Tuesday, September 03, 2019

The War Artists of World War II

80 years ago today, on 3rd September 1939, the United Kingdom, France, New Zealand and Australia declare war on Germany after the invasion of Poland, forming the Allies within the context of World War II.

Battle of Britain by Paul Nash
An abstracted aerial view of a wide flat landscape including the mouth of a river.
Above the sky is full of aircraft contrails and smoke plumes, while to the upper right aircraft are flying in formation
Last night, on BBC4 (10pm) there was a rerun of a Culture Show Special made in 2010 about
Alastair Sooke explores the often overlooked history of the wartime art boom, meetingBlitz survivors, factory workers and Land Girls who became the subject of paintings, talks to contemporary artists about the challenges of creating work in conflict zones and considers how the images produced during the `People's War' laid the groundwork for a modern understanding of what art should be.
It reminded me of some of the exhibitions at the time of the 60th anniversary of the start of World War Two.

Portraits by Dame Laura Knight

I highly recommend a viewing of the programme. It was very good - particularly in relation to:
  • the role played by Kenneth Clarke, the Director of the National Gallery played in relation to:
    • moving the National Gallery collection to a disused slate mine near Blaenau Ffestiniog in north Wales
    • setting up and chairing the War Artists' Advisory Committee
    • persuading the government to employ official war artists in considerable numbers.
    • buying artwork produced by soldiers
    • he ended up with 6,000 works of art which were displayed around the UK at the end of the war
  • the emphasis on the art being about the war and reaching out to and engaging with people
  • insight into the approach and practices of various of the war artists - using those who had witnessed working at the time
The designated "official war artists" included in the programme included Edward Ardizzone, Paul and John Nash, Mervyn Peake, John Piper and Graham Sutherland - and Ardizzone, Paul Nash, Piper and Sutherland feature in the programme

War Artists on full-time salaried contracts
Artists employed on short-term contracts such as Laura Knight, L. S. Lowry, Henry Moore and Stanley Spencer are also included in the programme

Dame Laura Knight - War Artist
(left to right) The Dock at Nuremberg, charcoal study of the British prosecutor David Maxwell Fyfe
Ruby Loftus screwing a breech ring and Switch Works© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013
It was noted that lots of the artists produced quite traditional (boring) 'war art' while those left to produce whatever they saw fit produced some amazing work - from Henry Moore's Blitz Sketchbooks of people sleeping in the Underground to Paul Nash's Battle of Britain and Totes Meer and Stanley Spencer's paintings of Ship Building on the Clyde
In May 1940 WAAC sent Spencer to the Lithgows Shipyard in Port Glasgow on the River Clyde to depict the civilians at work there. Spencer became fascinated by what he saw and sent WAAC proposals for a scheme involving up to sixty-four canvases displayed on all four sides of a room.[38] WAAC agreed to a more modest series of up to eleven canvases, some of which would be up to six metres long. Wikipedia - Stanley Spencer

Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1 Paul Nash 1889-1946
Tate Britain
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
The painting which I always remember - but did not feature in the programme is Leonard Rosoman's painting of the wall collapsing on two firemen during the Blitz.

House Collapsing on two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London EC4
copyright Leonard Rosoman

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