I wrote my design degree thesis on the second world, and spent a great deal of time at the Imperial War Museum and the Colindale Newspaper Library. Its always been a time of history that has interested me greatly, my grandparents talked a great deal about the WW2 period, though this was only six years it affected generations for their entire life-times. Armistice Day, having just taken place on the 11th of November becomes more poignant as fewer veterans remain from this era each year.
Artists have depicted battle scenes from earliest civilisation onwards and in more recent wars such as the Boer and Crimea war, they were deployed by newspapers to illustrate the ongoing warfare to their readers. In Britain, official government-sponsored schemes were established for artists to record both the First and Second World Wars. The Imperial War Museum has also continued to commission artists to record the events of war in more recent conflicts.
It was with the outbreak of World War I that war art was first officially commissioned by the government. The British Commission was introduced in September 1914 to commission and purchase art to create a record of the war. Officially appointed artists such as: Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash, Christopher Richard Nevinson, John Singer Sargent and Sir Stanley Spencer were required to work in a more traditional style despite being some of the most avant-garde, British artists of the day, so that the public could easily understand the artwork. Although it was initially started for propaganda purposes, it evolved into a memorialising scheme where artists explored every aspect of the conflict. Some artists were seconded from active service while others were either commissioned into uniform as War Correspondents or attached to the Intelligence Department or the Department of Information. The average stay at the Front for an artist was one month and all work was censored, although artists were free to exhibit their work. (Usually only after approval)
Most of the work acquired by the Commission was eventually housed in the Imperial War Museum, established by an Act of Parliament in 1917. Who were given the task of collecting all kinds of material documenting the war. As well as providing a documentation of all wartime activities much of the work produced by war artists remains important as art in its own right.
During the Second World War, a more structured approach to official picture collecting was taken when the War Artists Advisory Committee, chaired by Sir Kenneth Clark, was established. The WAAC included representatives from all three of the Armed Services and the wartime Ministries. Officially, the purpose of the Committee was propaganda. Art exhibitions were organised in Britain and America both to raise morale and promote Britain’s image abroad. As part of the Ministry of Information, art was not commissioned which would show a negative view of the population’s reaction to the war. Therefore, there were no artistic records of looting or riots. Sir Clark’s generation had been marked by the deaths of many artists and writers in the First World War, and it was also hoped that by keeping artists usefully employed the scheme might prevent a new generation of British artists from being killed as soldiers, although they had to still face much danger.
Over 300 artists were commissioned and 5,570 works of art produced. The pictures collected were exhibited in London and in shows both nationally and internationally. When the committee was dissolved in December 1946, after the war had ended, one third of the collection was allocated to the Imperial War Museum and the rest was distributed to museums and galleries across the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.
NB: Although several female artists were approached either by the British War Memorials Committee or the Ministry of Information, none of them actually completed commissions for the official schemes. So, I will write a separate blog on Women artists during WW2, as they were still active.
There was some opposition to the scheme from the armed forces who saw the War Artists Advisory Committee as removing responsibility for war art from the control of the War Office and the Admiralty. However, a compromise was reached, with four artists being allocated to the War Office and one for the Admiralty, who would also pay their salaries. The War Artists Advisory Committee had a say in the selection of the work and maintained full control of any work produced.
Many artists took part in the scheme and some of the most notable were: Roland Vivian Pitchforth, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, Harold Sandys Williamson, Eric Ravilious, Frederick T.W. Cook and Anthony Grossad, who spent almost 20 years as an artist in France.
Before, during and after the invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944, artists were in the thick of the activity, observing and recording the campaign. A war artist creates a visual account of the impact of war by showing how men and women are waiting, preparing, fighting, suffering and often destroyed. Although the camera has replaced the artist more and more as a recording medium. The artists bring a level of emotion and connection with the scenes that you just don’t really get from a photograph however good.
Eric Kennington was employed as a British official war artist in both world wars. His vivid style of portraiture, very much suited what the Air Ministry aimed to achieve. An admiration for the actions of his subjects was reflected in his work often giving them an air of Hollywood glamour with youthful handsomeness or a steely gaze, resplendent and dashing in a blue RAF uniform. This helped to reinforce the image of British fighter pilots, as self-sacrificing heroes, one that the Air Ministry was keen to promote. Over a hundred RAF portraits were produced before resigning his commission in September 1942.
Artists like Edward Ardizzone, were perceptive observers of people in their environments. His gentle drawing style, humanised the events of the war, instead of creating epic war pictures, he concentrated on everyday heroics. His focus on ordinary people coping in adversity meant mass audiences could relate to his work. His war drawings were therefore highly effective propaganda in terms of raising public morale.
War art Commissions did not cease with the ending of World War II. Artists have still been employed to record scenes of all the conflicts involving British Forces subsequent to 1946 and up to the present time. The Imperial War Museum, holds the largest collection, if you are interested in finding out more, see their website.
I think often the importance of art in history is under-estimated and the role it still plays in our modern life’s. Particularly, as artists are currently badly affected on many levels. Art has the ability to change the emotions of the viewer in a way that very few things can, even the written word.