Heroic depictions of military conflict are quickly exposed as propaganda. William Feaver on how some artists have strived to portray the mess of battle
"A new subject has been found for art," Wyndham Lewis told the readers of the Daily Express. "That subject matter is not war, which is as old as the chase or love; but modem war."
The great war had ended three months before, and an article on "The Men Who Will Paint Hell" was timely, now that Armistice celebrations had died down and talk of commemoration filled the letters columns. Having been through Passchendaele and the Slade, Lewis was well qualified to address the subject. Indeed, he probably owed his survival to a friend's suggestion as to how to avoid returning from compassionate leave to his gun battery: "Why not paint a picture instead?"
In 1917, Lewis had secured a commission from the future Lord Beaverbrook to paint A Canadian Gun Pit for the Canadian War Memorials Fund. Being a modernist, he produced a zigzagging composition of a robotic gun crew, readying shells for loading. It was, he told the soldier turned critic Herbert Read, "one of the dullest good pictures on earth". Objectively speaking, it was just dull.
The follow-up, A Battery Shelled, was a calculated throwback to The Battle of San Romano in the National Gallery: same size, similarly stylised, with three potential war poets posted where Uccello had planted jousting Medici. Below them, in a jazzy mire, stick figures struck busy attitudes, and smoke froze into totemic cusps and twists.
The new subject did not have to be …