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War in all its awful beauty

Can anything that causes so much death and destruction also be exquisite? Ask an artist or a poet.

April 20, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

War, we all know, is hell. But war is also beautiful. It is the savage lyricism of "The Iliad," the epic sweep and microscopic precision of a Bruegel battle scene, the solemn symmetry of a photograph, published in Life magazine in September 1943, of three soldiers lying dead on a New Guinea beach, their dark bodies pressing into the light sand.

Look again at some of the imagery spewing from America's war with Iraq. On our TV screens, chiaroscuro clouds of smoke and sand drift to engulf palm trees, minarets, people. In newspaper pages, shafts of light from exploding missiles pierce the desert night, recalling Walter de Maria's wondrous outdoor sculpture "The Lightning Field." A British soldier's reflection in a pool of leaking oil shimmers and blurs.

In the split-second it takes for the eye to absorb them, momentarily removed from their grim context, these images are ravishing, exhilarating, uncanny. Beautiful.

"War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages," wrote Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944).

The author of those feverish sentiments was an Italian poet, dramatist and intellectual snake-oil salesman who is credited with inventing the short-lived art movement known as Futurism. When Marinetti set down the principles of the movement in a 1920s manifesto, he exalted war as if it were a magnificent orchestral score composed for bullets, flames and blood, launching an aesthetic that later served the bellicose Italian dictator and Hitler henchman Benito Mussolini. But over the years, saner minds have echoed the idea that war can produce gorgeous images and striking effects that furnish the raw material for sublime works of art -- a subtle yet crucial difference from Marinetti's rabid notion that war itself can be a form of art.

To anyone who has experienced war's ravages firsthand, that idea may sound naive, grotesque, even absurd. Yet over centuries of human brutality, the aesthetic has seldom been at odds with the horrific. Leonardo da Vinci, painter of delicate saints and serene landscapes, stuffed his notebooks with sketches of furious men at arms and fiendishly clever fighting machines. In the 1860s, Mathew Brady shocked the New York public by exhibiting gruesome photographs of Civil War dead. "Here are the dreadful details!" an accompanying text declared. "Let them aid in preventing such another calamity from falling upon the nation." Only later was it revealed that Brady and his collaborators had repositioned some slain soldiers for dramatic effect.

During the last months of World War II, Japanese warlords persuaded thousands of college-educated student-soldiers to "die like beautiful falling cherry petals" in service to the emperor. This exquisite metaphor, deeply engrained in Japanese culture, was exploited by the warlords in one of the most effective fusions of ancient aesthetics and modern propaganda technique ever devised -- a fatal act of performance art.

Even overtly antiwar artworks like Brady's photographs, Goya's chilling series of aquatint prints, "Los Desastres de la Guerra" (The Disasters of War), and the Vietnam-as-tragic-farce movies of Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick are as memorable for their dazzling imagery and high-art allusions, their stirring snatches of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyrie" and Barber's Adagio for Strings, as they are for their pacifist sentiments.

In his just-published memoir "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles," Anthony Swofford observes that fighting men make no distinction between pro-war and antiwar movies once they get caught up in the intoxicating visuals. Another witness to the aftershocks of the 1991 Gulf War, German filmmaker Werner Herzog, captured the devastating destruction of Operation Desert Storm in his 1992 documentary, "Lessons of Darkness," which featured hallucinatory shots of burning oil rigs, ruined buildings and corpses submerged in sand dunes, all set to the music of Verdi, Wagner and Mahler. While the movie added up to a scorching indictment of war's waste, most reviewers raved about how beautiful it all looked.

Today, war is still reshaping our sense of the aesthetic, as for the past 1 1/2 years the world has been alternately repulsed and transfixed, saddened and mesmerized by the devastation unleashed on Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington and New York. For now, the immediacy of these images may make it impossible to view any of them as aesthetically charged objects. In time, however, it's likely that some will be regarded not just as journalistic documents, but also as artworks, and that they will in turn supply inspiration for those seeking to make art.


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