In the last two decades of the Cold War, a secretive programme was operating in the United States to produce works of ‘military art’. Between 1965 and 1989 artists employed as ‘visual information specialists’ worked in the Illustrations Department of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to produce over 1,000 paintings and drawings. The DIA, a combat support agency for the US Department of Defense, employed up to 5 artists at a time to depict military systems, vehicles and weapons. Rather than giving an aesthetic response to events, as artists commissioned in contemporaneous projects such as the NASA Art Program, the DIA painters performed a functional role: the artwork was used for illustrative purposes in DIA documents in place of classified photographs. As a result, many of the paintings themselves remained classified for several years.
A large number of the paintings depict Soviet military and space technology. These 150 works were produced for ten editions of Soviet Military Power, published by the DIA throughout the 1980s. But by the end of the decade paintings were increasingly replaced with computer-generated graphics, and the illustrators replaced with graphic designers.
In 1996 the DIA Military Art Collection was created to conserve and display the newly-declassified artworks. Two sets of lithographs have since been published and selections from the DIA Military Art Collection can now be viewed online. Some of the original paintings can also be seen on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. The collection provides a unique testament to the era when fear of the Soviet Union was at its peak, and a rare example of US art produced explicitly to help win the Cold War.
Image: Ronald C. Wittmann, Soviet Space Shuttle on the Launch Pad, 1986. Courtesy DIA Military Art Collection