War Paint

Article excerpt

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 treated this way, but Wyndham Lewis persisted with his brand of mixed modernism. He fancied himself the most hawkish of painters and writers, carrying on with his hostilities through the interwar years. "As a theme for pictorial art," he wrote, "war differs from most others in that it is spasmodic and ephemeral." Logic and vanity led him to conclude that the combative modern artist, namely himself, was ideally suited to continuing -- perpetuating -- the war by other means.

In his biography of Wyndham Lewis, Some Sort of Genius, Paul O'Keefe quotes the artist on the chore of writing letters to the relatives of men in his battery who had been killed: "They are perfectly easy to write, for the more crudely conventional the better." Lewis liked to be snide and, by his standards, A Battery Shelled was a devastating blow aimed not so much at war ("merely a stupid nightmare") as at those who regarded war art as part of the war effort: pictures of decent chaps doing the right thing in awful circumstances.

Lewis, crudely unconventional as he was, had the pleasure of seeing A Battery Shelled reproduced on the front page of the Daily Graphic under the headline "A Contrast in War Pictures for Prosperity", its angularities contrasted with drab photographs ("camera pictures") of guns and rubble and with a famous history painting, Ernest Meissonier's 1814, showing Napoleon and staff riding through the trampled snow contemplating a conventionally bleak future. Painted 50 years after the event, 1814 was a fully detailed tableau intended to take the viewer back to a time when one man, apparently, held the reins of destiny. Up to 50 years later and beyond, the Meissonier approach remained popular. Who better than John Lavery, William Orpen, Eric Kennington and Norman Wilkinson to portray a heroic type like Dick Hannay (created by John Buchan in 1915) out there having a good war?

The shine of that sort of war art wears off rapidly; because, in retrospect, heroic accounts stand revealed as propagandist formulations. The aviator who actually had a life expectancy in the air of 45 minutes transmutes into the eternal Biggles. Gradually, propaganda and counter-propaganda on every side become recognised as matching overall. An anti-war art comes into its own. From the First World War, Otto Dix emerged as the Goya of the western front, while Paul Nash, who as an official war artist was issued with a special pass and driver, turned modernism to advantage by depicting shell holes and trenches as applied cubism. …