The art of war

Artists' ability to portray the human cost of war makes them invaluable, even in the era of 24-hour news, argues Peter Hill

May 19, 2011

The position of "war artist" may sound old-fashioned, but not only does it have a respectable pedigree, it is thriving. Before the camera was invented, war artists would often record heroic scenes of battle, or daily life in the Forces. Later, during the First World War, artists such as Paul Nash exposed the horrors of trench warfare. Henry Moore's sketches of the London Blitz depicted civilians sleeping on London Underground platforms and succeeded both as historic records and aesthetically moving works of art. Some, like Scottish artist Peter Howson, who was sent to Bosnia by the Imperial War Museum and The Times in 1993, were badly traumatised themselves by the horrors they had to record.

Over the years, many countries - including the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US, France, Germany, Japan and China - have sent artists into war zones. But why is this still necessary in the 21st century, when we "see" war on a nightly basis on our television screens?

That is precisely the problem. What we see on TV is a highly censored version of what happens in the combat zone. Journalists are embedded with the troops, who to some extent control the material that emerges, and then that material is sanitised again by the editors. The sort of rough reporting that went on in the Second World War, Korea and especially Vietnam no longer occurs.

Artists have filled that crucial gap. And although they too are embedded and confined to base for long periods, they are freer to present the horrors of war to audiences back home - and to use their imaginations to make sure this is done effectively.

Perhaps the greatest piece of anti-war art is Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937), which demonstrates the horrors of the Spanish Civil War through a terrified horse and a screaming woman. Picasso never experienced these things first-hand; he took us there in his imagination.

In the UK, war artists come under the remit of the Imperial War Museum. In September 2010, it put on display a sculpture by Turner prizewinner Jeremy Deller. Baghdad, 5 March 2007 is simply the remains of a car destroyed in a 2007 truck bomb attack among the bookstalls of Baghdad's Al-Mutanabbi Street.

Deller has spent the past couple of years touring the US with this work. As journalist Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian last September: "He makes us see real death. It is the closest he could get, within the parameters of public display, to laying out the bodies of Iraq's killed on the floor of the gallery...It is a simple enough thought: if the bomb did this to metal, what did it do to flesh?"

The Imperial War Museum certainly shows creativity in its commissioning. A few months ago it offered experimental rock star P.J. Harvey the opportunity to become its first "official war song correspondent" after she released an album, Let England Shake, on the horrors of war. "Soldiers fell like lumps of meat," she sings on The Words That Maketh Murder. "Blown and shot out beyond belief/Arms and legs were in the trees."

This project was prompted by her imagining she was a war chanteuse.

The military, however, is not always receptive to war artists. When another UK Turner prizewinner, Steve McQueen, was appointed by the museum to Iraq, he was given the cold shoulder. "I knew I'd be embedded with the troops, but I didn't imagine that meant I'd virtually have to stay in bed," he recalled in 2007. "It was ridiculous ... Obviously for the military you are just a token artist. You're in the way."

One day, in Amsterdam, McQueen was sticking a stamp on his tax return. "The stamp had a picture of Vincent van Gogh on it. And then it hit me - a stamp has a beautiful scale, the proportions are right, the image, it is recognisable, and then it goes out into the world, who knows where. Perfect. Wonderful."

Out of this eureka moment came For Queen and Country, an exhibition of 98 sheets of postage stamps each depicting a member of the British Armed Services who had died in action in Iraq. They were first shown in the Great Hall at Manchester's Central Library, but when the artist approached Royal Mail about getting them made into real stamps, he was turned down.

"The temperature dropped as soon as we walked into the room...They tried to stop me getting in touch with the families. So we hired a researcher. Of the 115 families we tried to contact, we got 102 responses. Four said no, and 98 said yes...When the families came to the unveiling it was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. People were very moved." A Royal Mail spokesperson told The Times in March 2010 that customers had told it that using images of recently deceased servicemen and women on stamps would be "distressing and disrespectful".

In recent years, this ancient profession has taken a new twist. Australian painter Jon Cattapan is one of a new generation of peacekeeping artists. From July, the work he produced following a stint with the United Nations Mission in East Timor will be exhibited for two years across Australia. Until last month it was based at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Cattapan is an associate professor at the Victorian College of the Arts and has just won a large Australian Research Council Discovery grant to continue his work.

"In 1999, Rick Amor was the first Australian war artist for about 25 years. Things had pretty much come to a halt after Vietnam, partly because of all the anti-war demonstrations," he explains. "Then Wendy Sharpe was sent to East Timor and later Peter Churcher to Afghanistan. Following me, eX de Medici - who is a trained tattoo artist - has now gone to the Solomon Islands.

"This emphasises that the War Memorial in Canberra is just as interested in peacekeeping missions as deploying artists to war zones."

Cattapan was able to observe the soldiers' routine. Early on, he obtained a pair of night vision goggles, which eventually gave his large canvases their all-over green hue.

"I immediately realised there was going to be a windfall of visual information," he said.

He attached his digital camera to the night goggles, taking thousands of shots.

"About 100 of them have been really useful in the commissioned work for the War Memorial. One of the beautiful things about digital photos is that they are quick and reviewable. Many of them were taken in the mountainous regions of East Timor, far from the urban environment with which I am usually associated.

"I also painted small watercolour studies of the soldiers during the day. I was fascinated by the ways in which they had to 'make do', such as shaving (using) their vehicle mirrors."

Charles Green, associate professor of contemporary art at the University of Melbourne, will share the ARC grant with Cattapan. He, along with his art partner Lyndell Brown, has been visiting Australian bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The most astounding experience was a Chinook night flight into the Taliban-controlled desert out from Kandahar, static sparks flying off the rotor blades as the helicopter made a simulated emergency landing in the desert in absolute, glorious, black darkness," he recalls.

The ARC research grant, titled War and Peace: How and Why Contemporary Conflict and its Aftermath is Framed by War Art, will occupy them for the next three years.

"We selected two wars in which Australia had been involved, Vietnam and Iraq, and two peacekeeping operations, East Timor and Israel," he said. "As in East Timor, where Australian soldiers were involved in actually fighting Indonesian surrogates, in Lebanon Australian peacekeepers were attacked by Israelis. Nothing is closer to the national consciousness than war. Knowledge of war, especially the emotional investment in it by the citizenry, is very much governed by images."

Indeed, without such projects, our knowledge would probably be limited to authorised sound bites, US generals preaching to us in front of the Stars and Stripes and Ministry of Defence statements outside Whitehall. Artists make war real and personal.

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