I’ve just been reading a very interesting article on the BBC website magazine section about war artists past and present.
Art and Afghanistan
The Ministry of Defence recently facilitated a visit by a group of artists to Afghanistan. The artists were attached to military units, and given relatively free reign to paint and draw whatever the saw. Among them was painter Jules George, “I was going to join the army when I was a lot younger, but made the decision to pursue my art. I thought it would be interesting to combine my interests with my art.” During his tour with the 3rd Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment Jules was caught up in a firefight, “I was on the top of a Mastiff [armoured vehicle] and we had a few rounds shot at us. I witnessed the whole skirmish.” After two weeks he had filled five sketchbooks: “On a trip like this it is best to do rapid fire sketches, with movement. I used my drawing book like a camera. I rely very much on the power and energy of the initial drawing.”
But what exactly is the purpose of sending artists to a war zone? Surely the role that they once plaid is now eclipsed by 24 hour news TV, newspapers and the iternet? Graham Lothian, another artist in the group and an ex Royal Marine Commando, has some very wise words on this subject: “It’s good to stand there and take a step back and just look at the Army from a distance. This will be history one day, Camp Bastion will be dust. We are painting history.”
There might be some among the anti-war brigade who think that painting scenes from the war in Afghanistan is tantamount to propaganda. There is always the risk that this might be the case, but by and large, it looks like they are allowed to paint ‘warts n’ all’. If the MOD were controlling what they were producing, it would be a different matter. But there is a lot of sense in Graham Lothian’s point of view – it is important to capture human conflict in as many different media as possible. This is for the future, not for justifying anything in the present.
Art and wars past
War has to be one of the most painted aspects of human life. Ever since men worked out to paint, they have painted scenes of struggle and conflict. And there are ways in which a painting can capture emotions that no photograph can. Whilst I am by no means a connossieur of art, there are some paintings that tell us so much about war, and the lives it has engulfed. Think of some of the haunting paintings that have been produced of the holocaust, for example. If written history is like a black and white skeleton, paintings and photographs are the coloured flesh. Books aren’t for everyone, but there is something more accessible than a painting.
Richard Slocombe, curator of art at the Imperial War Museum, explains the purpose of capturing war by art: “On the most basic level it is to make some sort of record of the conflict. On a higher level it is a way of interpreting a conflict. A lot of artists feel moved to create art as a way to exploration of the emotions of war.”
The argument that war art is just propaganda does not hold water either – there were not many positive, inspiring paintings that came from the western front, for example, nor photographs. While certain photographs and paintings might be censored for reasons of national security or the effect on morale, on the whole Britain has a heritage of being relatively liberal with how it allows its wars to be recorded. During boh world wars the Government encouraged the work of artists, and the collections of the Imperial War Museum are all the richer for it. There are also numerous examples of paintings that were commissioned by units for officers messes, and now reside in military museums.
Some examples of war art
Scotland Forever by Lady Elizabeth Butler is probably my favourite military painting of all time. Even though it was painted in 1881, some 66 years after the event that it depicts – the charge of the Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo. There are some inaccuracies – eyewitness accounts suggest that the charge started at a quick walk and only reached a gallop at the French lines. But at a distance of over 65 years it is quite an achievement, and has been so iconic in shaping the percption of Waterloo.
Arnhem Bridge 5pm by David Sheperd is one of the most famous images to have arisen from the battle of Arnhem. It portrays the carnage on Arnhem Bridge after the Para’s had defeated a strong counter-attack. The wreckage is plain to see, and it is interesting how the artist manages to paint a grim picture through the use of smoke and bleak, grey structures, while also showing fires. It bears a startling resemblence to aerial photos taken by the RAF at exactly that time.
One painting that I sadly cannot find a decent image of is W.L. Wyllie’s Trafalgar Panorama. Painted in the early twentieth century and based on extensive research on the movements of the battle, its a huge masterpiece in portraying the atmosphere of war, down to the flotsam and jetsam in the water. It was painted during a period when the ‘Britannia rules the waves’ culture was prevalent, and it shows – but in this sense, it potrays not only the events in it, but also when it was painted.
Speaking as a military historian, art is one of many sources that we can use to understand military conflict. Too often people are sidetracked into working with only manuscript documents, or books. In terms of visual sources, whilst television and photography might be prominent in the twenty-first century, art still has its own unique role to play. We should not be dazzled by the flashlights of photography – a good painting can be ten times as interesting and useful as a bad photograph.
If we suddenly stop documenting war, we would be leaving future generations at a severe disadvantage when it comes to understanding these momentous and tragic events.