Conflict and the Female Perspective

By Akbar, Arifa | The Independent (London, England), April 8, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Conflict and the Female Perspective

Akbar, Arifa, The Independent (London, England)

Images of war, rendered on canvas, have traditionally been presented to us in the most morbid forms: John Singer Sargent's chilling trench portrait of blinded troops in Gassed, Picasso's orgy of civil-war violence in Guernica, bloodied battlefields and frontlines from which artists capture live conflict as bombs whizz past them.

What is not so well documented is the women who work on war's hinterland, both as artists and as subjects. Few would be able to name a female counterpart to Sargent - it is assumed that a creative response to such violent destruction can only be delivered from a male perspective, a Siegfried Sassoon or a Rupert Brooke crouching in a foreign field.

Yet women have, since the turn of the 20th century, been interpreting and illustrating war, casting a fascinating light on the forgotten social, industrial and personal histories born from conflict which, while not as graphic as the front line, are invaluable in fleshing out a fuller picture of the human cost of war.

From the early 1900s, when it was indecent for women to be witnessing war from the brutality of the front, female artists produced their own images, many creating unofficial portraits surreptitiously as they worked in weapons factories, in hospital wards and in the ambulance vans of the First and Second World Wars, others in Belsen and at the trials at Nuremberg, and more recently, at the mass graves in Kosovo and the bombed borders of Iraq.

In an effort to bring these extraordinary, yet forgotten, artists to public attention, the Imperial War Museum in London is to stage a comprehensive exhibition on the subject of women as eye-witnesses, participants, commentators and officially commissioned recorders of war, entitled Women War Artists. The exhibition, opening tomorrow, will bring the work of those from the early 1900s alongside a contemporary wave of artists, including the Turner Prize shortlisted artist Fiona Banner, and the Palestinian video-artist, Mona Hatoum.

Kathleen Palmer, the show's curator, hopes the museum's survey will redress the enduring myth of the war-artist as an intrepid man dodging bullets, gun in one hand and sketchpad in the other.

"It's often misunderstood what the role of the war artist is," she says. "A lot of people think it is frontline sketching. War art encompasses far more than battle scenes or life at the frontline - it is about artists' creative responses to all aspects of war as seen and experienced by ordinary people, civilians, as well as servicemen and women. We look at women who find themselves in the war zone but also at those producing images unofficially, without the permission of the government in the First and Second World Wars, and also at women entering male workplaces in order to draw them, which was a radical thing to do then."

The first official war-artists' scheme was set up by the British government in 1916, mainly for propaganda purposes and for memorialising the nation's war effort. A host of artists were commissioned for this purpose, though only four women compared to 47 men, and of these four, three had their work rejected, while one did not take up the commission, so there was effectively no "official" female representation. However, the more determined artists, working independently and without government aegis, found themselves close to the frontline through medical work in hospitals and ambulance units, and began recording what they saw.

Olive Mudie-Cooke, already a trained artist who was driving ambulances for the British Red Cross in France from 1916, was one such woman. The images she produced departed from "official" fare: they featured hospital and auxiliary staff - images of the forgotten army of wartime helpers that would later be dramatised and in the novels of Pat Barker, and Sarah Waters's The Night Watch.

"Olive Mudie-Cooke served in France and Italy as an ambulance driver," says Palmer, "and she created work that responded to the situations she found - other women, the brands of tanks, landscapes, dramatic watercolours of nurses and ambulance staff lighting a cigarette, or ambulances being loaded with equipment.

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