War artists expose true horror of warfare

Ruin or redemption? The message of Gassed by John Singer Sargent is fraught with ambiguity.

To mark the centenary of World War One, Britain’s National Portrait Gallery has announced a major exhibition on wartime painting, film and photography. Does trauma breed creativity?

In Blood and Iron by Charles Ernest Butler, Jesus Christ tends a dying soldier as the angel of death urges Kaiser Wilhelm II on towards a city in flames. Blinded conscripts grasp one another’s shoulders in John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, picking their way between piles of the dead and dying. Mark Gertler presents a vision of officers and civilians sitting rigidly on a nightmarish carousel, locked in a doomed and claustrophobic cycle.

These are a few of the most famous paintings produced during World War One, a conflict famous for its impact on culture high and low. Now, as the hundredth anniversary of the war approaches, Britain’s National Portrait Gallery has announced a major exhibition of wartime art.

Some of the works on show will be propaganda. Some are classical celebrations of honour and sacrifice, echoing the way that war had been portrayed for centuries. But much of the art for which the first world war was most famous displayed a new and more pessimistic vision of conflict: many of the artists and ordinary people forced to experience the horror of the trenches could no longer believe in old myths of glorious war.

Even propaganda was often surprisingly ready to confront harsh realities. Alongside the paintings and photographs on show at the National Portrait Gallery will be a contemporary newsreel of the Battle of the Somme which gave the public its first glimpse of a battlefield strewn with corpses.

World War One produced a striking array of visual art. But even more famous was its effect on literature. ‘Soldier poets’ like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were simultaneously eloquently vicious toward the generals who sent ordinary soldiers ‘over the top’ to their doom, and hauntingly anguished in their portrayals of misery and carnage.

Above all, these poets attacked the ideology that paved the road to war. As Sassoon wrote: ‘You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye / Who cheer when soldier lads march by, / Sneak home and pray you’ll never know / The hell where youth and laughter go.’

The pen and the sword

Why does war produce great art? Perhaps because horrific experiences strip writers of conceit and lay bare their rawest emotions. Great genius can only express itself through suffering, some say.

But others are suspicious of this idea: this celebration of suffering as a means to creativity, they point out, itself comes dangerously close to glorifying war. Maybe the widespread praise for war-inspired art has a more disturbing explanation: we are drawn to it not because of its greatness but because we are morbidly fascinated by the horrors such art depicts.

You Decide

  1. Is suffering essential for creativity?
  2. Is there something morbid or distasteful about a fascination with war art?


  1. Create your own response to the first world war: it could be a poem, a painting or something else completely.
  2. Find a photograph or painting produced in World War One and write a brief analysis. What do you think its message is? Is war glorified or condemned?

Some People Say...

“Happiness writes in white ink on a white page.’Henry de Montherlant”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’ve never heard of any of this poetry or art.
Then you should check it out. But even if you aren’t familiar with art that is explicitly based on the experiences of World War One, the war’s impact on art more broadly is so great that it could be said to have helped shape the cultural landscape we have inhabited ever since.
After the horrors of war, old forms and themes in art seemed false and stale, and many artists hunted for new ways of expressing themselves. It’s probably no coincidence that the period after the first world war saw the rise of jazz, surrealism and modernist literature. Without these developments, the music we listen to, books we read and art we view would all be very different.

Word Watch

Kaiser Wilhelm II
The second and final ruler of the German Empire, which was unified in 1871, bringing together a fragmented set of principalities and city states. ‘Kaiser’ means ‘emperor’ and comes from the word caesar – as does the Russian ‘czar’.
John Singer Sargent
An American artist famous for his portraits and his idyllic portrayals of foreign scenes. At the end of the war Sargent was commissioned to paint a work celebrating Anglo-American cooperation; but the painting he produced, Gassed, was much more ambivalent than this.
Material produced by a state, corporation or political party with the aim of generating public support for its interests and ideology. Propaganda can be presented as news, art or simply information.
Wilfred Owen
Owen wrote poetry from a young age, although his pre-war work is generally considered unremarkable. However, his experiences in the trenches inspired some of the most celebrated anti-war poems ever written including ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. Owen fought with bravery in spite of shattered nerves and was killed just a week before armistice was declared.
Siegfried Sassoon
Owen’s mentor and friend came from a wealthy family and spent his youth playing cricket and writing verse. When war came he became the best known spokesperson for the ordinary ranks of soldiers against the generals who formulated military tactics. His most famous poems include ‘The General’, ‘Suicide in the Trenches’ and ‘Everyone Sang’.

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