Monday, 29 September 2014

Artists at War

Two articles in the latest edition of the Western Front Association's Stand To! magazine caught my eye, both on different aspects of what might be loosely labelled "war art".  This comes in a huge variety of shapes and sizes - art that was created in a war environment, art that was created about the war, art that was created by those who had been influenced by their war experience.  Siegfried Sassoon himself was something of an artist, and created both cartoons and more "serious" work, as can be seen from items found among his papers in various collections around the UK and USA - you can see examples here: 
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-28581726

The articles in the magazine to which I referred represent two quite distinct categories of war art. Eric Henri Kennington, RA, a friend of Robert Graves, was a trained artist who served on the Western Front in 1914-1915, until wounded and discharged.  He subsequently became a war artist and found himself back at the Front in 1917-1918.  His work was being exhibited before the end of the war, and concentrated on everyday scenes of Tommies going about their business, mostly without either glorifying their efforts or trying to convey the horrors they faced in battle.  Nevertheless, his work of reporting the war must at times have made uncomfortable viewing (as in the case of "A Gas Patient"), even though it was intended to inform and encourage.

Private Edward Cole was quite a different kind of artist.  Relatively little is known about Cole's life, but he certainly produced a wide range of work, including programme designs taken from watercolour originals, and Christmas cards for official use by the battalion.  Most remarkable, however, is the collection of fourteen caricatures that turned up at the museum of the East Surrey Regiment.  All are of officers, including medical officers and a chaplain, and it is highly possible that the drawings were commissioned, for purposes lost in the mists of time.  Checking the caricature of Captain G S Pirie against a contemporary photograph shows them to have been very accurate in terms of both appearance and mannerism.

Not really by coincidence, the BBC has just launched Andrew Graham-Dixon's new series on war artists.  The first programme, focusing on the tormented Paul Nash, was illuminating; the second, on Walter Sickert, who "understood that the theatre of war was not confined to the trenches", was less inspiring.  As one reviewer commented, only five minutes of the programme covered Sickert's work between 1914 and 1918,  "hardly what you'd expect of a series titled British Art at War".

The third and final programme in the series focuses on David Bomberg, bringing us neatly to the subject of Isaac Rosenberg, who has surely been at the back of your mind while you’ve been reading the rest of this post.  Why Bomberg?  Why not Rosenberg himself?  Is it because one is better known than the other (which one?) or because Rosenberg’s career as an artist is complicated by the fact that he wrote poetry?  I surmise that it is actually because Rosenberg didn’t produce much of what one might call “war art”.  There was not much opportunity for more than quick sketches for a soldier involved in trench warfare, and Rosenberg’s final flourish was cut tragically short by his death in 1918.  Perhaps the manner of his death would have been too obvious a device to ram home the impact of the war on British art.  The purpose of the series is, I assume, to explore the various effects of war experience on artists of different backgrounds and styles (albeit all of them painters).

The fine arts are not my field and I can’t go much further with this short overview.   Suffice it to say that, like music, art was – at least for the soldier - both a way to forget about the war and way to express one’s feelings about it.  Whether you sketched a rat or wrote a poem about it depended entirely on the nature of your talent and what your mood was at the time.  Rosenberg remains the only First World War combatant who showed equal talent in both fields, and we will never know what he might have become if he had survived.

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