Teaching the World Wars Through Art

Students can learn about World War I and II through art, such as posters, paintings, and photographs,

By Daniella Garran


World Wars Through Art

In addition to the myriad of books, documentaries and records available to enhance the study of World War I and II, examining the art of the first half of the twentieth century is an invaluable tool to shed light on the psyche of the nations involved in these wars, as well as on the public face that these countries tried to project. From posters encouraging Americans to purchase war bonds to paintings created by the survivors of the Holocaust to post-war German Expressionism, the art of the world wars underscores the fact that things would never again be the same.

An especially interesting element of the art of this era is the role of propaganda, which had not been a significant factor in prior wars. Hand in hand with a study of propaganda, of course, is a study of the censorship of this era as well. It is important for students to understand the motivation of the different governments when censoring images and newsreel footage. The American government, for example, sought to imbue the people with a sense of patriotism and nationalism, whereas the Nazi government used propaganda to incite a deep hatred of the Jews and other groups. These and other motivations were not very subtly included in the government-sponsored art and imagery of the era.

Not only is the art created during and between the world wars important to consider, it is equally important to take a look at the art that was banned and labeled degenerate by Hitler. This art, perhaps more than any other, reveals the true sentiment of Europeans who were facing a second devastating war on their soil.

A good introductory activity is to show students a variety of images of world war era art and ask them to guess where and when the painting or poster was made. Students should consider poster art (American and German in particular) as well as the work of George Grosz, Otto Dix, Edvard Munch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Beckmann. Students should look for clues that will indicate the artists’ nationality and feelings about the wars.

An interesting culminating activity is to ask students to create World War II era posters. Their work should reflect a strong sense of nationalism and patriotism in addition to a message about the enemy. With an activity of this type, however, it is important to keep students from including derogatory ideas or language about other groups. For more ideas see the lessons below.

World Wars and Art Lesson Plans:

World War I Art and Artists
This outstanding lesson classifies the art of the first World War into several categories including “the Fighting Men,” “The Age of Artillery,” “The Battlefield,” and “Suffering” among others. Studens research artists who showed the realities and impact of World War I on the world and its inhabitants. It is significant that the various artists included in this lesson hail from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds including French, Italian and German. Not only does the art reflect the artists’ nationality, but it also serves as a record of that nation’s role in the war.

Argument, Persuasion, or Propaganda
The art of World War II era posters is quite unique. Students in this lesson are given the opportunity to analyze and interpret the meaning and intent behind posters from the World War II era. Students assess what the government and various businesses hoped to accomplish and the messages they sought to communicate through these posters. A follow up activity could easily be created by asking students to create a similar poster for a different war.

The Holocast in Art, Photography and Writing
A different, yet equally important aspect of World War II is the Holocaust. This lesson allows students the opportunity to analyze art, photographs and literature influenced by the Holocaust. Students should understand that what is most important about studying the art of the Holocaust is knowing who created the work or took the photograph because this is critical to understanding the intention of the work.

The War: Art and Propaganda
In conjunction with the Ken Burns’ series "The War," PBS created some outstanding lessons for educators. Among the lesons offered are a study of the art and propaganda of World War II and a study of censorship during that era.

Hitler’s War Against Artists
No study of the world wars is complete without a look at censorship, propaganda and so-called degenerate art. This lesson gives students a chance to consider the criticism of society that some artists revealed in their art and why Hitler banned their work.