Violence and Art

Art - as opposed to illustration - is tough to produce, very tough. Every masterpiece requires the artist to expend large reserves of psychic energy while battling the chaos of conflicting ideas. It is a painful process often compared to childbirth. But struggle and childbirth do not fully express a third theme, a common visual metaphor in art, violence. Violence in every conceivable form, from murder to a bloody battle. Leonardo, thinking of the ultimate murder, claimed that the sculptor re-enacts the Crucifixion itself each time he models Christ's wounds. This is, I should add, a clear indication that Leonardo understood Christ's story not as external fact but as a metaphor for what he had experienced in his mind.1 Think about it: Leonardo identified with Christ's killers and the work of art with Christ himself.

The many recorded comments of twentieth-century artists continue to echo those from the Renaissance. Matisse, like Leonardo, imagined the crucifixion as a psychic event that all artists and mystics experience. "The process of creation", he remarked "demands crucifixion" and he added that “the builders of churches never achieved anything good or beautiful without being crucified for it.”2 Otto Dix said something similar in non-religious terms: “Painting [is] a medium of cool execution; observation an instrument of relentless attack."3 Though they initially seem contrasting ideas, even 'cool execution' involves violence. This aspect of creative thought, as with its close cousin Creative Struggle (a separate theme), can be seen throughout the history of art and is often expressed through military metaphors and in battle scenes.


1. James Hall, Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 2005, pp. 85, 92

2. Hilary Spurling,  Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, vol. 2, 1909-1945 (London: Penguin Books) 2005, p. 455

3. James Van Dyke, “Otto Dix’s Streetbattle and the Limits of Satire in Düsseldorf, 1928”, Oxford Art Journal 32, Jan. 2009, p. 51

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