Art Works Blog

The Art of Human Conflict

For as long as humans have roamed this planet, there has been war. And for as long as there’s been war, there has been art that portrays it, from dramatic paintings of epic battles to sculptures of famous moments from mythology. “Before modernism, portrayals of war and conflict were often commissioned by princes and kings who wanted to enhance their grandeur,” said Ted Hughes, registrar at the Missoula Art Museum (MAM) in Montana. This led to paintings and tapestries that exalted their feats on the battlefield, or compared them favorably to heroes from Roman mythology or the Trojan War. “Everything was very stylized, very romanticized, and impersonal.”

These works are in stark contrast to the pieces on display in The Art of Human Conflict, on view at MAM through December 24, 2014. Curated by Hughes, the exhibit was put together in conjunction with the Missoula Public Library’s Big Read program, which is focusing on The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s classic novel about the Vietnam War.

Like the book, the pieces in the show portray conflicts from the modern era. “With World War I, the portrayal of war became almost horrifying,” said Hughes. One of his favorite examples, he said, was Otto Dix’s Der Krieg, a print cycle depicting the monstrosities the artist had seen while fighting for the German army during the First World War. “It’s shocking how gruesome it is.”

Self-Portrait in Terror

Self-Portrait in Terror by Peter Kurinsky. Ballpoint pen on paper, 2002. Image courtesy of the Missoula Art Museum

By that time, aristocratic commissions were largely a thing of the past, which allowed artists to follow their own vision rather than adhere to someone else’s. Artists were given further freedom by photography, which took over the role of conveying the factual events of combat. “[Photography] liberated painters to be more expressive and more internal and more individualistic,” said Hughes. Now, “artists were able to create more personal work,” and in the disillusionment and nihilism that followed World War I, these personal perspectives were often grim and grisly.

The exhibition however isn’t limited to the trauma of battle. Instead, it covers a vast range of human conflict, from tension between Native Americans and cultural imperialism, to the internal conflicts of an artist suffering from schizophrenia. The latter is depicted in a piece by Peter Kurinsky called Self-Portrait in Terror. “It’s so agitated and sharply drawn, he was tearing through the paper as he drew it,” said Hughes. For a viewer, it gives an empathetic view of someone “struggling with this inner war, when your mental processes are making war on you in a way.”

These glimpses into another’s mind, or into the psychological toll of any struggle, are becoming more and more rare, thinks Hughes, or at least easier and easier to overlook. In the frenetic rush of tweets, Instagram, and clickthrough attention spans, Hughes believes that we’ve become somewhat numb to the actual impact of what we see. But artists, he said, still have the ability to make viewers immerse themselves in a single, powerful image, and actually process its meaning. “Artists challenge these constant mass media images,” he said. Instead “they take a moment in time,” using their work—whether it portrays conflict or a landscape—to “command you to slow down, look, take it in, and think about it instead of just absorbing it and moving on.”


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