Land girls in Lymington: war art fights back

Evelyn Dunbar, 'Picking Sprouts - Monmouthshire' (Manchester City Art Galleries)

Evelyn Dunbar, 'Picking Sprouts - Monmouthshire' (Manchester Art Gallery)

On reflection, the venue for The Women’s Land Army – A Portrait was nothing short of inspired. The St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, located just off the High Street in Lymington, a modestly pretty market town and port just south of the New Forest, is in essence that very necessary and worthwhile thing, a local history collection — augmented, in this case, with two large rooms turned over to temporary art exhibitions. What more suitable context, then, for this compact yet compelling exhibition, doomed by its subject-matter to operate in the dangerous no man’s land dividing ‘history’ from ‘art’?

The history of the Women’s Land Army is recounted clearly and succinctly, both in the exhibition itself, and in the excellent accompanying catalogue. Other than commending this achievement, however, I don’t propose to say much more here about history per se.

For what clearly fascinated the exhibition organisers is the way in which the work of the Women’s Land Army was portrayed, notably during the course of the Second World War, under the auspices of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. Meanwhile, what fascinates me is the present-day predicament of British war art — particularly of official British war art — which, for all its sometimes astonishingly high level of quality, is so rarely and grudgingly regarded as ‘proper’ art at all.

The so-called land girls were, I suppose, at one time a more ambiguous, tricky topic for visual representation than might be obvious now. In their varying First and Second World War manifestations, the women who volunteered for this scheme or were conscripted into it not only freed up male agricultural labourers to undertake other forms of war work, but at the same time, managed to insinuate themselves firmly into the popular imagination.

As with most collective, exclusively female endeavours, the land girls attracted suspicion, ridicule and sexual fantasy in more or less equal measure — c.f Powell and Pressburger’s flawless A Canterbury Tale (1944), the infinitely less interesting Land Girls (1998), or indeed references passim in the Orlando the Marmalade Cat books, written and illustrated by former land girl Kathleen Hale. Worldly girls-about-town translated to the countryside, immune to the claims of tradition or deference, sunburnt and irreverent in their regulation corduroy breeches and scratchy pullovers, as much symptom as cause of the Second World War’s social dislocations — this, anyway, is what later generation remember of their work. Although the exhibition does not altogether subvert this picture, it refines and enriches it enormously. But there’s more to these images than simply a mirror of social history, no matter how compelling in its details some of that social history might be.

The organisers of The Women’s Land Army – A Portrait are, I think, rightly proud of the roll-call of artists whose work is included therein. These include Randolph Schwabe, Thomas Hennell, Laura Knight, James Bateman, Ethel Gabain and of course Evelyn Dunbar, whose stunning monographic exhibition in Lymington (also curated by Gill Clarke) in 2006-7 was one of the art-historical revelations of the past few years, on a par with the Imperial War Museum’s great Eric Ravilious show of 2003-4, which is saying a lot.

In short, this is a deeply interesting collection of pictures. Only slightly to my surprise, many of them turn out to be at least as visually attractive as they are informative, historically resonant or relentlessly memorable.

Having previously known Schwabe, for instance, only through his delicate, rather diffident topographical drawings — of which this will serve as a representative example, although his ruined churches are even better — I was unprepared for the strong colours, forceful lines and massive forms that characterise his images of land work from the First World War, c.f. this. Ethel Gabain’s lithographs are reduced to competent illustrations, nothing less and nothing more, when reproduced digitally — but seen at full size, up close, the rasp of the lithographic crayon on the stone comes to matter as much as those self-assured compositional frameworks or, indeed, the subject-matter. Less surprising, perhaps, was the weirdly stylised vision of James Bateman, but his Silage (1940) was nevertheless remarkable for the persuasiveness with which he introduced this pungent, prosaic, effusively unromantic subject into the mainstream of the English pastoral tradition.

And while the stature of an artist like Evelyn Dunbar should really no longer be in doubt, what about Leonard Daniels, whose painting of land girls clearing ditches has enough going on in it — those scratchy trees near the horizon, the almost abstract grouping of grey cylindrical forms resolving themselves eventually as tree trunks and fence-posts and Wellington boots, the lyrical and loving application of paint — to transcend the modest requirements of frank historical record, yet whose name is now almost unknown? Actually, his life turns out to be quite interesting, too. As well as an art student, he almost managed to become an Olympic class sprinter, and how many art students can there have been who were invalided out of active service through injuries sustained in fencing without a mask?

And what about Michael Ford, born deaf, who went on to become a successful illustrator for Farmers Weekly magazine, all but two of whose offerings to the WAAC resulted in a decreasingly tactful rejection letter? Yet for all the admitted naïvité of Italian Prisoners of War Working on the Land (1942) — Ford’s sojourn at Goldsmith’s College Art School notwithstanding, the little painting, with its wonky perspective, out-of-scale figures, obsessive detail and fondness for strong local colour, looks like the work of an outsider artist — still, the work is strangely compelling, in the way that closely-observed, uncynical ‘bad’ art sometimes can be.

The star of the show is, however, perhaps inevitably, Evelyn Dunbar. Land girls now seem the obvious serendipitous subject for this confident draughtsman and careful observer, so skilled in picturing English flora, the countryside, women working quietly in groups. Her thinly-applied paint and the architectural firmness of her drawing somehow fit what we remember about the war, as indeed does her toned-down palette. (Years ago, I used to think that the overwhelmingly dowdy, drab, austerity colours of wartime and immediately post-war English painting constituted some sort of crippling defect of imagination or aspiration. Since then — having noticed, inter alia, that schoolchildren in Bruges sometimes do have the faces of Memling’s angels, that those unlikely-looking lollipop-on-a-stick little trees which ornament the paintings of the Tuscan quattrocento still grow on the hills outside Florence, and that the light in Venice actually is different — I now wonder whether this was simply how things actually looked then?) It’s hard to doubt the accuracy of her work as an historical record, just as it’s hard to question the value that these sober, determined, so very English-looking images would have had for propaganda purposes, both for domestic consumption and for export. But at the same time, there is so much to admire here in the application of paint, the rhythm and balance of these carefully-considered compositions, the coherence of mood and method that after a while the subject-matter almost ceases to matter at all. Or better, perhaps, the images are so persuasive that eventually one simply takes the subject-matter for granted, the inscrutable genetic source from which the full fruit ripened, as it were.

Yet as with the great bulk of British official war commissions, Dunbar’s pictures have yet to build a reputation as works of art, as opposed to historical artefacts, valued only as illustrations, relics and talismans of that most easily-mythologised moment in Britain’s recent history. The reasons for this are as understandable as they are misguided. First and foremost, official war art was, by definition, always ‘about’ something other than a critique of its own processes and meaning. If its practitioners seem sometimes to have adopted the language of modernism, they did so in defiance of much of its central logic. In Britain, official war art could hardly be regarded as entirely ‘progressive’, no matter how many members of the Artists International Association it retained in gainful employment. Neither unbounded self-expression, experimentation at the margins of the medium’s possibilities nor originality per se was really the point. Skill, however, mattered, as did the ability to create a visually compelling image of the designated subject, often under difficult circumstances and with severely limited means.

The result was that while a few artists, encouraged mightily by the enlightened despotism of Sir Kenneth Clark — Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore are the obvious examples — managed to emerge from war work with their critical reputations burnished rather than battered, others never entirely recovered. Art history, anyway, had moved on. Greatness, self-evidently, lay in the direction of ever-larger works, executed in oil on canvas. Disgust at the mess that war had made of everything — which is to say, disgust not only at destruction and death, but also at the continual grinding shabby wretchedness of everyday existence, so evident in the diaries and letters of that time — must have made these wartime pictures repugnant to much of their near-contemporary audience.

Probably no group of pictures was affected by this more directly than those depicting home-front war work. The pastoral vision was transformed by hindsight into something resembling a glib, possibly culpable obliviousness to horrors elsewhere. More to the point, as the notion developed — however self-reinforcing and partial it might have been — that Britain was somehow necessarily now a waning force in the world, what could possibly seem insular, antiquated and hence redundant than chronologically modern yet stylistically traditionalist depictions of English rural life? So whatever was variously skilful, inspired or formally successful in this corpus of work — or to put it more simply, whatever remained beautiful — nevertheless fell victim to the sheer conceptual weight of that unavoidable subject-matter.

Thus it is that our fine art institutions leave us, all too often, with the lumpy anonymity of Henry Moore’s generalising shelter drawings to stand as sole representative of the diverse, absorbing, occasionally brilliant achievements left to us by British artists at work during the Second World War — assuming they acknowledge wartime art at all, which isn’t always the case, even for institutions which claim to be our custodians of national art-historical memory. No, the enthusiast for wartime pictures must seek them out in specialist collections such as the Imperial War Museum, specialist exhibitions such as The Women’s Land Army – A Portrait (not infrequently held in distant if delightful provincial galleries), auction catalogues (for the commercial market in such pictures never entirely disappeared), and the odd bastion of critical self-confidence from which British wartime artists had never been banished in the first place.

And in presuming to seek out these works, the enthusiasts must suffer the stigma of their error of taste in preferring ‘war art’ — generally assumed to involve little more than renditions of pastel-tinted military aircraft purring through candy-floss clouds, painted principally for the benefit of the very old and presumably mostly blind — to whatever contemporary opinion offers up as the cutting-edge art of the moment. And they must suffer this stigma in the full knowledge that those who sneer at them simply do not see that war might less an interruption in the flow of some individual’s autonomous creative process, than the most urgent of public encouragements to produce powerful, convincing visual art — which is to say, not art that is self-indulgent or slack or smugly self-referential, but art that actually works, that achieves the purpose for which it was created.

None of which should be construed as suggesting that most war art is great art, because it very clearly was not. Heaven knows, little enough art that stands the test of time is produced in any given era. A world in which survival is a continual and eventually wearing preoccupation, in which canvas is destined for the construction of aircraft rather than for their depiction, in which pretty much everything worth having is either rationed or expensive or simply unobtainable — this is hardly the most obvious nursery for first-rate artistic achievement, which tends to thrive on abundant leisure, political power and the rewards of material prosperity. Nor should we forget what the Second World War cost these artists in personal terms: not just Ravilious (lost off the coast of Iceland in 1942), Richards (killed by a mine at Maas in 1945) or Hennell (missing, presumed murdered by Indonesian nationalists in 1945), either, but all of those who suffered its various dislocations, depredations and traumas. War is, in short, terrible. Producing some good art doesn’t make it any better, either.

But for the avoidance of doubt, I should probably also underscore the fairly obvious fact that there are some things that British war art simply doesn’t even try to do. Not least, for reasons well worth considering but doomed to evade consideration here, British war art never adopted a grandiose, epic, declamatory mode. In another country, a few years later, a very great artist indeed would insist that only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. In Britain, though, the pervailing tone of wartime painting was broadly optimistic and vaguely documentary, resisting generalisation as firmly as it resisted bombast. (The exception that proves the rule is, of course, Moore’s wartime oeuvre, which in its apparently unproblematic humanistic blandness won its creator deafening international acclaim, honours, prizes and highly lucrative commissions galore, thus allowing the weakness of his subsequent work and the disproportionate girth of his reputation to sap away whatever might have been fresh, deeply-felt and real in those early, furtive, strangely intimate shelter sketches.)

And so it is that sensibilities sharpened on the stuff of the mid-twentieth century high art canon may struggle to read British war art as anything other than a failure to transcend the particularity of its own circumstances — or to put it more accurately, the failure of British war art not to look more encouragingly similar to the art we were all taught was great — its failure, in other words, to have spawned an Elegy to the Spanish Republic, a Guernica, an Excavation. Well, maybe British war art simply isn’t great in that sense. Who cares?

My point, I suppose, is this, is simply this — that it’s worth making the effort to break out of these ingrown habits of looking, at least for long enough to give these largely obscure, half-forgotten little works a chance to succeed on their own modest terms. Bad critics know what they are supposed to like, and frame their snobberies accordingly. It takes a truly great critic to shock with an improvised, off-the-cuff encomium to ‘Girtin, Crome, Cotman, the younger Cozens [and] Cox’ — to be as keenly alert to the smaller, perhaps more faltering conduits of visual pleasure as to the thundering, deafening Niagaras of certified art-historical greatness.

On the other hand, having been raised on works with titles like Onement III, No. 1, and, well, Untitled, perhaps it’s simply impossible to take seriously a painting called Silage, or, heaven help us, Milking Practice with Artificial Udders. And yet, however quixotically, I do think it’s worth making that effort all the same.

So much, then, for The Women’s Land Army – A Portrait. Having returned from Lymington — not, though, before walking down to examine its tiny, pretty, yacht-enjambed harbour, or indeed returning to the High Street to enjoy yet more fish and chips — I peruse my diary. Next week’s engagements include a visit to the London Art Fair, held in the hangar-like Business Design Centre in Islington.

It would be silly to deny that the London Art Fair has its attractions. Most of our more mainstream, well-established contemporary and modern galleries exhibit there. More to the point, though, it’s a chance to run into old friends we haven’t seen for a while, to consume a glass of warmish sparkling wine while discussing the boldness with which some galleries mark up the prices of pictures they’ve purchased recently, for much less, at auction, and of course to go to dinner afterwards where the conversation invariably turns to complaints about the rebarbative cattle-market air of the whole exercise, descriptive sloppiness verging on mendacity on the part of a few of the participants, as well as the odd masterpiece, priced (for us, anyway) at a level inviting wistful admiration rather than acquisition. Ultimately, though, the London Art Fair always seems more obviously focused on money than on art, which eventually grates. Well, that, and the fact that much of the art on show is actually quite poor — derivative, unfelt, faintly cynical stuff.

I try to remind myself at this point that most ‘art’, most of the time, has been sold as much for purposes of interior decoration, social posturing and conspicuous consumption as anything else. Some fantasy art fair held, say, on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal in seventeenth century Amsterdam, or around the Palais Royale in early eighteenth century Paris, would probably have been similarly discouraging, for broadly similar reasons. I further try to remind myself that the London Art Fair does, invariably, include works of art that reward sustained looking, consideration and recollection. For all my endless complaints about contemporary art, quite a lot of it is interesting, sometimes thought-provoking, occasionally beautiful. But it takes a degree of optimism and robust good humour to sustain these judgements. And sometimes that seems just a little too much like hard work.

Instead, then, let’s remember another London Art Fair. Was it two years ago, or three? After a while they all run together. In any event, we’d just returned from the Fair, featuring all the usual convivial conversations, well-justified complaints and that usual nagging sense of inchoate dissatisfaction with the whole exercise. True, we’d seen some marvellous things. From what I can remember, for instance, there were some works by Langlands & Bell that interested me a lot. (Not that I don’t have reservations about their work — but there’s something that keeps me interested in it, all the same. Maybe it’s the fact that much of it actually looks good?) But the general sense was of too many things, chasing too much money for too little reason. And while I wouldn’t have called down the righteous cleansing calamity of a full-scale credit crunch on Islington — even had it been in my power to do so, which happily it was not — I imagine that others might have been considerably less inhibited in this respect than I was.

Meanwhile, my emails that evening included documentation relating to a few pictures that my husband and I had recently acquired from Matthew Cook — small works, thinned-down acrylic on paper. The subject-matter was mostly the recent invasion of Iraq, although I think there may have been an image or two from Afghanistan as well. Cook has been to all these places — in the case of Iraq, on a seven-month operational tour with the Territorial Army — so his pictures are, first and foremost, the work of a serving soldier. The email he sent provided details about the circumstances under which some of the pictures had been produced. And for all the self-deprecating humour present in those stories, I remember being quite struck by the contrast between what Cook was describing, and what we’d just experienced in Islington.

Cook is an illustrator. He is not, repeat, not an artist. Having once introduced him to someone as an artist, rather than an illustrator, I was charmingly yet firmly set straight on this point. This mode of self-identification, in turn, licences him to transgress pretty much every normative stricture associated with the trendier end of the contemporary art market. For instance, he not only enjoys drawing from life, but is very good at it. He takes commissions, meaning that he has to rise to the challenges set for him by others, rather than remaining within some safe but restrictive cocoon thrown up by his own limitations, and then has to be judged on the success of what he’s produced. All of which means that he’s turned his hand to portraits, topography, reportage, book illustration of various sorts, and heaven only knows what else. And in each of these various, differently challenging endeavours, he’s met with considerable success.

More to the point, though, Cook as also produced some amazingly strong images of war. That his experience of armed conflict involves participating in warfare, rather than protesting against it, may well signal yet another subversion of art world proprieties. In any event, his pictures from Iraq and Afghanistan — the Basra ones initially commissioned by the Times — have figured in exhibitions at the National Army Museum and the Imperial War Museum. Nor is this surprising. It says something about Cook’s pictures that one can hang them on the wall next to a serious work by, say, Thomas Hennell, within sight of other works by Anthony Gross and Edward Bawden, without thinking any less of Cook’s abilities as a consequence.

So what are these works, then? Illustration? (Yet, if so, surely what they ‘illustrate’ is simply Cook’s own unwritten ‘text’ — and in this, they are once again unlike so much of today’s contemporary art, obsessed as it is, however unknowingly, with ‘illustrating’ the texts of the hour’s more fashionable theorists.) Or are they mere historical records? Artefacts? Souvenirs? Or are they propaganda, or what?

The answer to this question is hardly an elusive one. At a time when the factual veracity of digital photography is increasingly regarded as suspect, and when 24-hour news has accustomed our eyes to a thoroughly stylised and hence gently numbing account of warfare, Cook’s images are war reporting of a peculiarly direct and arresting sort — a record of the visual facts on the ground as distilled through a single organising consciousness, deliberately stripped down on one hand and intensified on the other, necessarily subjective yet near-universally comprehensible — all calibrated to deliver something approaching the actual experience of being there, of seeing and doing these things, even for those of us whose experience of warfare seems likely to remain, God willing, entirely second-hand. And they do this is a way that is at very least visually striking, and often, indeed, for all the bleakness of their subject-matter, nothing short of beautiful.

Cook’s war images are, in other words — and insofar as that much-debased noun means anything at all — art. They are, indeed, good art. Doing what they do, what else could they possibly be? So if Cook’s war pictures, like the work of Evelyn Dunbar — or, indeed, of other official and unofficial British war artists, of greater or lesser merit — now seem frankly out of step with most of what is shown, marketed and feted as ‘art’ these days, then perhaps it is time to reconsider what it is that art was meant to do, back when it still had some degree of genuine engagement with the wider world around it.

Visually uninspiring, derivative, culpably insular, arbitrarily limited in ambition, ideologically unsatisfactory, increasingly dated, more than a little embarrassing — perhaps, this year, the various objects on show at the London Art Fair will be none of these things. Neither, though, were the images of the Women’s Land Army I saw last week at Lymington. Nor, for that matter, were Matthew Cook’s images of contemporary conflict. Both, though, mean more to me than most of what’s ever on show in any contemporary gallery. Why apologise for this? Why pretend it isn’t the case?

Rational prejudice is one thing — blind ignorance is another. So until the partial, swiftly-shifting, often baldly self-serving narratives of art history alter sufficiently so as to allow Britain’s war art to be seen, rather than scanned and then promptly dismissed, well then, the battle for war art — however asymmetric and possibly unwinnable it may be under present circumstances — continues.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Land girls in Lymington: war art fights back

  1. Gaw

    A terrific exposition. It struck me as the sort of piece Orwell might have written – revealing very clearly, elegantly and modestly why something that has been unconsidered and unappreciated is actually important and worthwhile. Thank you for uncovering and situating this tradition for us.

    I particularly enjoyed ‘Silage’, which because of its location I dare say will remain unseen outside of here (but not unsmelt: the pungency is almost palpable, even through a computer screen!).

  2. ‘Silage’ isn’t bad, is it? It’s vaguely interesting to try to list paintings that seem to address one’s sense of smell more insistently than one’s sense of touch or taste — a good game for another day.

    As for the Orwell comparison, though — is that revenge for my attempt to compare your chateau-related writing with that of the magnificent John Richardson himself?

    But while what’s left of my own literary judgement indicates to me that my overcooked prose isn’t fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Orwell’s cool, apparently effortless, near-flawless essay-writing, good manners intervene, suggesting instead that I simply thank you for what is, as far as I can see, about the most welcome compliment I could possibly have been given — not least, since the topic of this essay is one particularly dear to my heart. So, well, thanks, Gareth!