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The Apotheosis of War
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Aptly included as part of a series Vasily Vereshchagin called "The Barbarians."

Inscribed into the frame is the phrase, "This is dedicated to all great conquerors, past, present, and future. "The Apotheosis of War" was also inscribed on the frame. Really seems like Vereshchagin was one of those guys who goes to a party and over-explains why all his jokes are funny, and why all his paintings are morbidly soul-crushing.

Still, Vereshchagin genuinely believed in the power of this painting's message to proselytize for peace. While the military leaders of Europe's more pugilistic empires (we're looking at you Germany and Austria) were banning their soldiers from going to Vereshchagin's exhibitions, the artist was offering free admission to servicemen to view and digest the material. After the proscription, Vereshchagin was known to wait late at night in the alleys behind his exhibitions across Germany and Austria waiting for soldiers to walk by, whistling at them and saying, "Hey, soldier. You look like you have a clear-cut understanding of war's purpose in a modern society. Wanna see something cool?"

The work was originally going to be named after Tamerlane, the Mongol ruler of Samarkand (today known as Uzbekistan). Tamerlane controlled an empire that stretched from present day India across Asia's Steppes and into Europe. In addition to conquest, Tamerlane was into long walks on the beach, volunteering at animal shelters, and ordering giant pyramids made from the skulls of his vanquished adversaries built outside their city walls. Vereshchagin, however, eventually felt the association limited the message and went for something more ethereal.

And of course, no painting like this can escape the 20th century without becoming the cover art to a heavy metal album. This time, the cover art belongs to Rapid Force's 1993 LP "Apotheosis of War." It's like everyone involved with this painting loses their sense of subtlety. If you're into the crossroads of Russian realist paintings and the mid-90s Yugoslavian trash scene (so probably, uh, three of you maybe), then it's a must listen. It's kind of like early Megadeth meets Cézanne. Metal.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Apotheosis of War

The Apotheosis of War is a mid 19th century painting by Russian war artist Vasily Vereshchagin. Following his completion of the painting, Vereshchagin dedicated his work "to all great conquerors, past, present and to come". Done in oil on canvas, the painting depicts a pile of skulls outside the walls of a city in Central Asia. It is considered part of Vereshchagin's Turkestan Series.

History

Background

The Apotheosis of War was painted by Russian war artist Vasily Vereshchagin in 1871. At the time, Vereshchagin was residing in Munich, Germany, where he painted 13 works (including Apotheosis) of art depicting his earlier travelling with the Imperial Russian Army as it moved throughout Central Asia, fighting against various factions and conquering what would become Russian Turkestan. As a classically-trained war artist, many of Vereshchagin's works were centered around battle scenes between the Russian army and the forces of the Khanates of Khiva and Kokand.

Description

Apotheosis depicts a pile of human skulls set on the barren earth, the aftermath of a battle or siege. A flock of carrion birds are seen to be occupied with picking over the pile; some birds have already landed, while others are flying in or roosting in nearby trees. The ground below them is a sallow, earthy yellow covered with grass, complimenting the dirty ivory color of the partially-bleached skulls. The shadow cast by the mound, coupled with the many black orifices created by empty jaws and eye-sockets, adds a sense of depth to the painting, further exacerbating the scale of the deathly pile. A range of mountains serves as a dividing line for the painting, separating the vastness of the steppes from the emptiness of the sky, while the city of Samarkand can be seen in the far right of the painting. The city's walls have visibly been breached, a reference to the Siege of Samarkand in the summer of 1868 in which the Russian garrison repulsed a Bukharid attack. The pyramid-like pile of skulls is in reference to the Mongol conquests, as the Mongols were recorded as have built pyramids out of the skulls of their enemies. This was documented as having happened at Urgench, Kiev, Baghdad, and at Samarkand itself in 1220. On the work's frame, Vereshchagin inscribed that he dedicated the painting "to all great conquerors, past, present and to come".

Reception

Vereshchagin exhibited his art at a number of venues in the 1870s and 1880s. While his more traditional work was well received, two of his works from the campaign generated considerable controversy. Specifically, The Apotheosis of War and Left Behind were considered to be profoundly anti war and seen by some as portraying the Russian army in a bad light; this resulted in the Russian government preventing the two paintings from being shown at Vereshchagin's exhibitions in Russia. The artist experienced a similar backlash when he exhibited his work in Germany, notably when Apotheosis was viewed by German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. In a widely cited event, the painting provoked a confused, startled reaction from Moltke, who ordered that German soldiers be barred from seeing the painting. This order was seconded by the Minister of War of the Austrian Empire, who issued a similar ban.

Vereshchagin was unconcerned with the viewership bans on his paintings, but was concerned with the growing number of accusations within Russia that he was slandering the Russian army. In response, the artist burned three of his lesser known paintings. Despite the controversy surrounding some of his work, Vereshchagin continued painting battles and their aftermaths until his death during the Russo-Japanese War.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Apotheosis of War.