The impact in the visual arts after both World War I and World War II are distinctive from each other. The era before World War I was the time when the Victorian Age had just ended in England and although Modernism was just beginning World War I was the catalyst that brought it to the forefront of the visual arts. The era before World War II was still the Modern era and then afterward the visual art came into Abstract Expressionism. Both of these World Wars created new and unique elemental changes in the visual arts. Artists were deeply affected by the tragedies of the wars. World War I was the first time that chemical agents were used against combatants and World War II men faced the shattering effects caused from the increase in technology, new weapons, and the first atomic bomb. Both wars caused global wreckage both human and territorial and the visuals of these wars changed the emotional and psyche of people, artists, and visual art forever.
The impact of World War 1 on visual art is simple, it created a change in the ethos of art from the concentration on ethereal beauty and subtle soft paintings to a starker more linear, and absolutely defined style. Paintings which reflected the desolate realism of the horrifying scenes in the war. For example, George Clausen was an English painter who used the mediums of oil and watercolor for his landscapes, nudes, and portraits. Following the artistic ideal of the time prior to the war, the landscapes were quite soft and gentle with the indistinct tone of an impressionistic painting. However in 1916, he painted “Youth Mourning” the painting of a young nude girl curled up at the foot of a cross devastated and in anguish. It is clear that Clausen “uses the nakedness of the figure and the starkness of the barren landscape to emphasize the grief and emptiness of death” (Clausen n.d.). The reason for the painting is a personal loss, his daughter is grieving over the death of her fiancé in 1916. Clausen used the modernistic view to depict the death of the man who loved his daughter, this was a personal representation of the tragic horror of one who dies too young in a war that began as a heroic adventure and ended with the loss of the innocence of an age.

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Another example of how World War I redefined the perception of visual art is the painting “Gassed” by John Singer Sargent. Sargent illustrates the shocking realism of the first war fought with technological and chemical warfare. The scene was witnessed by the painter in July of 1918. Sargent was commissioned by the British Government to paint a memorial for the Hall of Remembrance, and so he traveled to the front to see what was happening for himself, one of the places he when was this medical station treating the wounded. He was so struck by the scene he began sketching Some of the men are the walking wounded who demonstrate their vulnerability as they place their hand on the shoulder of the man in front to guide them to the medical tent. Others are lying waiting for the treatment but all of the wounded are all wearing eye bandages, blinded by their injuries, the “overall impression is of loss and suffering, emphasized by the expressions of the men standing in line” (Sargent n.d.). There is one other interesting detail, in the background, there are other uninjured soldiers who in their free time are playing football, it is the two opposite sides of life, pain, and happiness. Essentially, absolute realism has replaced romantic idealism.

These are two examples that occurred during the war, however, the impact was permanent as modernistic realism stayed in the visual arts. Futurist and Cubism styles of painting also emerged as the new modern painting style along with abstract realism. This was the new reality since the artistic paintings that reflected the subtle elegance of the Victorian age died with so many young men in the First World War.

The Second World War impacted the next evolution on the visual arts. As World War II came to an end there was an exodus of artists from Europe to the United States escaping the devastation, cultural intolerance, and destruction of societies, cultures, and countries. So the transformation to Abstract Expressionism began with the influence of surrealists, those who wanted to explore the unconscious and bygone eras and then producing presentations of humanity. They brought their creative talents to the United States and influenced the artists creating a new visual arts concept that arose from the ashes of World War II, Abstract Expressionism.

While there was a growth of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s it coexisted and still disagreed with the existing realism. The historical context of the new abstract is illustrated by viewing reality and then the artist sees something in realism that is expressed in the abstract, it as a visual abstraction in the mind and then the artist paints it. For example, the Patrick Heron 1956 painting “Azalea Garden: May 1956” is his conception of the flowers that day in May. He said that, “these images came from him looking into the Azalea hedges of his garden” (Heron n.d.).

Although the painted images were abstract the image that they were based upon were real. Another example, is the renowned artist Jackson Pollock, who not only embraced the Abstract Expressionism idea but also developed a unique painting method. Instead of using an easel he put the canvas on the floor and then dropped, splattered, and smeared oil, enamel, and or commercial paint onto the canvas, creating such masterpieces as “Summertime” in 1948. This is a perfect instance of an American painter who welcomed the ideas of the surrealists and expanded upon it to create new and different paintings with various methods and mediums of painting.

The First World War and the Second World War were both globally devastating and had a lasting effect on the artist and so the visual arts. Before World War I the Victorian Age still influenced art with genteel elegance and then the horrors of war changed that, leading to Modernism in the artistic world in which depicted a realism in art that was not there before. This continued until World War II when in desperation artists escaped Europe to the United States and brought the artistic concept of surrealism, and which America evolved into Abstract Expressionism. Although influenced by European artists American artist branded this and made this visual art uniquely American. The destruction, trauma, and anguish caused by these wars scarred the world, but from the ashes of these grew the unique, distinctive, and evocative visual arts.

  • Clausen, George. Youth Mourning. Google Arts and Culture, Imperial War Museum, London, 1916. Accessed 13 Mar. 2017.
  • Heron, Patrick. Azalea Garden: May 1956. Tate, Tate, Britain, Sept. 2016, Accessed 13 Mar. 2017.
  • Pollock, Jackson. Summertime 1948. Tate, Tate, London, 1948, Accessed 13 Mar. 2017.
  • Sargent, John Singer. Gassed. Google Arts and Culture, Imperial War Museum, London, 1919, Accessed 13 Mar. 2017.