Aftermath: Zero Hour and the Atomic Era

Weaver Hawkins, Atomic Power, 1947 - © Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales - Purchased 1976

Weaver Hawkins, Atomic Power, 1947 - © Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales - Purchased 1976

The postwar era is introduced by the apocalyptic image of the atomic bomb — a new technology that ushered in an era of intertwined beginnings and endings, promise and betrayal. As contemporaneous images of the concentration camps put an end to European aspirations to moral universalism, the bomb and the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki signaled the end of Europe’s political power in the world and the opening of an era of American military dominance. This, in turn, prompted a new kind of war: the Cold War and the arms race. While announcing a period of occupation in Japan, the end of World War II also ushered in an era of struggles for liberation and independence in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Ubiquitous both as an image of itself and in the threat it posed to the entire world, the iconography of the mushroom cloud helped to create a new consciousness of the globe as a single, interconnected entity, a new sense of scale emphasized by the space exploration program that would emerge from military technology, affording views of the Earth that reinforced this sense of global integrity and interconnection.

The American use of the bomb represented and enacted American military and economic dominance. American artists such as Norman Lewis, in Every Atom Glows: Electrons in Luminous Vibration (1951), were excited by the wondrous natural revelations and awed by the biblical scale of the bomb’s power, even as they were skeptical of the U.S. government’s apologetics for its use. The bomb was also, obviously, a Japanese story, told through photography (much of it suppressed, only to be released later) and by such artists as Iri and Toshi Maruki, who returned to Hiroshima just three days after the bombing and decided to begin an ambitious cycle of paintings — The Hiroshima Panels (1950-82) — that would describe the suffering they saw there. In the wake of futurism’s worship of technology, Italian artists were also keenly focused on the bomb. In 1952, Enrico Baj painted the Boom Manifesto, featuring a black mushroom-cloud-shaped head against an acid yellow background overlaid with anti-nuclear slogans and formulas: “The heads of men are charged with explosives/every atom is exploding.”

Photographs and films of ruined cities and of concentration camp survivors were released in the immediate postwar period. The shock of these images, and the full realization of the scale and depth of the horror of the camps, sparked many works, among them Joseph Beuys’s Monuments to the Stag (1949-58), Gerhard Richter’s Atlas (1962-present), and Wolf Vostell’s German View from the Black Room Cycle (1958-63).

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