There is arguably no subject more popular in the history of art than battles. They are represented on ancient Greek vases, in the works of Leonardo da Vinci and in Francisco Goya’s paintings. One of the most famous 20th-century paintings is the one made by Pablo Picasso in 1937. It shows the bombing of the town of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War. The painting proved that the modern artistic idiom could convey the horror of war as convincingly as old paintings.

The First World War took the lives of eight million soldiers. It is their sacrifice, symbolized by the trenches of Verdun, that is most vividly remembered and commemorated by hundreds of paintings. However, works of this type usually continued on the long tradition of military painting. Their value rests not in the way they portray battles or their form, but in their function: they are a telling tribute to the heroism of soldiers and their commanders. This function sometimes gained particular importance. Such was the case of the painting by a second-rate artist, Jerzy Kossak, that presents the great triumph of the Polish army over Bolshevist forces in the battle of Warsaw of 1920. In the words of Edgar Vincent D’Abernon, if it had not been for that victory, the battle ‘would have been a turning point in European history, for there is no doubt at all that the whole of Central Europe would at that moment have been opened to the influence of Communist propaganda and to Soviet invasion’. The communists, who ruled Poland after 1945, ordered any information about this victory to be removed from school textbooks. Well known to Poles from pre-war postcards, Kossak’s painting helped to sustain the memory of what truly happened.

Picasso’s Guernica was also created out of the need to commemorate wartime events. The painting features the same old themes: the bodies of the dead and the dying at the bottom are dominated by the victors (who are replaced by the figures of mighty animals: a bull and a horse). The difference between Picasso’s painting and the old works with a military subject, however, is that the former focuses on innocent victims rather than the belligerents.

The Second World War remained in the collective memory as the time of an inconceivable extermination of civilians. Over eleven million people died in mass executions as well as forced labour and concentration camps. In the German camp, Auschwitz, built on subjugated Polish territory, besides thousands of Poles and Roma people, Germans killed over one million Jews who were mainly citizens of pre-war Poland. Tens of thousands of Jews were delivered to the camp by railway by the governments of the Republic of Slovakia and the French State (L’État Français). It is no accident that Picasso’s painting, showing helpless victims, became the 20th-century symbol of wartime horrors. Its copy hangs in the seat of the United Nations organization in New York.

The question is whether Picasso would have painted a similar picture after the Second World War. The German philosopher Theodor Adorno believed that the annihilation that took place during that conflict could be neither described nor represented. In 1951, he also said that ‘writing poems after Auschwitz is a barbarity.’ Rather than condemning art, he did not want any artistic creation to aim for beauty in the face of war crimes. He was convinced that annihilation cannot be hushed over. Moreover, he thought that only art can help people find the right way to speak of the tragedy, even though it is not able to describe it.

Alfred Lenica’s painting Ghetto II (1948–59) shows a dense entanglement of black lines and smears against the (mostly) red and (partly) blue background. Knowing the title of the painting and the history of the heroic uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, one recognizes the red as the flames of the burning ghetto, black lines as billows of suffocating smoke, and the blue as the sky covered by the smoke. For all that, the artist did not paint a single house or street or any of the fighting and murdered Jews. Instead of depicting the ghetto of 1944, he tried to ensure that the tragedy would not be forgotten.

The topic of war horrors was approached in a totally different way by Andrzej Wróblewski. His works in the Executions series show both those who are shot or about to be shot as well as their tormentors. The artist apparently used photographs of Poles being shot by Germans in the town of Bydgoszcz in 1939. Even if this was indeed the case, he did not want to make a painting of this or any particular execution. None of the victims could have had its torso turned by 180 degrees as shown in the paintings. None of the dead bodies could have been free of blood stains. Even so, it would be hard to find a more telling image of the violence done to a murdered body. It is the kind of violence that makes the body something contrary to its nature, something inhuman. Wróblewski created a painting representing every crime committed during the Second World War.

If Adorno had seen the works by Lenica and Wróblewski, would he have had doubts about whether they talked of war killings in the right way? A lot of the artists who survived the war came back to painting in the same manner as they did before the war started, producing still life works, portraits, sunny landscapes with clouds floating in the sky and abstract paintings. It was as if the war changed nothing in their lives; as if they thought that art should continue to look for beauty. Should we consider their works barbaric? The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert believed that, faced with the evil that marked the 20th century, artists all too easily forgot about the beauty of the world and the way to ‘read the writing of clouds.’ He believed that beauty brings salvation in grim times.

Undoubtedly, a lot of these traditional works were created routinely, including having the prospect of easy financial gain in mind. It is also true that those who make things for money do not give life to beauty. They create works meant to please – works that pretend to be art but are in fact kitsch. Nonetheless, it is even among these ‘carefree’ works that one can find unique achievements. One example of that are the paintings by Artur Nacht-Samborski, a Jewish survivor who escaped from the Lviv ghetto. They are paintings of flowers whose unusual beauty can bring happiness, a quality that cannot be made light of in bleak times.

Suggested illustrations:
1. Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, oil on canvass, 776 × 349 cm, Queen Sofía Museum, Madrid
2. Alfred Lenica, Getto II, 1948–59, oil on canvas, National Museum, Poznań
3. Andrzej Wróblewski, Execution VIII, 1949, oil on canvas, 130 × 199 cm, National Museum, Poznań
4. Artur Nacht-Samborski, Black Flower, oil on cardboard, ca. 1953, National Museum, Poznań