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A new subject for art – modern war

  • January 2, 2024
  • 7 min read
A new subject for art – modern war

Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries,                                             

Imperial War Museum, London

The Imperial War Museum London’s newest permanent exhibition, incongruously called the Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries, is the first to bring together three visual media providing, says the IWM’s new director general Caro Howell, “critical insight and perspective” to conflict from 1914 to 2006.

Jenny Waldman’s cultural response to the centenary of the First World War, 14-18 NOW, was a complex and triumphant accomplishment in which artists including Gillian Wearing, Peter Blake, Jeremy Deller and Rachel Whiteread were commissioned to make new work inspired by “The War to End War”. 

For me, the highlight of Waldman’s long festival programme was Peter Jackson’s extraordinary They Shall Not Grow Old in which his filmic genius brought to life the jerky, smudgy, eroded, badly lit images by repairing and normalising them with colour, natural movement, and sound. For many of us the First World War is irredeemably about death, the perception etched by the statistics, but Jackson’s soldiers are not only alive, we recognise them, warm to their buoyant enthusiasm, and cheerfully walk with them through the trenches and over the top. Four million people saw it on its first BBC showing and it was a deeply moving experience.

However, equally as moving is the enormous canvas by the painter best known to us as a society artist, John Singer Sargent, with Gassed, newly restored, in which blinded soldiers in a line try to pick their way across the canvas through the dead and dying.

The IWM has over 20,000 artworks, 23,000 hours of film footage and 11m photographs, and just 500 have made it to this exploration of artists at work in conflict, in three media.

The First World War was the first to be recorded on film, albeit primitively by modern standards, but throughout the period painters and photographers have recounted what happens at the points of confrontation and devastation. 

Who they were and what they did are spelled out here for the first time, and not all of their work can be classified as art. Much of the official images, many of which have never been exhibited before, sometimes because of their shocking nature, are pure documentary and even more emotionally challenging for their dumb matter-of-factness.

Excerpts from Jackson’s film are part of the introduction to the exhibition, and it’s seen here alongside the paintings of John Lavery in 1918, John Nash (his familiar Over the Top of the Artists’ Rifles charging in the winter of 1917), Evelyn Dunbar (one of a surprising number of female artists commissioned in the Second World War, this picture titled  Land Army Girls Going to Bed), Joan Miro (in the Spanish Civil War of 1937), and the 1917 Passchendaele photography of Frank Hurley (better known for his images of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic exhibition of 1914) and unknown official photographers throughout the century. “None but those who have endeavoured can realise the insurmountable difficulties of portraying a modern battle by the camera… I have tried and tried, but the results are hopeless” Hurley said.

The exhibition is roughly divided into five sections whose titles are not always helpful because of their generality, which does not always seem to relate to the rooms’ contents, but at the centre of it is “Practice and Process”, which has some of the equipment and possessions of artists and photographers in conflicts – the slouch hat and pencil box, Ronald Searle, kept with him throughout his imprisonment by the Japanese in Changi Jail, John Nash’s paint brushes, Edward Ardizzone’s sketchbook filled as he followed the Allies in Europe and North Africa, Channel 4’s Paul Eedie’s Baghdad press pass from 2003, of war artists, photographers and filmmakers. 

Singer Sargent is not the only famous image-maker to make a surprising appearance. Some, like CRW Nevinson and the Nash brothers, are known for their great images of war, but others less so. Here is the 24-year-old Stanley Spencer, painting casualties arriving at a dressing station in 1916; the ‘English Impressionist’ Percy Wyndham Lewis, who introduced us to ‘Vorticism’ and was a volunteer gunner when he created a stark picture depicting the dehumanising effect of war among soldiers; David Bomberg, who was to nurture a whole generation of leading artists after the war, lost his brother in the trenches and his work was changed forever by his front line experiences (in a drawing he creates the fearful atmosphere of sappers’ tunnel as they undermined enemy positions); Cecil Beaton, who photographed the Blitz aftermath in London in 1940. 

“A new subject matter has been found for Art, not War, which is as old as the chase of Love, but modern War”, Wyndham Lewis wrote after the war was over.

And while we marvel at the devastation of Paul Nash’s painting of the Menin Road, nearby is a 1970s photograph of a quiet Northern Ireland country lane dominated by the two large cement boulders of an unmanned road block. The similarities and the contrasts are striking. Next to an image of the BBC’s, Alastair Leathwood, reporting from Helmand in 2006 is a black and white of Ethel Gabain, the French-Scottish artist best known for her portraits of actresses, but here dressed in a tweed jacket and skirt and, of course, a suitable wide-brimmed hat, as she records a London bomb site in 1940.

The images, though, are also visceral in their reporting, especially through the movies made by unrecorded official cameramen who, in images rarely seen until now, faithfully filmed the horrors of the 1944 D-Day landings, soldiers falling, shot, as they splashed ashore, bodies still where they lay on the beach, dead German defenders of the shoreline. The cameramen follow the Allies inland as they liberate and capture – we see one German in his steel helmet, up to his armpits in rubble, delicately brushing dust off his Wehrmacht collar. 

Then there are the death camps, which the curators have not shirked from showing in all their ghastly reality (the gallery is in the space once occupied by the Holocaust exhibition, now moved elsewhere in the building), hills of emaciated bodies, local villagers forced to rebury them respectively, ovens still packed with skeletons, two small boys in liberated Bergen-Belsen, sharing one bowl of soup, a bewildered girl bumping into people as she wanders aimlessly.

The works by women is strikingly different in this display, no more so than in the context of the Nazi death camps. An image by Edith Birkin, has rows of muti-coloured cloaked skeletons gazing out, which recalls her being deported to Auschwitz in 1944 where both her parents died, before she was moved to Bergen-Belsen, when she was liberated.

Even more stark, is the oil by Doris Zinkelsen, who volunteered as a Red Cross nurse but was one of the first artists into Bergen-Belsen, where she painted the unburied half-naked bodies she encountered – “The shock of Belsen was never to be forgotten… the ghastly smell of Typhus” she wrote in a letter home. “The simply ghastly sight of skeleton bodies just flung out of the huts”.

About Author

Simon Tait

Simon Tait, former arts correspondent of The Times, writer on arts and heritage for national newspapers since 1985, president of the Critics’ Circle 2012-14, author of a biography of the painter Philip Sutton RA, editor Arts Industry Magazine.

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