Art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen examines how war influences art

12.11: Yamamoto Keisuke, Hiroshima, 1948. Oil on canvas, 180 x 224.2 cm. Hyogo Prefectural Museum of

12.11: Yamamoto Keisuke, Hiroshima, 1948. Oil on canvas, 180 x 224.2 cm. Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe. - Credit: Archant

The subject of war often produces the most powerful and thought-provoking response from artists – and the impact of the events leading up to and during the Second World War is no exception.

Picasso’s iconic Guernica, a vast fragmented tableau depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War is one notable example of how the fleeting moments of conflict can be vividly expressed through art.

Art historian and lecturer Monica Bohm-Duchen’s book, Art and the Second World War, critically surveys and analyses the art produced as a direct response to the 1939-45 conflict. Its focus encompasses all the widely known combatant nations including America, England and Germany and it also uniquely, covers China and Japan which Bohm-Duchen describes as “useful and new for an English speaking audience.”

“We tend to think of art representing beauty in some form and war is obviously the very opposite. Yet artists throughout history, never mind the 20th century, have grappled and chosen to deal with the subject of war. I think looking at the two together throws important light on the way war is represented and the message of how a particular war is conveyed.”

After extensively researching art and war in the modern period Bohm-Duchen decided to specifically address the art of the Second World War. Her mother and father came to England, as teenagers in the late 1930s from Lithuania and Poland, before the war began, which meant the period held great individual significance for her.

“I realised that war is the conflict that cuts closest to my heart in the sense that my own parents came as refugees from Nazi Europe just in time. It has a very personal aspect which makes it a special period for me,” she explains.


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The first chapter covers the Spanish Civil War which in political terms is considered the prelude to the major global conflict. Following on are chapters on obscure and overlooked areas in wartime art such as the art produced by victims during the Holocaust and the response to the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945.

“There is a tremendous diversity of imagery in the book and it is not at all what many people would expect. It is very wide in its geographical coverage, but I’ve also included work that has been severely neglected until now. For example the work done in the internment camps set up by the British government on the Isle of Man during the phoney war at the beginning of the conflict.”

Hampstead plays an integral role in Bohm-Duhen’s life, an area which she calls “rather wonderful”, it is the place where she was born and also brought up by her mother, the renowned photographer Dorothy Bohm.

One of her first exhibitions looking at émigré artists originating from Nazi Europe also took place locally at the Camden Arts Centre.

Burgh House, in New End, Hampstead, is holding an exhibition from March 21 until June 22 displaying Dorothy Bohm’s Hampstead photographs of the last 20 years. This further illustrates the “special” relationship that mother and daughter have forged with Hampstead over time.

Recently Monica has started to curate her mother’s work, noting that the timelessness of photography in the face of change has been a major draw for her mother.

“There’s no direct reference in my mother’s work to her life experience but, I am very aware and she herself has admitted that one reason why she chose photography as a medium is that ability to capture a moment. I think on quite a profound level it was that idea you could kind of stop time in its tracks and for somebody who lost their childhood it held quite an important function for her psyche.”

Art and the Second World War is dedicated to Bohm-Duhen’s late aunt, the younger sister her mother left behind in 1939 when she came to England.

Monica Bohm-Duchen talks about her book in discussion with Julia Weiner at the London Jewish Cultural Centre on March 10. Tickets or call 020 8457 5000.