“The Colossus,” an 1818-25 work in the collection of the Museo del Prado, is one of the scariest paintings attributed to the Spanish artist Francisco Goya. In it, mayhem has broken out on the ground and people and animals disperse in all directions as fighting seems to dominate the landscape. But the figures appear as mere ants compared to the giant—his nudity obscured by clouds—that towers above the scene. Fists raised, the giant is reminiscent of the war-god Mars.
Neither Goya’s work nor selections from his haunting print series “The Disasters of War” appear in the University of Maryland University College exhibit “Horrors of War by Joseph Sheppard.” But there are echoes of Goya’s terrifying compositions in this series of paintings by the Baltimore artist that respond to some of the worst atrocities of World War II. (Sheppard lives and works in Italy.)
Corpses and blood litter the ground in “Nanking Massacre,” in which Sheppard paints a beheading in process. The scene is impossibly gory—heads lifted on bayonets, a woman on a bridge in the background shot by a soldier, an unarmed woman shot by another soldier as she lay at his feet. A tank appears from beneath the bridge, suggesting that the violence, now subject to a pace determined by the limitations of individual soldiers, might soon take on even more horrific proportions.
The massacre, which took place when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the Chinese capital of Nanking in 1937, may “rival the Holocaust—not in the number of people killed (300,000 vs. 6 million) but in the ferocity and cruelty of the event,” Sheppard noted in his exhibit-catalog commentary.
“Two Japanese lieutenants, Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyoshi Noda, are known to have competed to see who could more quickly chop off the heads of 100 Chinese,” he wrote, accounting for the two sword-bearing figures in the painting’s foreground.
“It’s hard to imagine a more horrible example of human behavior than the insane hatred and cruelty of the Nanking Massacre,” Sheppard added after detailing even more obscene horrors.
In the painting, Sheppard adds a ferocious dragon flying above the scene, perhaps materializing from the smoke pouring from the burning buildings. Soaring terrors overseeing morbid destruction—not unlike Goya’s giant—appear in other works in the UMUC exhibit as well.
Here a vicious black bear looms over a mass grave in which corpses are dumped from a truck. In another work depicting the firebombing of Dresden, a bulldog flies alongside fighter jets above a desolate scene of corpses and bombed-out buildings.
Another bear—this one ghostly and with dagger-like claws—oversees the rape of German refugee women in another canvas. And the Grim Reaper surfaces in two works. In one, it carries a massive scythe, dwarfing the destruction of Warsaw. In both works, churches, perhaps evocative of faith and peace, burn. In yet another work, an angry-looking eagle flies over another smoldering scene in which people are on fire.
In the catalog, Sheppard explains that World War II not only had an impact on him because of its grotesque carnage but also because, when an 8-year-old boy, he collected war cards in 1-cent bubble gum packages.
“These propaganda illustrations of atrocities committed by the Japanese in China were brainwashing American youth to hate Japan years before the attack on Pearl Harbor,” he wrote, noting that two of the cards he collected were so gruesome that he still remembers them nearly 75 years later. “The more gory the cards, the more they were valued for collecting and trading.”
Drawing upon historical examples, including the Romans salting Carthage after sacking it so that even plants wouldn’t grow and Genghis Khan butchering perhaps 40 million people, Sheppard noted that this scale of murder and torture is distinctly human.
“It seems that human beings carry a gene for wanton violence that is not shared by other mammals,” he wrote. “Have modern humans learned from these and many other examples of barbarism in earlier millennia? Yes, we have learned to kill more systematically by making use of our advanced technology.”
The subjects of the paintings in the exhibit are extremely troubling, but that’s the point, according to the artist. “This chronicle of annihilation is as sickening as it is terrifying,” he wrote. “Which is precisely why it must be made visible again and again.”
UMUC Arts Program Director Eric Key reflected that as a global university serving all branches of the military both nationally and on military bases around the world, the university already gets a “first-hand look at the atrocities of war [and its impact] on our service men and women.”
The exhibit’s historic look at the ways that war can affect people, communities and the world reminds viewers of just how disastrous war can be, from loss of life and property to loss of cultures.
“As Americans, we hear about the unrest in the Middle East and the brutal attacks in various countries across Europe, around the globe and in the United States.” Key said. “Hopefully, this exhibition will help us understand that it is better to use diplomacy than war to resolve our differences and conflicts.”
In fact, he added, the artist expresses the wish that viewers mentally reject the notion of war anywhere. “Sometimes, it takes a cruel, ugly reminder of the effects of war to keep us from venturing into the massive conflict of an all-out war,” Key said.
“Horrors of War” will be on view from 9 a.m.–9 p.m. daily until October 29, at UMUC's Dorothy L. and Henry A. Rosenberg Jr. Painting Gallery in the Leroy Merritt Center for the Art of Joseph Sheppard, located in the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, 3501 University Boulevard East, Adelphi.