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There’s a story which may well be apocryphal: at an art exhibition in the 1880s the Russian painter Vasily Vereshchagin took General Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) on a tour of the gallery.

There he led the general in front of his painting, “The Apotheosis of War,” (1871).
The general was not pleased. It’s easy to imagine that lanky, austere Prussian - a man so erudite and reserved he was once described as “silent in seven languages” - perplexed by the painting, in particular its dedication:

“To all great conquerors, past, present and to come.”
By Vereshchagin’s own account, the general ordered his men not to view the painting, further recommending that the artist's military paintings be burned “as objects of a most pernicious kind.”

The antiwar sentiment exhibited in that painting wasn't an accident.
Vereshchagin spent his entire life engaged in the realistic depiction of war and its aftermath.
It’s easy to see why von Moltke, among the most important figures in German martial history, would be so perturbed by Vereshchagin’s work.
The Prussian, best known for his formulation now reduced to the aphorism “no plan survives first contact with the enemy,” also wrote that “the noblest virtues of man develop in war.”
“Eternal peace is a dream - and not even a beautiful one. War is part of God’s world-order. Within it unfold the noblest virtues of men, courage and renunciation, loyalty to duty and readiness for sacrifice - at the hazard of one’s life..."
"...Without war the world would sink into a swamp of materialism,” von Moltke wrote in a letter to Johann Kaspar Bluntschli on Dec. 11th, 1880.
Vereshchagin’s paintings are less concerned with man’s divinity, than his devilry.
A lifelong itinerant, the artist studied at the naval academy. But he gave up a career in uniform early, trading sword for paintbrush.
Through his travels and his work it is clear that Vereshchagin could best be described as an Orientalist - perhaps not by Edward Said’s formulation, but rather in the classic aesthetic sense (and I’m open to getting berated for the implication that the two are separable).
Additionally, he was equally as interested in scenes of poverty and inequity as he was in hagiographic portrayals of the rich and powerful or idealized scenes of luxury.
Unlike many of his contemporaries Vereshchagin, who lived through many battles and was himself wounded - rarely depicted scenes of conflict in heroic terms.

There is a realistic brutality in many of his paintings that led some critics to describe them as “vulgar.”
But the Vereshchagin had a considered philosophy which drove his work, and he wrote about it.
“I have represented the bandaging and the transporting of the wounded exactly as I have seen it done and have felt it in my own person when wounded, bandaged and transported in the most primitive manner. And yet that again has been declared to be a gross exaggeration, a calumny.”
He argued that realism could only be achieved through direct observation and experience. He decried the work of artists who painted imagined scenes of historical events from the comfort of a studio.
How can an artist claim to be a "realist" when “scenes of battles under the intolerably torrid sun of Africa, are being painted by the grayish light of European studios?” Vereshchagin asked.
His dedication to detail and verisimilitude permeate his paintings. He was criticized for having a fantastical view of war.

“I have seen a priest performing the last religious rites on a battle-field over a mass of killed, plundered, mutilated soldiers..."
"...who had just given up their life in the defense of their country; and that scene again - a picture which I had painted, literally, with tears in my eyes - has been also proclaimed in high quarters to be the product of my imagination, a downright falsehood.”
He defended himself vociferously, as with the painting “Defeat,” noting that the priest himself who had performed the last rites vouched for the accuracy of the scene.
The tension between sanitized, heroic portrayals of war and realistic depictions of its horrors pervade discussions about war imagery. Without creating an epistemological debate, the line between “artistry” and “reality” is seldom as straightforward as people want it to be.
Consider one of the most famous war photographs ever taken: Robert Capa’s “The Falling Soldier.” The authenticity of this photo has been the subject of debate for decades. Yet it remains iconic.
It has its analog in a painting by Vereshchagin completed decades earlier.
War photography was in its infancy during the artist’s career. Some of the earliest daguerreotypes and photographs of conflict date from just a few years after Vereshchagin's birth in 1842.
Daguerreotype from an unknown photographer, US-Mexican War 1846-1847
Compare Mathew Brady's "Savage Station" field hospital photograph from the US Civil War:
...with Vereshchagin’s “After the Attack” of 1877
Modern war photographers are expected to perform no manipulation of their images. Yet even though this requirement could not practically apply to a painter, Vereshchagin’s work finds its echo on modern battlefields.
Compare Damon Winter's 2010 photo from Kunduz (available here:…)
With Vereshchagin's work:
Vereshchagin shared a philosophical outlook in common with some of the most respected war photographers of the modern age.
Of his Realism vs traditionalism: “But such a treatment of the subject is new; therefore it appears strange, and very likely will excite comment. And only in a century or two our descendants will be able to decide which of these two opposing views was the correct one.”
Furthermore, Vereshchagin insisted that the realistic depiction of such violent and brutal scenes was essential to the maintenance of a healthy society.
“...let men of talent shake the strong and the powerful out of the somnolence into which they have fallen; a difficult task it will be, out a noble one. And if, we are refused a hearing, and attempts are made to muzzle us, why, the worse it will be for society.”
For Vereshchagin, if art could not be enlisted to provide a corrective to the social and economic inequalities of the day, the end result would surely be revolution.
In his pamphlet from 1888 accompanying an exhibition in America dress jogging made a pointed observation about the anarchist and socialist movements that were then coursing through intellectual circles:
“They are striving to reconstruct society on new foundations, and in case of opposition to their aims, they threaten to apply the torch to all the monuments pertaining to an order that, according to them, has already outlived its usefulness..."
"...they threaten to blow up the public buildings, the churches, the art galleries, libraries and museums - a downright religion of despair!”
Vereshchagin died as he lived. During the battle of Port Arthur in 1904, in the Russo-Japanese War, he was aboard the ironclad Petropavlovsk along with Admiral Stepan Makarov, when it struck two sea mines.
According to some accounts, again likely apocryphal, Vereshchagin continued to sketch the scene as the ship sank.
ugh i was using voice to text and it rendered "Vereshchagin" as "dress jogging"

ugh sorry
For those interested in getting a better sense of the breadth and scope of Vereshchagin's work, Ruben Babaev and Anna Plotkina over at @ArtChallenge_ru maintain an excellent gallery:…
You’ve all been very kind with your responses. As someone who has studied the forms and impact of “organized human violence” (as one of my mentors, @CJChivers, once called it) for decades now, this kind of thing has occupied much of my time and thought.
History is a continuum. There is no chasm between us and the past.

Take, for example, the 1877 Battle of Shipka Pass, which Vereshchagin witnessed firsthand, during the Russo-Turkish War - in which the artist's own brother was killed.
Here is a heroic depiction by military artist Alexey Popov, “The Battle of the Eagle’s Nest” (1893):
And here is Vereshchagin’s “Battlefield at Shipka Pass” (1879):
The Battle of Shipka Pass is an obscure event for a lot of people, but not for many Bulgarians and Russians, particularly nationalists.

For them, it is an iconic event on a par with the “300 Spartans” at Thermopylae, or the 20th Maine at Gettysburg.
For some on the far-right across Europe, it is example par excellence of the “white, Christian West” ousting the “brown, Muslim hordes” of the Ottoman Turks.

A few years ago, I even documented an anti-immigrant militia that draws its name from the event:…
Art matters. As Vereshchagin wrote: “Realism is not antagonistic to anything that is held dear by the contemporary man - it does not clash with common sense, with science, nor with religion… Armed with the rich, varied resources of art we will tell people some truths.”
The authors of violence are oft discomfited to see the reality of what they've unleashed. As technology has enabled the witnesses of war to provide increasingly accurate and detailed accounts, political authorities worldwide make a concerted effort to suppress such imagery.
The Vereshchagin-von Moltke story encapsulates perfectly something that has been distilled through my own experiences: the gulf that separates the cool theorists of war from those who experience it or are engaged in the gritty documentation of its violence.
Vereshchagin was no quivering soul, dreaming fragile romantic fantasies. He was out in the world stained with the dust of the road, bearing witness to suffering and atrocities, trying to leave an account of them as mementos on the doorsteps and in the parlors of the comfortable.
This is, in my view, the purpose of war correspondency, in all its varied forms.

Thanks so much for reading!
and i should've tagged @banicvlada, as we covered this together and i could've done nothing without him

except drive the car to a super sketchy place to encounter a self-described "Bulgarian special boy" and his rifle
PS: the most productive way for me to organize thoughts is to go for a long walk and dictate voice-to-text, cleaning up mistakes as i go

so the weird grammatical errors and mistakes (“dress jogging” ugh) are the result of this

and yes i know he was technically a field marshal
PPS: if you see some big bearded dude walking around london yelling into his headphones about obscure historical events

feel free to say hi
So let's put the social into social media, instead of me just droning on and on:

What is a painting or other work of art that has moved you or challenged your beliefs? And why?
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