Sunday, 6 June 2010

The Battle of Alexander at Issus by Albrecht Altdorfer

Jonathan Jones wrote an interesting piece for The Guardian last week about The Battle of Alexander at Issus by Albrecht Altdorfer (wiki here and high rez Creative Commons version here). Jones asserts that the painting is terrifying because it depicts the horrors of war in a unique manner. Anti-war art usually focuses on the brutality of war by showing the gory details up close. Altdorfer, on the other hand, turns this convention on its head and shows us a god's eye view of the carnage and so reminds us of the scale of the havoc that mass combat wreaks.

What caught my eye about Jones' piece is that he makes the connection between Altdorfer's work and toy soldiers. What Jones is possibly not aware of is that this painting has had an immense effect on the aesthetic of Games Workshop's creations for this very reason. John Blanche, Workshop's Art Director, has said that The Battle of Alexander at Issus has been the direct inspiration for much of his company's output. Most notably it inspired the cover of their Warmaster game (painted by the amazing Geoff Taylor). The depiction of thousands of troops sweeping into combat captures exactly the feel that the games company tries to imbue its products with.

As well as its content, Workshop has also been influenced by the style of Altdorfer's painting. The British company has successfully carved out a place in the entertainment market by rejecting the rather more crisp, clean and idealised visions of fantasy worlds that were coming out of America in the late twentieth century. Instead Workshop opted for a more gritty, decayed and quirky feel to their visuals. These are characteristics of northern European renaissance art, which is typically more concerned with detail and realism. Ian Miller, one of the core artists employed by Workshop in its formative years, makes this very clear in the introduction to his section of the Miller/Blanche monograph Ratspike.

Altdorfer's work, then, lives on in the beautiful, strange and sometimes disturbing miniature worlds created by Games Workshop.

Detail from The Battle of Alexander at Issus

Detail from The Battle of Alexander at Issus

Detail from The Battle of Alexander at Issus

The cover of the Games Workshop game Warmaster

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