The fall of the World Trade Center immediately entered that small stock of images by which we remember the horror and cruelty and violence of the 20th cetury. The atomic bomb, the death camps at the end of WWII, the assassination of JFK. Thinking of these events, I sometimes wonder: why so few of them have been depicted by contemporary artists? And I try to imagine what the great painters of the past might have made of them. How would Turner have painted the mushroom cloud? How would Goya — depicted the liberation of Belsen? Or David — shown the assassination of Kennedy?
The latter reference opens up further, even more discomforting questions. So, the death of an enthusiastic accomplice of the Reign of Terror, an outright evil, orcish–looking man can be transformed by an equally unpleasant genius into a martyrdom scene of exquisite serenity and beauty. Surely, then, it’s conceivable for a great artist to glorify doctor Mengele’s laboratory, or celebrate the moment the second plane crashed into the WTC, or exalt the sacrifice of those behind the Columbine High School massacre? Probably not. I hope not.
But what about that other symbol of destruction and inescapable death, haunting the humankind’s collective consciousness for the last sixty years? What about the Bomb? I can hardly imagine anyone in the West looking at the admittedly graceful outlines of the rising mushroom cloud and not thinking of everything it could bring. Especially so in the sixties — no European, Soviet, or American artist working after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis could possibly paint a nuclear explosion as something to be marveled at, as an achievement to be proud of, as a sight of grandeur, as a spectacle rivaling nature’s greatest events. Yet this is exactly how scholar and traditionalist painter Wu Hufan depicted it in 1965, after the October 1964 explosion of China’s first atomic bomb triggered a nation-wide euphoria:
Wu Hufan, 1965, Celebrate the Success of Our Glorious Atomic Bomb Explosion!
Hanging scroll, ink and colour on absorbent paper, 135 x 67 cm.
Shanghai Chinese Painting academy.