The Artist’s Vision of World War II
edited by Ken McCormick and Hamilton Darby Perry; Orion Books; 453 pages; $65.00.
The editors of this magazine anticipated the publication of Images of War with a keen professional interest. Whenever it comes to putting together a story on World War H, we suspect, we are convinced , there is new visual material out there—in the archives of the Soviet Union, Britain, Germany, and Japan, not to mention the treasures hidden in our own multiplicity of military repositories. Nothing is harder to obtain than a good, sharp color transparency of a work of art that’s been hidden away in the stacks of one of our military branches. Matters didn’t improve when, in a fit of privatization several years ago, a key Army photo lab was eliminated in favor of an outside vendor and efficiency crumbled. This is just enough spleen vented to explain why Images of War is particularly welcome in our quarters. It will become a valuable resource.
The authors—Ken McCormick and Hamilton Darby Perry—have worked with a team of researchers to uncover works from a dozen countries, many of them published only in museum catalogues, if at all.
It’s something of an anomaly that at a time when war seemed especially well matched to the camera, the ancient practice of artist-correspondent should have survived. The eye behind the camera will capture action one way: gritty, shadowed, fuzzy, alarming in its terrible confusion. The hand on the brush has another mission, has time to push and pull images into a more ordered reality that is no less moving. And so we see a German watercolor of a huddle of French troops on Dunkirk beach—abandoned, is the message, by their British allies. It is a moment of utter despair, sculptural and still. Paintings from the U.S.S.R.’s Union of Artists mingle ice, snow, blood, and rage in a way that carries them far beyond any propagandistic intent, although that was a motive shared, of course, by all the military art programs.
The well-reproduced paintings are accompanied by good, informative captions, and the volume contains a richly diverse anthology of firsthand reporting, not just from journalists, historians, and generals but from partisans and civilians, including a Jewish woman who survived the war in Berlin through the help of friends: “Finally the day came when white sheets were hung from the windows and we knew that the nightmare was over.
“We stepped out into the daylight, not daring to believe the good news, and raised our eyes as if expecting the long-desired freedom to shine upon us from the sky. We stood, a crowd of beggars in dirty rags amid the chaos of a world that was breaking to pieces.”