Review article just submitted to Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research
Shared Experience: Art and War
Imperial War Museum, London
23 March-25 June 2006
This joint exhibition between the Imperial War Museum, the Australian War Memorial and the Canadian War Museum draws on the work of official war artists from each country to illustrate the experience and impact of the Second World War on Britain and two of her Dominions. Nearly one hundred works of art, the majority paintings, are organised into seven sections: Battle, Work, Leisure, Service, Casualties, Captivity and Home. It is a stimulating collection which is well worth a visit, but which frustrates as much as it inspires.
Some of the artists whose work appears here will be well known to readers. Paul Nash’s Battle of Britain opens the exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, and also included is Dame Laura Knight’s famous Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-Ring. Much less familiar will be the work – and sometimes the subject matter – of Australian and Canadian war artists. The Australian Ivor Hele’s images of North Africa and Papua New Guinea and the Canadian Miller Brittain’s pictures drawing on his service with Bomber Command both stand out as moving records that ought to have a wider audience.
The distance and dispersion of the modern battlefield, and the danger to any artist who exposed himself long enough to capture a landscape of death, both made land combat in the twentieth century difficult to depict. During the First World War, John Singer Sargent, employed to portray allied unity, visited the front but found that the closer he got to the action, the less he saw to paint: ‘the further forward one goes, the more scattered and meagre everything is. The nearer to danger, the fewer and more hidden the men – the more dramatic the situation the more it becomes an empty landscape.’ His solution was to paint the aftermath of combat – the iconic work Gassed. It is perhaps unsurprising that few of the works of art which make up the ‘Battle’ portion of Shared Experience actually deal with infantryman at the sharpest end. Those that do, notably Charles Comfort’s painting Hitler Line, in which battle-hardened Canadian soldiers advance towards the viewer, over the wreckage of a shattered German tank, seem almost unreal. Yet Comfort’s interest in this image was the bizarre position to which the tank’s turret had been thrown by the explosion which destroyed it, with the gun pointing skywards. Elsewhere, it is the battlefield environment which dominates. Leslie Cole’s painting of men of the 14th Army on patrol manages to convey not only their watchfulness and vulnerability in a bare landscape, but also the difficulty of their struggle against the water through which they have to wade. In the Canadian Alex Colville’s images of the fighting in North West Europe in 1944 and 1945, it is ruined and threatening landscapes which dominate soldiers who are minute, obscured or dead.
Even slightly further away from the frontline, aspects of battle – particularly in the air and at sea – may have been easier to capture. The light effects of gunfire – whether from the guns supporting Operation Veritable, or from the Ark Royal – seem to have inspired artists. Aerial warfare could sometimes provide dramatic panoramas for either observers on the ground – as in the summer skies of 1940 – or for participants, as in Brittain’s painting of night bombing. On the receiving end, Matvyn Wright’s painting A Parachute Bomb captures a moment of anticipation in the Blitz as auxiliary firemen wait for the explosion to come.
Most of the war, of course, even for soldiers, sailors and airmen, was not about fighting. The scope of other wartime activities – official and unofficial – recorded by war artists is a main point of interest in Shared Experience. Particularly emotionally affecting, given the distances traversed by Canadian and Australian servicemen and women, are the paintings in the sections ‘Home’ and ‘Leisure’. These capture both artistic wonder at the transformative effect of war on traditional landscapes and servicemen’s bodies, and the pain of separation and anxiety. Grace Cossington Smith’s Interior with Flag, in which an empty chair dominates a patriotic Australian family living room, does much to sum up the experience of those left behind.
The breadth of subject matter will encourage visitors to think again about the breadth and scale of the Imperial effort in the Second World War. Moses Reinblatt’s dynamic picture of airmen struggling to weigh down the tail of their bomber in New Brunswick, E.J. Hughes’ Canadian servicemen undertaking early morning PT in the snow, and Grace Taylor’s Smoko Time with the AWLA (Australian Women’s Land Army) all demonstrate how far the impacts of the war were felt. Even within the UK, official artists depicted aspects which we might otherwise forget. Here, Mervyn Peake’s Birmingham glass blowers – the only ones in the country with the skills to form the screens for cathode ray oscilloscopes – and Edwin Dell’s Leamington Spa camouflage workshop are both reminders of often unconsidered parts of Britain’s war.
There is, then, a documentary facet to this exhibition. Whether much of what is included rates as great Art may be open to question. All artists, faced with the massive subject of modern total war, had to struggle with the responsibility for encapsulating or transcending titanic events. More often – and with good reason – they sought to represent individual experience. By title, at least, this exhibition seems to suggest that art included does both. Yet often the realistic, representational nature of many of these images – the very aspect which makes them such excellent records of particular moments – might seem to hold them back from engagement with the larger context. For this writer, this is what distinguishes Stella Bowen’s Bomber Crew – an unremarkable picture with a fascinating back story – from a work such as Nash’s Battle of Britain, with its effort not only to record specific moments of aerial combat, but to depict the struggle in metaphorical terms.
In this respect, the exhibition seems somewhat confused about its own identity. Is it a travelling art show, for which we should pay £16 for a catalogue and with which we should engage in terms of images alone? In this case, it might have been more interesting in artistic terms to hang these images of war with their creators pre- and post- war works. Or is it a record of Imperial war fighting, or an exhibition about official war art? If the latter, it is frustrating that so little information is provided in the gallery itself about the war artists, how they were commissioned (one suggestive glass case containing a letter from Kenneth Clark is not really enough here) and the circumstances in which images were created. In this instance, the online ‘preview’, hosted by the Australian War Memorial and accessible at http://www.awm.gov.au/sharedexperience/index.asp, is a useful resource, in that it contains links to basic artist biographies. Visitors to the Imperial War Museum should definitely click to this website first. Those who have some pre-existing knowledge of the war will have a major advantage in their ability to place the images in context. To take just one example, one’s reaction to Charles Comfort’s Night Air Raid is different depending on whether one is forced to understand it (through lack of other information) as a generic instance of combat, or whether one can piece together for oneself that the incident Comfort painted took place during the Italian campaign. Readers of this review will know what ack-ack fire and Oerlikon tracer bullets are. Other visitors might well suppose that this is a picture of Axis attack from the skies, rather than, as is the case, principally of Allied defensive fire.
The questions and image boxes associated with some paintings suggest that the exhibition is supposed to engage children in particular, but all too often they didactically encourage viewers to read paintings as representations of definitive truths, rather than individual interpretations. Some of the organisation is questionable. Do Alan Moore, Doris Zinkelstein and Alex Colville’s images of the dead and dying at Belsen belong in the category of ‘Captivity’ with images of Allied prisoners of war, or would they fit better into ‘Casualties’ or ‘Battle’? PoWs, and even internees, however horrific their experiences, are not the same as victims as genocide.
We get very little sense here about how those depicted reacted to being represented. Henry Moore’s famous Shelter Drawings – not part of this exhibit – were derided by many Londoners when they were displayed later in the war, largely on the grounds that they made their subjects appear like passive victims. How did Donald Friend’s comrades feel about him painting the Japanese soldiers they had ‘obliterated’ during a (presumably self-defining) suicide raid? How did Ruby Loftus feel about her depiction as an icon of British Stakhanovism? This exhibition leaves us to imagine for ourselves. Providing a minimal amount of background material does force visitors to actively interpret the images before them, but the lack of additional material – particularly in a museum as rich in exhibits as the IWM – be counted a major missed opportunity.
Shared Experience raises, after all, some important questions – practical as well as metaphysical – about the nature of witnessing and participation in war. Most of the Canadian and Australian artists whose paintings of combat appear here enlisted as soldiers before they were appointed as war artists. What did that status change imply in terms of their lives and behaviour? Does an artist ever stop being an artist – either when he is fighting for his life, or when his or her art is offered to or conscripted by the state at war? How did artists such as Hele, who painted Australian commandos in Papua New Guinea, actually go about collecting images? A note on his painting of the battlefield burial of three NCOs suggests that their fellow soldiers wanted this moment recorded. Were there other moments which they preferred go unsketched? Miller Brittain felt that although his painting of a night raid was judged realistic, he disliked it and wanted to put his foot through it. If we were to read this as reaction to the memory of combat, rather than over-active self-criticism, we might wonder whether the recording of war was cathartic or traumatic for those who had taken part. Not all these artists actually witnessed the events they depicted. Instead, they worked from the descriptions of others. Murray Griffin’s HMAS Perth Fights to the Last for example, was painted after conversations with the ship’s survivors in Changi Prisoner of War camp. Richard Eurich’s Turner-esque image Light Coastal Forces Blow Up an Enemy Merchantman was painted from eyewitness accounts and photographs in such a manner that it ‘convinced those who had participated of [its] absolute veracity’.
That those who were there could find, in these works, an acceptable encoding of their experiences may be viewed as validation enough. But as the war draws further away, many visitors will not have those personal versions on which to draw. It seems a shame, therefore, that rather than integrating its art holdings with the rest of its collections, the Imperial War Museum continues to hide them away at the top of the building, like the mad woman in its attic. The museum concentrates on the material culture of war, but as the titles of its showcase exhibits on the Blitz or the Trenches proclaim, it seeks to convey ‘Experience’. Works of art, appropriately displayed and combined with other artefacts, might do as much to encourage considered thought and empathy as arms, equipment, film and personal accounts, and rather more than the mannequins and sound effects of the fairground rides downstairs.
 Quoted in R. Cork, A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War (New Haven, Connecticut, and London, 1994), 220.