edited by Joanna Bourke. Reaktion Books, distributed by University of Chicago Press, November 2017. 391 p., ill. ISBN 9781780238463 (h/c) $55.00.
Reviewed July 2018
Amy Lucker, Librarian, New York University, firstname.lastname@example.org
The conjunction of art and war is not a new concept. As editor Joanna Bourke states in her introduction, “[t]hroughout history … the practice and representation of war have been intertwined.” (7) And there is no dearth of literature covering the topic. So, what does this volume add?
This is a large, abundantly well-illustrated book. A collection of essays, it is organized thematically (Histories, Genres, Artists, Contexts) and then chronologically within each theme. The contributors include art historians, photo historians, and military historians. The editor, for example, is an historian whose previous work includes writing on warfare, emotions, and sexual violence. There is an index and a brief bibliography (which raises a few questions--like why include Susan Sontag's On Photography but not Regarding the Pain of Others, even though both are discussed within essays--and a few other omissions, but is nonetheless useful).
The topics are wide ranging in terms of conflicts covered (although the often-covered U.S. Civil War photography of Mathew Brady is not here), as well as geographic areas. The artists discussed similarly include Americans, Europeans, Asians, and certainly expand previous coverage to include numerous women, artists of color, children, and prisoners of war. There is coverage of some photojournalists (e.g., Don McCullin), but not others, like David Douglas Duncan. Some of the essays touch upon the art of the “losers,” such as memorials constructed in Laos and Vietnam made from materiel dropped by American bombers.
While there is certainly value to thematically arranged coverage (as opposed to strictly chronological) this adds a degree of disorganization for a student who might be looking for information on a particular conflict, or particular time period, or even a particular geographic location. One would have to hop around quite a bit, for example, to find all the material pertinent to World War II or the Vietnam War. The essays in the first, “Histories,” section are relatively in-depth, but the remainder of the essays are comparatively brief. While they would be useful to assign for readings for undergraduates, they might be lacking in detail for advanced scholars. But the great variety of voices within the volume is one of its strengths, and the mix of approach from military history to art history is relatively unusual for the topic, which is often approached from a more unified direction. And the topical organization serves to draw together artists and works that one might not otherwise encounter.
This volume is recommended for all academic libraries; there is content useful for cultural historians, art historians and military historians, and there is sufficient content for both undergraduate and graduate students. The illustrations and good solid construction of the book add to its value.