The art of war: 2 Franciszka Themerson

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, Polish avant-garde artist Franciszka Themerson’s Soldiers Marching on a Beach and Struggling Figures in a Landscape (both 1946), which I saw at Tate Modern recently.

Unfortunately, I could not find any images of the drawings online, presumably due to copyright, so my rather poor phone pictures will have to do.

The essence of modern war may be seen in the two groups it divides human beings into: refugees and soldiers. Nor can they shake off these roles in peacetime; most people suffer traumatic experiences in these roles that mark them for life. Today’s art of war was made by a refugee, Franciszka Themerson (1907-1988), who was born in Warsaw and fled to Paris with her husband in 1938. She moved to London in 1940, where she lived and worked as a painter, illustrator, filmmaker, and set designer for the rest of her life. Themerson began working through her own experiences as a refugee in her art as early as 1945. Tate Modern has two of these works on display: Soldiers Marching On a Beach and Struggling Figures in a Landscape (both 1946).

Deceptively childlike, the drawings bring war back to its essence: the scattering and disruption of human lives. The difference between the groups and their fates is mainly shown by their different postures: the soldiers upright and in formation, the struggling figures stooping and scattered, some almost disappearing into the background. Exhibited together, Themerson’s drawings create a narrative between the movement of displaced families and individuals and the military manoeuvres that led to this scene.

There is something satirical about the small, birdlike individual commanding the goose-stepping soldiers. It’s unclear where they’re going, or even which army they belong to. Similarly, the clumsy, cartoonish figures also appear to be herded across the plain, but without a leader. Notably, they aren’t explicitly said to be refugees; they could be Polish POWs, British Blitz victims, or Dutch civilians on a windy day. By removing the context, Themerson emphasizes that war is the great equalizer, making no exceptions in who it affects.

Yet unlike in many modernist artworks about the war, the soldiers here aren’t depicted as abstract, mechanized masses. Nor are the refugees the faceless output of the war machine, making them even more alien to the viewer. Themerson retains their expressions, reminding us of all the ordinary individuals who are affected by war, each, like her, with a unique story.

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