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April 20, 2006

Christopher Peachment on Australian, British and Canadian Art of the Second World War: Shared Experience: Art and War at the Imperial War Museum

Posted by Christopher Peachment

Shared Experience: Art and War
Australia, Britain and Canada in the Second World War
Imperial War Museum, London
23rd March - 25th June 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm

The entrance hall to this small, powerful exhibition is dominated by the one picture which is probably the best known even to those who have no interest in the art of World War Two. Paul Nash's Battle of Britain may not be quite as famous as his Totes Meer, which hangs in the Tate, but it still earns its place in the entrance if only by dint of its sheer size and power.

I have a special love for this painting. My father joined the RAF before the war as a career officer, and fought in the Battle of Britain. He used to take me to the Imperial War Museum when I was a boy, mainly to see the tanks and aircraft.

One day my father saw the Nash painting, scrutinised it in a way I had never seen him do a painting before, and said:

That is exactly what it was like. The countryside laid out like that below you, and the river winding out to sea. The vapour trails of the aircraft making patterns in the sky. It was just like that. And below you were the fields of Kent in the summer. You could look down and see exactly what it was you were fighting for.
I don't suppose he remembered the name Paul Nash for ten minutes after looking at the picture, if indeed he ever bothered to check it. He was not a man much taken with art.

Some years later, when I had learned a little more about it, I showed him the picture again and began to explain how Paul Nash had imported some elements of surrealism into his art, albeit diluted, in that way that the English have of watering down foreign artistic influence. My father said, without looking up from his paper:

Really, well, it still looks exactly the way it was.
What soon becomes apparent after walking around Shared Experience is how inappropriate abstraction is to portraying war. Only realism will do. I suspect that Kenneth Clark, who established the War Artists Scheme, was aware of this when he excluded Ben Nicholson, among others, from his Scheme. He was well aware of the Nazis' censorship of their artists and was adamant that there should be nothing similar here, but his feeling that abstraction simply was not up to the job was surely correct.

The pictures are arranged in various categories such as Battle, Civilian Work, and Casualties, and cover all aspects of the war, including non-combatants going about their daily business, and even, in one touching painting, toddlers enjoying the Nursery Schools, which were set up for the first time to allow mothers to go out to work.

The surprise of the show is the amount of talent on display from Canadian and Australian painters. In London, we are very familiar with any number of European and US painters, but when was the last time you saw an exhibition devoted to Canadian art? Can you even name one Australian artist, other than Sydney Nolan? Judging by the talent on display here, from the Australian War Memorial and the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art at the Canadian War Museum, that really ought to change.

Other than urge the reader to see it, I can do little more than try to describe some of the works. There is a Russell Drysdale, who my Australian wife assures me is highly regarded in his native land, of a soldier in a greatcoat and slouch hat, waiting in the dark for a train to take him to his posting. It's not heroic, but it shows the weariness and boredom which every soldier will tell you is by far the largest part of soldiering.

The British gothic writer and artist Mervyn Peake has a strange picture of three men in white overalls in front of a blast furnace, all bent into ballet-dancer shapes, like a receding chorus line. Each of them grips a flame-proof shield in his teeth, like a welder's mask, and their faces are blotched with sea-green reflections from the visor. They look like warlocks conjuring an occult spell, and could easily be characters out of his Gormenghast trilogy. They are in fact a line of glass blowers, involved in the highly complex skill of making valves for radar.

In another painting by Frederick B. Taylor, two workmen, are locked in a strange embrace as if they were tangoing together. They are in fact riveting the hull of a ship. It is an image familiar from the dust jacket of Michael Ondaatje's novel In the Skin of a Lion, though no less strange for that.

Charles Comfort's subject was the sharp end of battle. His Hitler Line is a war-scape dominated in the foreground by a Panzer V tank, its turret blown clean out of its turret ring, its gun pointing skywards. Surveying it are a bunch of soldiers, grizzled, tattooed, grim and alert. He wrote in his dairies:

One gun created a fantastic sight… a vast inert steel probe, blindly challenging the heavens.
For all his talk of the heavens though, the tank is easily identifiable. He bothered to get the details right.

His Via Dolorosa, Ortona, shows barely visible Canadian soldiers fighting their way up a narrow alley choked with rubble and fumes. They are being shot at by an invisible enemy, seen only as muzzle flashes from balconies and windows:

One felt a choking claustrophobia in the place. Everywhere was misery, death and destruction.
Most horrifying of all is Doris Zinkeisen's Human Laundry, Belsen: April 1945. We have become used to images of the victims of the camps, but this picture shows something new. The living survivors, no more than skeletons, are being washed down and de-loused by local German women. The contrast between the victims and the plump, well-fed Hausfrauen is the most immediate shock of this painting. It is only later that you learn that the woman doing the washing actually served in the camps. It puts Gustave Dore's visions of Hell in the shade.

We are now in an age when an artist can command large sums of money for compiling a list of her former lovers, stacking up a pile of white boxes, or turning the lights on and off. You can add your own particular bete noir here, nothing is surprising anymore. My response to all of that is usually a bemused shrug, a pass by on the other side of the road, with the vague thought, "Oh well, good luck to them, nice work if you can get it".

But it is this sort of sloppy, laissez faire response which allows these artists to hijack our culture and cheapen it. One visit to this wonderful exhibition would inspire the visitor with a much better response to what passes for art these days: rage and contempt.

I have left one quiet image to the last, and it is Charles Goldhamer's Face Burns, Sgt James F. Gourley, RAF, 536215. On reading that caption, you would be forgiven for expecting a man with his face scorched into the smooth-sheened mask that so marks fire victims. But in fact, the burns, horrible though they are, are confined to those diagonal lines which run from his nostrils to the corners of his mouth. I suspect the average viewer might be puzzled. But no pilot would.

The burns delineate the outline of an oxygen mask. In my own short stint as a pilot, I never saw war service, nor was I injured thank God. But I was often left with deep lines down the face in exactly that position, from an oxygen mask that was too tight. Sgt Gourley left me shuddering harder than did those Belsen victims. After he returned from the plastic surgeon, he always insisted his crew wear face protection at all times:

If you want to know why… I'll show you.
I suspect he was referring to this painting.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

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