7. Leon Golub, Vietnamese Head, 1970.

John Keane has also explored the horrors of war and his work is sensitive to the suffering of those whom he depicts. This painting (fig. 8), which I find emotionally powerful, is based on the 1984 Rwanda genocide. 

fig john keane.jpg

Fig. 8. John Keane, If You Knew Me, If You Knew Yourself, 2015.

The unrepresentable


Difficult subjects bring up difficult questions and at times the idea that some subjects are unrepresentable. The concept of the unrepresentable was first proposed by Adorno (1955), when he posited that the concentration camp created a sense of inadequacy in artistic representation. Sontag (2003) critiqued the way in which photographs are used to distort reality as propaganda, and the author argued that war photographs should only be used in newspapers (accompanied by text) and not exhibited in galleries or museums. In contrast, Rancière (2007) promotes the representation of ‘naked images’ (those which cannot represent art as they represent reality - e.g., concentration camps; the idea of image as witness) and stresses the importance of fighting attempts to oppress the expression of taboo subjects.


The idea of the unrepresentable also raises questions about the relationship between history and time. When do events become distant enough in the past to lose their political and moral value? Why do viewers become morally disgusted by Gerard Richter’s ‘Man Shot Down’ (fig. 9) and not by Michelangelo Caravaggio’s ‘The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist’ (fig. 10)?

fig gerard richter man shot down 1.jpg

Fig. 9. Gerard Richter, Man Shot Down 1, 1988.

fig caravaggio.jpg

Fig. 10. Michelangelo Caravaggio, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 1608.

Critical practice: From war with love


From War with Love is an installation piece comprised of a 2.15m x 10m canvas scroll painted using mixed media, ceramic objects connected by black thread and a burnt log wrapped in a canvas strip (figs. 11-14).


The painting represents told and untold stories of war, violence, destruction of communities and families, injustice, gender dominance, rape, corruption, hypocrisy, persecution, and murder.

from war with love full no words.jpg

Fig. 11. From War With Love, mixed media on canvas, 215 x 1000 cm, 2019.

The reverse of the canvas depicts extracts of letters written by fallen soldiers to their loved ones, representing the paradoxes involved in war - love for one’s nation and ideology versus hatred towards the Other. It also depicts gestural marks as ‘impressions’, representing the shadows that were etched on surfaces when the world’s first atom bomb exploded in Hiroshima. 


from war with love reverse full.jpg

Fig. 12. From War With Love (reverse detail), mixed media on canvas, 215 x 1000 cm, 2019.

The porcelain objects symbolise dismembered bodies and buildings and communities destroyed in war. Blackened oak sticks connected with black wool yarn represent lines of mourning.

fig ceramics 2.jpg

Fig. 13. From War With Love, glazed porcelain, wood and wool thread, 2019.

The burnt log symbolises destruction of nature during conflict. The strip of canvas painted pink deconstructs the dichotomy between perceived masculinity and femininity, power and submission, destruction and peace.

fig burnt log.jpg

Fig. 14. From War With Love, wood, canvas and acrylic, 2019.

Summary and developing ideas


Whilst focusing attention on depictions of collective violence, my research has shown how war has been represented in painting throughout history, with a noticeable shift during World War I, when artists started producing art with clearer political and anti-war messages. Still, there are many artists who depict violence, whom I have not yet covered in my critical practice research, and I intend to examine their work in the next two terms. Also, I intend to depict violence in more abstract ways, using symbols (fig. 15), and stretching my practice beyond the canvas.

fig bunny main.jpg
fig abstract fire.jpg
fig pink bomb.jpg

Fig. 15. Untitled, spray paint and acrylic on paper and canvas, 2019.



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