By Paul Von Blum
“American Artists Against War: 1935-2010”
A book by David McCarthy
Between 1810 and 1820, the great Spanish artist Francisco Goya created a series of 82 prints about the Peninsular War between Napoleon’s French Empire and Spain from 1808 to 1814. Known as the “Disasters of War,” these prints have been widely regarded as among the most powerful and compelling anti-war artworks in the entire history of art. His scenes of savagery, suffering and human despair in this series are strikingly reminiscent of the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. More than a century after Goya created his brilliant series, another Spaniard, Pablo Picasso, repeated that anti-war theme with equal force in his monumental painting “Guernica.” Picasso’s masterpiece, one of the most famous paintings of the 20th century, was a condemnation of the bombing of the small Basque town of Guernica by the German Air Force on April 26, 1937, at the direction of Fascist insurrection leader Gen. Francisco Franco.
Goya and Picasso are among the thousands of artists of conscience throughout the centuries who have refused to remain indifferent to the plagues of human existence, including war, genocide, political persecution, poverty, racism, sexism and every other form of oppression. American artists have often been at the forefront of this tradition, especially in their anti-war efforts during the past century. An abundant literature on American artists of social conscience exists, offering scholars and laypersons engaging opportunities to see how artists advance the honorable tradition of dissent and engaged public citizenship.
Rhodes College professor David McCarthy has added an outstanding volume to this heritage. His “American Artists Against War: 1935-2010” is a major contribution to the growing history of American political art. It provides an impressively comprehensive coverage of American artists active in anti-war efforts, both politically and artistically, from 1935 to 2010. His treatment of the American descendants of Goya and Picasso reflects exemplary historical research and meticulous attention to the visual details of their artworks. Above all, McCarthy’s book provides further intellectual and moral confirmation that political art is an entirely admirable enterprise, especially when it is combined with rigorous standards of artistic quality.