Art and war never seem to go together. We think of “war” and picture strapping young men in uniforms armed and ready to protect our nation’s freedom at any cost, while the picture of an artist is a complete 180-degree turn. He’s usually dressed nonchalantly with a strange haircut and adorned in a mess of clothes and some sense of egotism. Now, I’m not scoffing art. In fact, I strongly believe it is a lost trait that should be practiced more in-depth for its robust history and distinct individual expression found within us all.
Yes, art has a vast amount of important history, especially during wartime. It was often the goal of militaristic leaders to destroy significant works of art and monuments across enemy lines because it dismantled the irreplaceable culture found within each piece.
Still don’t believe me? Check out the film, Monuments Men, for not only a source of great entertainment and heroism, but for the significance of art during war.
A second great example of wartime art comes from World War II’s fighter planes where the outer front cockpit, or fuselage, would be painted with symbolic symbols, known as nose art. While this art form began as a practical reason to identifying one plane from another, and especially enemy planes from friendly units, the overall aesthetic of this art grew into a symbol of hope and inspiration. The art was said to be conducive to home and expressed memories of peacetime, and even psychologically aided as a protective life-force against the anxieties of war when soldiers faced impending death on the front lines.
According to the Air Force Historical Research Agency, the history of this iconic art began as early as 1913 with the German and Italian aircraft pilots who painted symbols of terror on the sides of their planes to strike fear into the eyes and hearts of their enemies. Such symbols were sea serpents and “the prancing horse” of the Italian Ace Francesco Baracca. However, perhaps the most famous of these representations displayed the piercing eyes and mouth full of jagged teeth painted beneath the plane’s propeller, thus turning the plane itself into a hair-raising shark attaining the sky. The First American Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers who first appeared in World War I, made this “shark mouth” symbol initially famous, although German planes stole it years later in WWII.
However, despite these iconic symbols in WWI, most of the nose art that appeared did not come around until WWII, and which usually contained symbols of “inspiration” towards friendly units rather than of violence towards the enemies. These symbols most often were of gorgeous pin-up girls, known as the “Memphis Belle”, painted on the fuselage to encourage and remind soldiers what it was that they were fighting for.
According to Columbian University Press, modern research shows that bomber crews, who most likely faced death at any moment, often developed a strong bond with their planes, and affectionately decorated their aircraft with nose art in order to receive some sort of womanly love and fondness even during the midst of war.
The fad worked, as it not only boosted morale of the soldiers, but also the artists who performed this task as well. At the height of the war, nose artists, both professional and skilled amateurs, were in excessive demand in the United States Air Force and were paid quite well for their effort. One such symbol, a winged Bengal tiger (a symbolic nod to the “flying tiger” battalion) jumping through a V for victory, was designed by graphic artists who worked for the Walt Disney Company.
Other famous emblems were done for the Air Force’s 64th Bomb Squadron, known as “The Dragon and his Tail” where the art depicted a dragon holding a nude woman in the clutches of his front talons. The dragon’s body began at the nose of the cockpit and ran its body down the entire length of the plane’s fuselage. Other symbols, such as dice and playing cards were used to convey luck, while other iconic characters like superheroes brought on strength. Some of the Looney Tunes and Disney Characters, like Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck, were even used to convey patriotism towards the United States.
However, because of the changing attitudes towards the representation of women during WWII, the Esquire “pin-up girl” figure was often frowned upon, even though it was the most diversely popular symbol in nose art. AAF commanders tolerated the artwork because it boosted crewmembers’ moral, but was later banned in the early 2000s because of its vulgar and discriminatory appearances of naked women. It was deemed that all nose art should be gender neutral and tasteful.
Despite the military-wide ban, the spirit of nose art still remains in the hearts of soldiers today, which is why many officers and combatants receive tattoos upon being inducted into a branch of the military, or after going through a traumatic experience of war. The representation of spiritual symbolism and individual expression is an element of human life that will always flourish because of our desire to be moved and encouraged by the world around us. We strive to keep these events sacred and memorable because they are the events that shape who we are as individuals, propelling us forward through our unique thoughts and very existence. Though nose art is gone, its classic symbolism lives on within each of us who are fighting towards some devote goal or preservation.
Art is not just for the highly elite or the spiritually depressed, but it is an innate stimulant of “being” within us all. The representation of life and serenity found in the nose art during WWII is something that each of us can understand. We truly hope you enjoyed this piece of history, and we look forward to hearing what you have to say about nose art and the influence symbolic metaphor has had upon your life. Please feel free to contact us at AeroFlite if you have any comments or questions, or call us at (714) 773-4251.