Monday, 8 November 2010

Jon Snow: Paul Nash, Jeremy Deller and The Art of War

Paul Nash, We Are Making a New World, 1918 (IWM)
The final instalment of Channel 4's survey of British art gave us Jon Snow's personal survey of the war artist's role from 1914 until the present. Given the seasoned news reporter's experience of war's grim reality, it is perhaps not surprising that the flavour of the hour-long film was anti-war.

Jon Snow
We began with Paul Nash and Richard Nevinson, whose violent, often cynical portrayals of trench warfare remain the visual complement to the poetry of Owen and Sassoon. One or two odd lapses aside - Nash may have become a Surrealist in later life, but could not have been one in 1917 as the movement did not exist - Snow captured perfectly the cultural shift that occurred during the course of the war, as early militarism gave way to horror at the soldiers' suffering. A visit to see Stanley Spencer's work at Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire was especially moving, and the comparison between the controversial Nevinson and Gulf War artist John Keane proved effective.

The treatment of the artists' role in World War II was less good, however, perhaps because characters like Paul Nash did not fit Snow's vision of the artist as messenger of war's horrors. Nash was pictured, sketching wrecked Nazi aircraft, but nothing was said of his attitude to the conflict.

Paul Nash, Totes Meer, 1941 (Tate)
The Paul Nash of 1939 was fiercely in favour of war against Nazism, and his painting 'Totes Meer' - which was based on his sketches of the Cowley aircraft dump - exudes a grim satisfaction in the aerial invaders' fate.

Instead of following the careers of war artists like Edward Bawden and Edward Ardizzone, who travelled to France with the British Expeditionary Force and recorded the evacuation from Dunkirk, Snow focused on the Home Front. In part this was perhaps because his admitted favourites were Stanley Spencer - a pacifist who painted shipbuilders rather than soldiers - and Henry Moore, whose tube station sleepers proved such a memorable response to the terrors of aerial bombardment.

The rolling exhibition of war art shown at the National Gallery from the summer of 1940 did of course contain fine paintings from the Home Front, but it also featured, over the course of the war, thousands of paintings from around the world.

Steve McQueen, Queen & Country, 2007
Kenneth Clark and the War Artists' Advisory Committee commissioned artists to cover every aspect of the war; some gloried in grand battles, while others showed scenes of suffering and devastation. All brought their own attitudes, experience and vision to the vast, complex subject of a global war, leaving us with a huge, startlingly diverse body of work.

The Imperial War Museum website has thousands of images, some of which glorify war, while others more closely resemble the Great War paintings of Nash and Nevinson.

So to the present day, and here the programme found its touch again, with fascinating reports on the work and experiences of modern war artists Steve McQueen and Jeremy Deller. It was fascinating to see how contemporary artists have taken on the subject of war, and equally interesting to follow their progress. Having found life as an embedded war artist unstimulating McQueen had the brilliant idea of printing stamps showing portraits of dead UK servicemen and women, but he has so far failed to persuade the Royal Mail to use his stamps.

Jeremy Deller, Baghdad, 5 March 2007

Deller, meanwhile, had the equally brilliant idea of exhibiting a car smashed by a bomb in Baghdad street - I wonder if he had heard about the exhibition of wrecked cars JG Ballard put on in 1970. Ballard found that reaction to his crashed vehicles was vitriolic and often physically violent, but when Deller toured the United States with his exhibit he found responses more verbally confrontational.

The car is currently on show at the Imperial War Museum in London, among the tanks and planes, under the title 'Baghdad, 5 March 2007'. If you go along, make sure you visit the art gallery upstairs, where you'll find paintings by Nash and Nevinson, and by Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer and numerous others.

'The Art of War' is available to watch here. Overall, it is a moving, beautifully composed and thoughtful film by a man who has seen his share of wars.

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