Category: Art of War

An Abstract Expression of Horror

On February 16th Australia’s Special Broadcasting Services (SBS) program Dateline aired previously unpublished video and photos taken by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. The damning pictures show Iraqi prisoners - bound, naked, wounded, some covered in blood or excrement - undergoing abuse at the hands of their American jailers. Dateline executive producer Mike Carey said SBS obtained hundreds of images from Abu Ghraib, and that many of the pictures depicted “homicide, torture and sexual humiliation” too appalling to be broadcast on television. The station will not say how they acquired the images, but the Pentagon, despite trying to prevent the publication of the photos in America, verified their authenticity.

Philip Kennicott, staff writer for the Washington Post, wrote an article titled Painted in Blood: an Abstract Expression of Horror, in which he made a remarkable observation about one of the photos snapped by a U.S. soldier. The photo appears “to be a toilet floor covered with blood and litter, framed by a small glimpse of tiled walls. It suggests a bathroom turned into a holding cell, or perhaps a scene from a hospital or triage center, or a torture chamber.” After acknowledging that few American media outlets have published the new photographs, Kennicott went on to describe the aforementioned snapshot;

“The blood on the floor instantly suggests the splatter and drip paintings of the abstract expressionists. Newspapers have often turned to blood as a substitute for violence, showing photographs of the gore that lingers on streets long after the bodies — too graphic to show — have been cleared away. Here, in a photo that contains no particular information, no names, no certainty even about whether it shows what it seems to show, is the blood image in a new form. This is no substitute, no polite euphemism for what can’t be shown. Blood as a substitute for death deflects horror; this blood demands answers. Comparing blood to paint, violence to art, is dangerous, even repellent. But in one sense, the blood on this floor is exactly like the paint drippings of Jackson Pollock, who captured the visible traces of action, the visual memory of gestures. In Pollock’s painting, the gestures fixed on canvas were often graceful, melodic even, with paint obeying the law of gravity with a gentle quiescence. If this is blood, we can only imagine what the gestures were.”

No doubt Pollock would be appalled by the new school of “Action Painting” founded at Abu Ghraib prison, and while Pollock had to suffer being called “Jack the Dripper” by a hostile press - that was the only torment he was subjected to. Today’s anonymous American “Dripper” working at the infamous Iraqi prison, left us a magnum opus installation piece composed of found objects, human body fluids and blood - materials not unfamiliar to some postmodern conceptual artists. However, this tour de force work is no mere vacuous creation devoid of meaning or social impact - no, it is a grand tribute to colonial arrogance and the denigration of the human spirit. Unfortunately the artist will most likely not want to take credit for the work… but I would urge this modern master to step forward into the limelight. Such genius cannot go unrewarded.

[ UPDATE: On Feb. 16th, Salon.com became the first U.S. media outlet to publish the new Abu Ghraib photos. According to Salon, over 1,000 photos, videos and supporting documents were made available to them by a source who "who spent time at Abu Ghraib as a uniformed member of the military and is familiar" with the Army's Criminal Investigation Command. Salon insists that "America - and the world - has the right to know what was done in our name." They also remind us that "no high-ranking officer or official has yet been charged in the abuse scandal that blackened America's reputation across the world." You can seen the Abu Ghraib files at Salon.com. ]

Nagasaki Nightmare

Evening glow over Hiroshima - Woodblock print by atom bomb survivor, Asai Kiyoshi

August 6th, 2005, marks the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan. August 9th, marks the bombing of Nagasaki. Those who survived the blasts became known as hibakusha (Atom Bomb Survivors), and in 1974 the hibakusha began contributing artworks to an unusual project that would preserve for the world their memories of atomic fire.

The Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK - Japan Broadcasting Corporation), encouraged hibakusha to submit original artworks based on personal experiences of having survived the nuclear bombings. Soon thousands of drawings, paintings and woodblock prints began arriving at the offices of NHK, and an exhibition of the collected paintings and drawings was mounted at the Peace Culture Center of Hiroshima in 1975.

In 1984 I had the distinct honor of organizing an exhibition of these remarkable paintings in an exhibit I curated at a venue in Venice California. I received some 30 images from Japan that had at the time, rarely been seen in the United States. Since then the NHK/hibakusha artworks have been compiled into several books and traveling exhibitions. To commemorate the first… and hopefully last atomic war, I’ve recently expanded the archive of hibakusha artworks I maintain on my Art For A Change website. The artworks can be viewed at: www.art-for-a-change.com/Atomic/atomic.htm

The Hiroshima Panels

Fire - Painting by Iri and Toshi Maruki (detail)

Virtually unknown in the west, the Hiroshima Panels are as profound an antiwar work as Pablo Picasso’s famous mural, Guernica. The creation of Japanese artists, Iri and Toshi Maruki (both now deceased), the panels depict the atomic holocaust wrought upon Japan when the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The monumental panels, which are actually painted upon traditional-style folding screens, took 30 years to complete, and provide a chilling look at the terror of nuclear war. The husband and wife team visited the city of Hiroshima three days after it was bombed. They carried the injured, cremated the dead, searched for food, and gathered materials to help construct shelters. Overwhelmed by the destruction they witnessed, three years passed before the couple decided to set upon the creation of artworks that would communicate to the world the need to banish nuclear weapons.

Using a poetic figurative realism partly based upon traditional Japanese aesthetics, the Maruki’s painted a series of monumental panels that graphically portrayed how the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came face to face with the atomic age on the 6th and 9th of August, 1945. By 1956 the artists had completed ten panels, adding two new screens; the eleventh in 1959 and the twelfth in 1968. Each of the panels dealt with specific aspects of the bombing, and were appropriately titled with names like Ghosts, Fire and Atomic Desert.

The murals were no mere castigation of the U.S. for having dropped the bombs on Japan. The Maruki’s savagely criticized Japan’s own war-time militarists for being cruel imperialists, and in the panel portraying the Japanese occupation and rape of Nanking, China - all the ferocity and arrogance of Imperial Japan is laid bare.

The artists also painted a panel called Auschwitz, where the Nazi atrocities committed against the Jewish people were depicted with unrelenting clarity. The Maruki’s also painted panels showing Korean forced laborers and U.S. prisoners of war as victims of the atomic bombings. One panel, simply title Crows, illustrated a grisly scene - flocks of Crows descending from the sky to feast upon dead Koreans. Painted with a traditional flourish, it is a heartrending and pitiful image. As the artists wrote, “Koreans and Japanese look alike. Mercilessly charred faces - is there any difference? Together, Asians were devastated by the bomb.”

Known in Japan as, Genbaku no Zu (Hiroshima Murals), the panels brought international recognition to the artists. In 1995 the Maruki’s were recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize for their ardent creative work towards world peace. Their artworks were exhibited overseas numerous times, and a museum was established in Japan to house them in 1967. Iri passed away in 1995, and his wife Toshi, followed in 2000.

The Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels is still open to the public today, and they maintain a website were you can get a glimpse of this world treasure. Part of the gallery is the actual studio were the artists worked and painted. However, in recent years attendance has been dwindling, and the gallery has put out an emergency appeal for funds so that it may continue operating. Visit the online gallery, view the works, and offer a donation to keep this vital project going (the gallery can also be telephoned at 0493-22-3266). Writer and gallery board of directors member, Teruko Yoshitake, put it this way, “The Maruki’s continued to paint, hoping to make the 21st century a period of peace. We want people to help out to ensure that the gallery continues to function as the base for anti-nuclear sentiments and protecting the peace Constitution.” Twenty years ago, the artists wrote:

“We began making sketches and worked day and night, encouraged by friends of the same mind who offered to act as models. As we painted, we thought and remembered and wondered. What is a 17 year old life span to a 17-year-old? What is a three year life to a three-year-old? The 900 sketches were merged together to create the paintings. We thought we had painted a tremendous number of people, but there were around 260,000 who died in Hiroshima.

If we painted for years, we could not put on paper the number killed in that one second. We prayed for the blessing of the dead and prayed that the bomb would never fall again and destroy life. With these thoughts supermost in our minds, as one painting was completed - we began another. The long lasting radioactivity and the latent effects of the bomb are still, nearly forty years later, causing suffering and death. This was not a natural disaster - that is the unforgettable horrifying fact.”

UPDATE: August 6, 2015

For the first time ever, the Hiroshima Panels will be exhibited in the U.S. The American University Museum in Washington, DC will show six large folding screens painted by Toshi Maruki depicting the horrors of the Hiroshima bombing. The rare showing is part of the museum’s Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibit that runs until August 16th, 2015. Watch a video overview of the exhibit here.

Mural Masterwork: Myth of Tomorrow

An important antiwar mural painted in Mexico by famed Japanese modern artist, Taro Okamoto (1911 - 1996), has been rediscovered after thirty five years. In Spanish the work is known as Mito del Mañana (Myth of Tomorrow), and in Japanese, Ashita no Shinwa - but like all great works of art, Okamoto’s painting speaks a universal language. The gigantic mural depicts the exact moment of an atomic bomb explosion, with the focus of the work being an anonymous human reduced to skeletal form and burning under an atomic sun.

Okamoto’s mural was originally painted in the lobby of what was to be a high-rise luxury hotel in Mexico City, but the developer encountered financial troubles that prevented the building’s completion. Okamoto’s wall painting, dismantled and put into storage, eventually disappeared - and it remained missing until just recently. In 2003 the mural was found abandoned in a yard for building materials located in a suburb of Mexico City.

The Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum in Japan sent a team of restorers to Mexico to evaluate the condition of the artwork, and found that it was suffering minor damage. Calling the piece “Taro’s magnum opus”, the institution obtained the rights to the mural earlier this year. The mural has been shipped to Japan where museum staff and experts began restoration work in July, 2005. Okamoto’s mural will eventually be placed on public display at the end of 2006.

The Taro Okamoto Memorial Foundation for the Promotion of Contemporary Art released a statement that in part read, “Okamoto believed that the myths of the future develop at moments of cruelty and tragedy. This mural speaks from his deepest thoughts, from his heart.” While the world’s first atomic bombing of civilian population centers occurred in August 1945 when the U.S. devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear fire… it would be a mistake to see Okamoto’s artwork as fixated on those terrible events. Rather, his striking mural is a warning to all humanity, and the message is more relevant today than ever before. That we’ve grown accustomed to living with a nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging above us all is really the core meaning of the mural’s title - and our continued apathy only assures that tomorrow is indeed a myth.

Painted between 1968 and 1969 and measuring some 18 feet high by 98 feet long, Okamoto’s artwork is a powerful indictment of war. While it may seem incongruous that such a disturbing and forceful work of art would appear in the lobby of a luxury hotel, one must remember that Mexican restaurants, hotels, commercial and government buildings once made wall space available for the display of controversial large-scale public artworks.

The Mexican Muralist Movement led by greats David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, set the standards for a progressive and internationalist school of art. The radical and populist artworks of these masters and the many others who worked shoulder to shoulder with them, enhance public space all across Mexico. There’s absolutely no doubt that Taro Okamoto was inspired and influenced by the remarkable Mexican school of socially conscious artists, and the discovery and restoration of his mural is cause for celebration.

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UPDATE: This article was edited on 4/8/2016 to reflect recent developments regarding Mr. Okamoto’s monumental mural. At the time of my original post, a home for the mural had not yet been found, and few photos of it were available. Since then the mural was installed in the Shibuya railway station in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan. The video at the top of this article showing the mural in situ at the train station was made by Japanese YouTube member, yurukulab.

I wrote a second update regarding Okamoto’s Myth of Tomorrow mural, which can be read here.

WAR/HELL: Otto Dix & Max Beckmann

Dead Sentry in Trench - etching by Otto Dix, 1924

At sixteen I became aware of those artists who lived and worked throughout Germany’s dreadful years of war and fascism. German Expressionist artists like George Grosz, Conrad Felixmüller, Gert Wollheim, and Max Pechstein had enormous influence upon me - not so much for how they painted… but what they painted. They were unafraid to tell the truth about their society, and with paint, pencil and print, they excoriated the forces of greed and militarism that eventually plunged the world into chaos. Few had as much sway over me as Otto Dix, a man I consider one of the last century’s greatest painters.

Falsely remembered simply as a radical expressionist who abandoned all rules of perspective and palette, Dix was actually a classical painter in the guise of a modernist. Some of his great realist canvases hearken back to German old masters like Lucas Cranach, Matthias Grunwald and Albrecht Dürer. I regard myself as fortunate to have viewed some of Dix’s paintings while traveling in Germany, and lucky to have caught a rare exhibit of his antiwar etchings, Der Krieg (The War), while in New York some years ago. I’m delighted to be able to inform readers of this web log that Dix’s astonishing antiwar etchings, and those of fellow Expressionist Max Beckmann, are now on exhibit in New York once again.

WAR/HELL: Master Prints by Otto Dix and Max Beckmann is a mesmerizing collection of etchings and lithographs now showing through September, 2005, at the Neue Galerie Museum for German and Austrian Art in New York City. Dix and Beckman depicted war stripped of its bombastic false patriotism, heroism and glory, and instead presented an accurate, grueling and mind-numbing look at the barbarism of modern warfare. Der Krieg, Dix’s suite of 50 black and white etchings, are first hand recollections of having fought on the frontlines of World War 1 for four years. His uncompromisingly realistic and visceral depictions of war are the stuff of nightmares.

The artist portrayed soldiers eating rations in muddy trenches filled with rotting corpses; moonlit minefields and bomb blasted landscapes; combatants horribly maimed or torn to shreds; army men driven insane and left shivering on the battlefield - splattered by the remains of those blown up next to them. Beckman’s Die Holle (The Hell), is a wartime suite of a dozen lithographs he created in 1919, showing Germany’s downward spiral. Like Dix, Beckman was also a serviceman in World War 1, but served as a medical orderly.

His artworks are filled with shattered veterans without limbs or hope returning home to a country wracked by poverty; ultra-jingoistic reactionaries singing patriotic songs; the super wealthy flaunting the riches they gained through war profiteering; and right-wing thugs preparing to mold Germany into a new society of blood and iron.

If it all sounds terribly familiar, it should. Dix and Beckman not only succeeded in exposing the ugly realities of war in a way that hadn’t been done since Goya’s print series, The Disasters of War - they also effectively created artworks that stepped outside of their timeframe and place of national origin. The prints in WAR/HELL have uncanny resonance in today’s world, and they more accurately reflect what is going on in Iraq than do all of the sanitized and bloodless corporate “news” media reports put together.

This is the first time the entire antiwar print editions from these two dynamic modernist artists have been shown together. The exhibit runs until Sept. 26th, 2005. The Neue Galerie New York is located at 1048 Fifth Avenue. New York, NY 10028 (on the corner of 86th street - adjacent to New York’s Central Park). Phone: 212-628-6200. Visit them on the web, at: http://www.neuegalerie.org

The Chicago Peace Museum

The Peace Museum in Chicago is hosting the very first Japanese government-sponsored exhibition in the US of artifacts and materials related to the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The exhibit opened on May 6th, and runs until August 14th, 2005, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Japan. The Peace Museum’s exhibition features 41 photos and photographic panels, video installments, and 23 objects - including a melted Christian cross removed from a Church obliterated by the nuclear blast. At the opening reception held on May 6th, 73-year-old A-bomb survivor Katsuji Yoshida, talked about having lived through the terror of the Nagasaki bombing. He was a thirteen year-old high school student when the bomb went off a half mile from where he stood outside his school. He was thrown some 130 feet into the air and received severe burns to his body… but by some miracle survived. Today, as a member of the Nagasaki Peace Promotion Association, Yoshida does all he can to deliver the message that “Humans must never be made into atomic bomb victims. I pray these peaceful skies go on forever.” The Chicago Peace Museum’s exhibit is sponsored the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Hall, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and the citizens of Japan. The museum is located at 100 N. Central Park Ave., Chicago, Illinois 60624. The exhibit is open 10 am to 4 pm. Tuesday through Friday, and 9 am to 2 pm on Saturday and Sunday. The exhibit moves to an undisclosed location in California after its run in Chicago, and I’ll be sure to announce the details when they are made public. For more information, visit the Chicago Peace Museum website.

Traveling Anti-war Print Show

Los Angeles artist and printmaker John Carr organized the Yo! What Happened To Peace? traveling exhibit 2 years ago. The exhibition is a collection of contemporary anti-war prints “designed to spread the message of non-violence.” The exhibit was shown in Boston and New York during the Democratic and Republican conventions, and is now traveling overseas. What makes the exhibit unusual aside from its political content, is its being a showcase for traditional hand-crafted prints. Carr, who runs a fine arts silkscreen shop in downtown LA, wants to see artists working with long established methods like lithography, silk-screen, woodcuts, linocuts, etchings and monotypes. As a printmaker myself, I couldn’t agree more when it comes to preserving and expanding the art of printmaking. While machine printing offers convenience and low cost to an artist, there is nothing like a beautiful hand-pulled and signed edition of prints.

I have a few silk-screens in the exhibit, which has grown in size tenfold since starting 2 years ago. Other contributing artists include Eric Drooker, Douglas Minkler, Favianna Rodriguez, Winston Smith, Seth Tobocman and dozens of others. The exhibit is currently being shown in Reykjavik, Iceland and it will travel to Norway, Sweden, and other Scandinavian destinations to be announced. From May 20th to the 22nd, the exhibit opens in Milan, Italy, where it will be part of a punk photography/art festival at Leoncavallo (the oldest squat in Europe). From there the show will travel to Tokyo, Japan, where it will show at the Parco Gallery from June 10th, to July 4th. Here’s what Carr says about the Tokyo showing: “This is a great step for the show to be in a large, well promoted space. This and the other international exhibitions intend to show that despite the U.S. corporate media’s international blackout, there is currently strong anti-war and pro-peace sentiment here in the States.” Since Carr will personally be traveling to Japan for the Tokyo exhibit, I’ve arranged for him to collaborate with me on posting to this web log a report on the Parco Gallery opening in words and pictures.

There is still time for printmakers across the US and around the world to submit their prints to this traveling exhibit… but you have to act fast. The deadline to submit works for the Milan show is May 6th, and the deadline to submit works for the Tokyo showing is June 1st. Works can be for sale, but you’ll have to work that out with Carr. All submission details are available at: yowhathappenedtopeace.org

Artists and the My Lai Massacre

“Q: And Babies? A: And Babies.” Poster by Art Workers Coalition, 1970.

“Q: And Babies? A: And Babies.” Poster by Art Workers Coalition, 1970.

The Vietnamese called it the “American War”, and on March 16th, 1968, the Americans of Charlie Company marched into the hamlet of My Lai on a “search and destroy” mission. The soldiers of Charlie Company were directed by Captain Medina, who had issued orders to raze the village.

Charlie Company encountered no resistance, but for 4 1/2 hours they burned down homes, poisoned wells, killed livestock - and methodically slaughtered over 500 innocent women, children, and village elders. Victims were thrown down wells with grenades tossed in after them… scores of elderly women were shot in the back of the head at close range while kneeling and praying… there were rapes… one group of 80 villagers were herded into the village plaza and machine gunned.

US Army photographer Ronald Haeberle was assigned to Charlie Company and he documented the atrocity in a series of grisly photos. He later testified that he had personally seen around thirty different GIs kill around 100 civilians. Platoon leader Lt.William Calley ordered his men to shove approximately eighty villagers into a drainage ditch at the edge of the hamlet, and then commanded his troops to open fire at point blank range. A two year old boy who escaped the barrage of bullets began running away. Calley seized the child, tossed him into the ditch, and shot him.

By November of 1969, Americans began to hear of the My Lai massacre. Life magazine published Ronald Haeberle’s gruesome color photos and the chilling images sent shockwaves around the world. The peace movement heightened its appeals to end the war. In 1970 the Art Workers Coalition (AWC -a group of New York artists), responded to events by designing a remarkable poster titled, “Q: And Babies? A: And Babies.” An anonymous creation at the time, the 24 x 35 inch poster was actually designed collaboratively by artists Frazer Dougherty, Irving Petlin, and Jon Hendricks. The poster used text from an interview by CBS reporter Mike Wallace with Paul Meadlo -a participant in the bloodbath, combined with a photo of My Lai’s butchered Vietnamese peasants taken by Haeberle.

The original poster was intended to be printed and distributed under the auspices of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), until the president of the board of trustees rejected the idea. Nevertheless, the AWC raised the necessary funds to print fifty-thousand copies of the poster, which were then distributed internationally and carried in anti-war protests around the globe. I remember seeing the posters at rallies here in Los Angeles, which is how I acquired my copy.

To say that the artwork had an impact is an understatement, it became one of the most famous poster works from the Vietnam era. After MoMA declined to have anything to do with the artwork, the members of the AWC staged a demonstration at the museum, entering the room where Picasso’s Guernica was displayed to unfurl copies of their poster while reading anti-Vietnam war statements.

Photo by Jan Van Raay ©

[ Members of the Art Workers Coalition at MoMA, 1970. Photo by Jan Van Raay © ]

Medina and Calley eventually underwent a US Army court-martial. Medina was acquitted but Calley was found guilty in 1971 of “premeditated murder” and given a life sentence. Some in the US organized “Free Lt. Calley” protests and opinion polls indicated a majority thought Calley “was only following orders” and should be released. Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, Paul Conrad, summed up this shameful US grassroots support for war crimes in one of his trenchant cartoons.

President Nixon ordered Calley removed from prison and placed under house arrest. In 1974, the Army released Calley on parole. Today in Vietnam the old village of My Lai is a National War Memorial. Dotting the grounds are statues designed by massacre survivors to commemorate the victims. Plaques mark the earth where individuals or groups of people were put to death, and every March 16th, hundreds of Vietnamese trek to the memorial to place flowers on the mass graves and to offer prayers.

UPDATED 12/17/2016: Larry Colburn, the 18-year-old U.S. soldier who attempted to stop the massacre, died on Dec. 13, 2016. He was 67. Mr. Colburn was the last surviving member of a three-man helicopter crew that placed themselves between innocent Vietnamese civilians and marauding U.S. troops; Colburn was under order to fire his M-60 machine gun at U.S. soldiers if they continued their slaughter. In 1998 Colburn received the Soldier’s Medal for lifesaving bravery. Read more.

The Art of Liberated Auschwitz

Just days before the official 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps in Europe (Jan. 27th), the United Nations is presenting a special art exhibition at the General Assembly Visitor’s Lobby. Opening on Monday, Jan. 24, 2005, Auschwitz - The Depth of the Abyss commemorates the victims of the fascist terror that claimed the lives of tens of millions. The art exhibit is comprised of two parts, The Auschwitz Album (photos taken by the SS that documented their murder machine at Auschwitz-Birkenau), and Private Tolkatchev at the Gates of Hell.

Private Tolkatchev was a Ukrainian Jew enlisted in the Soviet Red Army. A dedicated communist and zealous anti-fascist, Tolkatchev made drawings of the horrors he witnessed at the Majdanek and Auschwitz extermination camps immediately after their liberation. At Auschwitz, Tolkatchev used the camp’s stationery as his drawing paper, and so he deftly created powerful sketches on the very paper that hours earlier had been used to condemn prisoners to death. Private Tolkatchev’s artworks were so compelling that after the war they became part of The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority of Israel.