20th Century Death Portrayal in Art

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The 20th century was a time period lasting from January 1, 1901 all the way through December 31, 2000. Commonly known as the modern era, this century was nothing less than contemporary in every aspect throughout the world. Art in itself has always been a widely known and incorporated feature around the world since the beginning of time. As centuries came and went, eras within art and certain portrayals were heavily integrated and became best known as being used within certain centuries. From visual arts, to music, theatre, literature, and architecture, there has never been a dull moment. As modern as the 20th century was though, a very evident theme seemed to stand out among others within many forms of art. This was the portrayal of death. The theme of death was deeply displayed in many forms of art within the 20th century to specifically include paintings, fictive comic strips, and theatre; all commonly based and stimulated from events within the era itself. Once a deeper look is taken into what went on within the 20th century, a clear explanation can come forth of why the theme of death was portrayed to the extent it was.

One of the easiest ways to approach an enlightenment of why death was such an overly used theme in 20th century art is to look back at events that provoked the thought of death within the 20th century. For starters, World War I; lasting from 1914-1948 and World War II; lasting from 1939-1945 were two of the most widely known wars for all of the deaths that took place. With one war being based on opposing alliances of triple entente and central powers, and the other being based on global military conflicts, the end result of both was the death of over 9 million combatants in each war (Oz, 2010). The Vietnam War lasting from 1945-1975 was based on communist and anti-communist nations. This war led to millions of deaths as well due to starvation, those trying to flee and avoid the war, and combating forces. The Nazi Regime lasting from 1933 -1945 led to many deaths of opposing communist, socialist, and liberals (Rosenberg, 2011). Other events taking place within the 20th century that led to the production of the theme of death within so much art in this century included The Great Depression, thousands of protest taking place at coal and steel mines and factories, the stock market crash, and even personal events within the lives of many artists. Subsequent to a blast from the past, one can now actually look into different forms of art developed by different artist with portrayal of death and gain clarification of why this portrayal is so.

Within the 20th century, paintings and photography were widely used forms of art. Pablo Picasso is one of the most well known artist of this century for his versatile views and styles of art. In 1937, Picasso developed his art piece “Guernica”. This piece depicted the bombing of Guernica, Basque Country, by German and Italian warplanes at the behest of the Spanish Nationalist forces, on April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War (Arnason, 2010). Guernica displays an incredible theme of death as one can easily notice the grieving look of destruction throughout the canvas. Picasso’s attempt was to protest against the actions of General Franco and his fascist allies while at the same time to develop an anti-war piece that indicated the suffering to all living creatures caused by war. Besides that, he also wanted to mimic other universal symbols of horror and destruction caused by war.

Dorothea Lang was an influential American documentary photographer and photojournalist. She was best known for her work done in the midst of the Great Depression. The Great Depression lasted from 1929-1940 and was a severe economic depression following World War II and the stock market crash. Unemployment was on the rise while income was on a decline with the economy. People were homeless, starving, and without many of life’s daily necessities. Lang was sent by the FSA to photograph the...
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