In “The Art of War”, I put a work of art that has to do with the Second World War in the spotlight. The works I select may be propaganda pieces, antiwar works, or deal more objectively with the war and its aftermath. This week, Roy Lichtenstein’s Wall Explosion II (1965), which I was lucky enough to see in real life at Tate Modern recently.
Lichtenstein is a pioneer of pop art, which turned away from traditional notions of what art should be and instead took clichéd images from popular and commercial culture as its subject. It peaked in the 1960s, when World War II had become a popular subject matter for movies and comics in Britain and America, generally aimed at young boys and men and inevitably focusing on war heroes’ tales of derring-do. It was also the time when the USA became involved in the Vietnam War. Wall Explosion II is based on one of these boys’ comics: the holes in the blue steel mesh recall the dots used in printing of comics and newspapers. The stylized explosion is not destructive, only aesthetic. It reminds me of Vietnam War veteran and writer Tim O’Brien’s description of how war entices us: “Any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference – a powerful, implacable beauty.”
Even as it raged on, World War II was being captured in comic form. Jewish comic book artists created superheroes like Superman in 1938 and Captain America in 1940: American Übermenschen who fought back against fascism. Comics, originally seen as low art, have been slow to gain respect as a respected art form, and those with a serious subject matter, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, have been accused of trivializing war and genocide. Pop art suffered the same criticism for its blending of high and low art.
By reproducing ‘found images’ from pop culture by hand, rather than mechanically manufacturing them, Lichtenstein plays with the implications of reproduction: it makes art accessible to all, but may turn it vulgar, too. Though contradictory, Wall Explosion II is not confrontational, leading Lichtenstein to be criticized for his detachment from his subject matter. But for him, it is a tongue-in-cheek celebration of glossy, industrialised American pop culture, which by the 1960s concerned itself little with the human side of war. The glorification of weapons and the damage they do, made glamorous and stylized in comics, reduced World War II to a heroes-and-villains narrative that still persists today.