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How the Great War Impacted the Change in the Visual Arts

The artists are the most impressionable and sensitive people among all the people in the world, and maybe in whole universe. Thus, it is absolutely natural that in their works of art contemporaries and descendants can see manifestation of historical events – especially those ones that became the biggest world tragedies in the 20th century. There were two great wars with an interval of  only 12 years though,no one will have the heart to call them “great” in any positive meaning of this word; they were horrible, bloody and prolonged and there is nothing “great” about it.

And it is symbolic that Dadaism with its attitude and special opinion about war was conceived in those times. Followers of Dadaism did not accept war, they resented it and they tried really hard to show the people the true nature of any war (Blyth & Powers, 2006). Then, Surrealists proceeded in revealing the war’s true nature. However, the Surrealists went further – they compared the true nature of peace with that of war in their works of art (Breton, 2003).

The Great War

World War I, a global war centered in Europe, is the one of the biggest sanguinary armed conflicts in the human history that lasted from 28 July 1914 until 11 November 1918. It is notoriously famous as the fifth-bloodiest war in the world history that paved the way for tremendous social and political changes, including turmoils, overturns and revolutions in every of the nations involved in the conflict. The name of it as the World War I was established only after 1939, whereas from the time of the World War’s I occurrence until 1 September 1939 (beginning of the World War II) the bloodshed was called the Great War.


Dadaism was an art direction that emerged in Europe in the early 20th century. Dadaism appeared as a negative response of the avant-garde artists to the horrors of so-called Great War. Initially, this movement was formed by a group of artists in Zurich. Dada’s philosophy rejected logic and reason, praising nonsense, intuition and irrationality. The World War I scattered the artists all over the world and, simultaneously, facilitated in spreading the Dada’ doctrines outside European borders. Many avant-garde artists, writers, poets and musicians believed that namely excessive utilitarian thinking and bourgeois philosophy had led to the armed conflict. The Dadaists protested against war with gatherings, writings and art performances. Naturally, different artists implemented their protest in a very different and, sometimes, eccentric way (Tzara, 1981).

Marcel Duchamp and “Ready-mades”

Marcel Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” and “The Fountain” were two of his objects that he called “ready-mades.” From 1915 to 1923, he actually created 21 of them. The ready-mades were created for provocation; they were fruits of a conscious and deliberate endeavour to destroy and show disrespect for every rule and restriction in the artistic conventionality, in order to introduce a new type of art — one that involves the mind but not only the eyes. In his “ready-mades” Duchamp crowned the nonsense and elevated it to the throne of profound meaningfulness. Once he told: “If you want to break all the rules of the artistic tradition, why not begin by discarding its most fundamental values: beauty and artisanship” (Tzara, 1981, p. 132). Therefore, it was Duchamp’s response to the ugliness and hypocrisy of the war. It seems like he told figuratively to everyone if you can see “the greatness” in the war, why you could not see “the art” in peaceful, harmless and useful things. In his opinion it was much less hypocritical to call such lowly objects the Art, than to call “the Great” such disgusting subject as the bloody conflict (Blyth & Powers, 2006).
Marcel Duchamp, The Bicycle Wheel
Picture 1. Marcel Duchamp, “The Bicycle Wheel” (MoMA, 2013).
Marcel Duchamp, The Fountain
Picture 2. Marcel Duchamp, “The Fountain” (MoMA, 2013).

Hannah Hoch and Collages

Hannah was one of the bright representatives of the anti-art movement or Dadaism. She also was an ardent advocate of women’s rights and one of the pioneers of feminist’s movement. She created a lot of other works of art that addressed a variety of vital topics, and which ideas were and remained remarkably topical and urgent even nowadays. Her ideas were concerned about, for example, racial prejudices and abortions, as well as homo- and bi-sexuality (Blyth & Powers, 2006).

Her collage “Cut with the Kitchen Knife…” comprise a lot of things that seem to have no sense together, but they all are very important independently. In one collage there are past and future, technology and anachronisms, men and women. In other words, there are all the things without which the progress and evolution would be impossible – like death is impossible without life. Hannah Hoch’s protest demonstrates there are  many things need to be resolved and improved without war. It seems that she had implied that people already had enough issues to be concerned about without the problem of killing each other (Blyth & Powers, 2006).
Hannah Hoch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife
Picture 3. Hannah Hoch, “Cut with the Kitchen Knife…”. (MoMA, 2013).


During the World War I, out of the Dada the Surrealism developed. Its philosophy was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.” (Breton, 2003, p. 92) Painters depicted illogical, unnerving objects with photographic precision. They turned the everyday objects into strange creatures in order to incite the unconscious meaning to reveal itself (Breton, 2003).

Salvador Dali and his Anti-War Art

Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory”, painted in 1931, depicted the melting pocket watch. The Dali’s genius is in foreseeing things that can be understood only many years later. With this picture Dali brilliantly created the atmosphere of latent horror in the infected by atomic poison Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What was it on his part a morbid imagination or an artistic intuition? It was only 1931 and the next war was not even anticipated. However, this peaceful scene is not at all inspiring; it tells loudly and clear that something bad is already going on (Descharnes & Dalí, 1993).
Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory
Picture 4. Salvador Dali, “The Persistence of Memory”, 1931 (MoMA, 2013).

The next Salvador Dali’s painting “The Face of War” does not need explanations at all. It tells its story with every possible horrible and disgusting detail. It depicts lifeless dessert and the huge human skull in the middle of the painting, which is amplified with bunch of snakes and interminable multitude of smaller skulls inside of the skull. The picture is ugly and repulsive like the war itself.
Salvador Dali, The Face of War
Picture 5. Salvador Dali, “The Face of War”, 1940 (MoMA, 2013).


Though Surrealism grew out of Dadaism, these art-directions came from two different time periods; and consequently they had different cultural and social contexts. Dadaism was developed along with a wartime period, when thousands of young people were slaughtered in the midst of an international war conflict. Surrealism, on the other hand, was born in a peaceful environment; in the time-period when people either tried to forget about bloody wounds or, at least, ignore them. Philosophy of Surrealism was to heal and reconstruct, altering a pain and grief with an exploration into the obscure subconsciousness. Unlike Dadaists who propagandized the impersonality and obscure, routine objects, Surrealists welcomed the personality and individual vision (Durozoi, 2002).

However, the main difference between Dadaism and Surrealism is that Dadaism was all about war (not accepting war, seeing horrors of war, resenting the war but they did not see the way out), whereas Surrealism was all about life and future. The difference is seen below with two other surrealistic paintings of Salvador Dali painted much later the war period.
Salvador Dali, The Sacrament of the Last Supper
Picture 4. Salvador Dali, “The Sacrament of the Last Supper”, 1955 (MoMA, 2013).
Salvador Dali, The Landscape with Butterflies
Picture 5. Salvador Dali, “The Landscape with Butterflies”, 1956 (MoMA, 2013).