Art and Philosophy

Welcome, 40K fans, to a series of articles I am writing about some of the deeper aspects of Warhammer 40,000.

These articles are a thought exercise, and by writing them I hope to improve my thinking about 40K and its fiction (and maybe about much more). Topics in this series will be wide-ranging and will not shy away from moral or philosophical issues that some may consider sensitive or even controversial. I would rather risk the conversation, so while you or I may not agree, I look forward to hearing why. Consider yourself warned for lore spoilers as well. Also, check the Tactics Corner for more great articles on gaming in 40K!

The Art of War

What does the angle of the horizon do to add to the atmosphere of this image? Where is your eye drawn to the most? Why? Follow the course of your eye, what details are you drawn to? When you go back and look again, what did you miss? What does that tell you about the artist’s intent? What meaning can you derive from the colors?

Warhammer is a wargame in the practical sense. We engage with each other on the tabletop using models created by Games Workshop. A lot of the content on this website is geared specifically towards that purpose – tabletop gaming (most particularly in the competitive sense). Even so, the things that form the foundations for this game aren’t necessarily tied to gameplay alone – they are artistic. They are expressions. The character of each faction, sub-faction, and world depends on art to convey its meaning. Being a fictional universe, we ground our understanding of it in the art we see and the literature we read (which we also “see” in our mind’s eye as much as the words are seen by our eyes or heard by our ears).

In the philosophy series so far we’ve done some dabbling in art analysis, but not much. With the latest GW article featuring new art for their books, I took some time to pick apart some of the art pieces and I had a good enough time that I wanted to share it with you.

Subjectivity is the Subject

Consider the color palette on this piece. Do we see colors like this in nature? What do they do to convey a sense of mystery, alien, or unknown? What is the significance of the focus on this character vs the blurred images in the background? The character is outlined in light, pastel colors, but the eyes (a typical focal point of a person or portrait) are black. What does that tell you about what this character is seeing? What does your meta-knowledge of the character’s role as a Farseer imply given the blackness of the eyes and the expression on his face?

“Art is subjective.” Yeah, we’ve all heard that one. This cliche saying basically means that not all art means the same thing to everyone. While that can certainly be true, I tend to look at art interpretation much like I look at literary interpretation – not all interpretations are equal or are equally supported by the subject matter.

I apply this more broadly to life as well – just because something CAN mean something, it doesn’t mean it HAS TO mean only that thing (or the worst version of that thing) just because someone wanted to use it to make a point or just to be deliberately obtuse, controversial, or contrary. There’s a reason building foundations aren’t made of tissue paper and the same principle applies to artistic and literary analysis. You have to have a good justification for your point or it will crumble under the gravity of scrutiny.

My Cup is Full

The composition of this piece is wonderful. With the nature of the Blood Angels split between their golden nobility and the red/black hue of their curses, it’d be very easy to just draw a line down the middle and show a “light and dark side” comparison. Instead, the artist here has drawn the chalice being tipped over and spilling blood slowly down the side – a subtle nod to the slow decline of the Chapter. The fact that it is off-center adds a sense of instability to the piece. This is of course still framed within the light/dark narrative by the golden and black wings that cradle the image.

The warriors with white wings struggle to control the flow of blood, like how all of the brothers of the Chapter seek to control their inner bloodlust. This part is important because it isn’t just the repression of the red thirst that is a part of the chapter’s character – it is the unleashing of it on the foe that also gives them ferocity in battle. It’s like this piece of art is saying that the spilling of blood gives vitality.

Speaking of vitality, the red here is so rich and vibrant. It saturates especially thickly where the blood is spilling onto the warriors below. It gives a sense of fugue, of blood-drunkenness and wrath. Red alone is already a warning color of danger, and it permeates the warriors who frenetically charge forward beneath the spilling blood. If “Red Thirst” was an image, then it would be this one.

The duality of the Blood Angels is why I love the faction so much. Integrating and mastering our darker desires with the will to pursue noble aims is the quintessence of the human experience. Very few Space Marine chapters embody this very human concept so relatably. This art encapsulates not only the character of the Blood Angels – improving the viewer’s engagement with the core ideas of the faction – but also serves as an equally relatable human concept. We are all driving forward, fuelled by our passions and controlling their flow, and we all fall into danger when they overwhelm us.

An Ongoing Discussion

What is your favorite piece of 40K art? Why? Tell me in the comments below, or share it with me on my page! I’d love to talk to you about it.

If you found this interesting, please check out my page Captain Morgan’s Librarius. You can also check out the content on my new YouTube channel for audio versions of my articles and other 40K videos. These are the spaces where I test these ideas in their first drafts and also talk about all the other parts of the hobby that I enjoy from painting, community, and gaming to all the rest. It’s also the best place to converse with me about this and many other topics in 40K. Likes and shares are appreciated. I hope you enjoyed this week’s read, and I’ll see you again next time!

And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!

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About Chris Morgan

40K philosopher, LVO Judge, Chief Librarian of Forge the Narrative, Blood Angel enthusiast extraordinaire, and slayer of traitors, xenos, and heretics; I'd rather be playing 30k right now or neck-deep in a good book. Follow me on my FB page - Captain Morgan's Librarius

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