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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Vasily Vereshchagin

Apotheosis of War, 1871, Vasily Vereshchagin
Of all the changes we've seen in our modern-day world, one of the most profound has been those having to do with our attitude toward war. Here I should clarify that I'm speaking mostly in terms of the Western world having it's roots in Europe and to some extent those of the Far East. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing us today is to somehow propagate our attitudinal changes involving war to the more backward cultures where war is still seen as the first, rather than the last resort in settling differences. This won't happen in my lifetime, but I'm hopeful that it will one day. I'm not talking necessarily about some utopian "peace on earth," international disagreements are endemic in a world with as many ethnic, religious, economic, and political differences as our. I mean simply a willingness to work out disagreements without resorting to armed conflict. For those less optimistic, let me suggest you look at the history of warfare over just the last two to three hundred years. Look at the root causes. Look at the brutality. Look at the politics. Look at the winners and the losers. In short, look at the why and how. Then look at the why, how, and also where wars are still fought today.

The Return from the Petroff Palace, 1895, Vasily Vereshchagin
Europe was once a hotbed of nearly continual warfare. Today, it's been seventy years since there was any major conflict on that continent. The same is largely true of North and South America. Today wars are mostly limited to the most horrid, hard-scrabble geography the planet has to offer. And were it not for the oil beneath this hostile terrain, most of it would not be worth fighting over. In our country, this change of attitude came as a direct result of the Vietnam conflict and the ensuing Peace Movement which brought it to an end. As political leaders in many different countries have learned, no nation can long sustain, nor hope to win, a war which is not supported by those providing the money, and flesh and blood to fight it. Perhaps this change of attitude could best be seen in the U.S. when they changed the name of the War Department to the Defense Department after WW II. What caused this change of attitude? It happened when the horrors of combat changed from an abstract concept of heroic glory to a nightly living room reality show of blood and guts seen in living color every night on the news. I know of what I speak. I lived through that change. However this confrontation with the lunacy of death and destruction did not begin with Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley. In a very real sense, it began with the Russian painter, Vasily Vereshchagin.

Vasily Vereshchagin, born in 1842, may well have been the first anti-war artist, and certainly the first such painter to gain international recognition in depicting the horrors of warfare.
If you've never heard of Vasily Vereshchagin, it's not surprising. Artists who don't paint "pretty" pictures seldom maintain much name recognition after their death (his being Russian was negative factor as well). But, had you lived back during the latter part of the 19th-century, that would not have been the case. His name was instantly identified with his art. His work depicting what he saw and experienced during the 1860s and 1870s in the war-torn regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. They were so visually powerful several European military leaders of his time refused to even look at them and forbid their soldiers to do so either. His painting, The Apotheosis of War (top), dating from 1870, but shown widely all over Europe for the remainder of the century, was one such example of this refusal of those in power to confront the ugliness of war even decades after the conflict had ended.

Vereshchagin's depictions of war depicted both past of present, starting with Napoleon (above-top), down through the British occupation of India, the Russian conflict with Turkey (1877-78), as well as the Boer Wars in South Africa (1879-1915).
At one point in time, the Russian government forbid the display or printing of Vereshchagin's work since they deemed it as showing the army in a "bad light." The British were outraged that he painted so realistically their practice of tying colonial revolutionaries in India to the business end of cannon in executing them. He depicted native fighters in Afghanistan and Turkistan collecting decapitated heads for ransom (thus resulting in the pyramid of sculls picked clean by vultures in Apotheosis of War). Vereshchagin painted the dead and dying left along snow covered roads, Napoleon executing prisoners (Russians) within the walls of the Kremlin, even the selling of children into slavery (Afghanistan). There have always been those who have long relished and collected military art. But even for them, as well as those who pursued art featuring far off people, places, and things, Vereshchagin's work required a strong stomach.

Definitely not for the living room, barely suitable for art galleries.
One of Vereshchagin's most touching series of paintings depicts an American soldier (where and what war is not clear) beginning with a rectangular work picturing him riding his horse, and titled Wounded (below-left). The whole series dates form 1901. Vereshchagin's four additional round vignettes depict the soldier being brought into a hospital ward; his dictating a letter to his mother, then suffering some type of medical crisis which causes his death. The final work in the series is titled, The Letter Remained Unfinished. After the Russo-Turkish War, Vereshchagin settle in Munich where he produced his war pictures so rapidly that he was frequently accused of employing assistants. The sensational subjects of his pictures, and their obvious purpose aimed at the promotion of peace hrough a representation of the horrors of war, attracted a large section of the public to a series of exhibitions in Paris in 1881 and later in London, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, and other cities.

Wounded, 1901, Vasily Vereshchagin
Like many artists, Vereshchagin loved to travel. And even though during most of the time he was "on the road" he was in the Russian military, he also found time to paint the people, places, and things he saw. His architectural paintings include everything from Jerusalem's Solomon's Wall (Wailing Wall) to at least two exquisitely rendered views of India's Taj Mahal. Though there are fewer of them, his scenic landscapes are second to none in their careful compositions, color, and attention to detail.

Late in life, Vereshchagin's international travels reach as far away as China and Japan.

Central Asia as seen by Vasily Vereshchagin in the 1880s

A journey to Syria and Palestine in 1884 furnished Vereshchagin with a thoroughly comprehensive set of subjects from the New Testament. Vereshchagin's paintings caused controversy over the portrayal figure of Christ with what was thought at the time to be an unseemly realism. His depiction of Jesus's features was thought of as excessively vulgar and over-emphatically Semitic in ethnicity (he didn't look European enough). His Crucifixion by the Romans (below) is typical of the naturalism Vereshchagin applied to his genre subject imposed upon the oft-painted Crucifixion. Vereshchagin was in the Far East during the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, He was with the Russian troops in Manchuria during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The following year he visited the Philippines, and in 1902 the United States and Cuba. 1903 found Vereshchagin in Japan. During the Russo-Japanese War, he was invited by Admiral Stepan Makarov to join him aboard Makarov's flagship, Petropavlovsk. On April 13, 1904, Petropavlovsk struck two mines while returning to Port Arthur in the Philippines. It sank, with most of the crew, as well as both Admiral Makarov and Vereshchagin. Vereshchagin's last work, a picture of a council of war presided over by Admiral Makarov, was recovered almost undamaged.

Vereshchagin's version of the crucifixion has almost a movie-like quality, based up the artist's intimate familiarity with the garb and appearance of the descendants of those present at Christ's crucifixion.


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