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- 1 One could also consider the differences in representations according to whether the art work was th (...)
1Painting is not an activity one would spontaneously associate with the representation of a period of modern warfare yet, during the Second World War, British artists produced a large corpus of works depicting the effects of the war on daily life, on work and on people’s activities generally. In the examination of a selection of these works, more particularly those by women artists, the concept of “regards croisés sur les guerres modernes” is relevant in a variety of ways. The concision and, at the same time, breadth of the French term “regards croisés” is very difficult to replace by an equally brief and inclusive expression in English: maybe “intersecting perspectives of modern warfare” would be the most appropriate to refer to the varieties of angles of perception this article analyses. The first specificity is to be found in the directing of an artist’s vision and professional activity towards the subject of war, while the conflict is in progress; this article examines how and why this occurred. Secondly, amongst the artists who devoted their attention to portraying World War Two are to be found a considerable number of women: this was a relatively innovatory phenomenon and it is interesting to examine what they painted, and how, and to see whether these women brought to bear any particularities which might be considered as “feminine”.1 Finally I will devote some reflection to the differences in reception according to the gender of the various artists of this war period.
2Before proceeding, two of the above statements call for qualification. Warfare has, of course, long provided subjects for art works. Historical subjects were considered amongst the noblest that an artist could hope to tackle and many include kings and generals dominating the battlefield or directing warfare from the decks of their naval vessels. Furthermore, apart from the histrionic oil painting, drawing enabled representations of war of a more documentary nature, which, reproduced in the press, were used to inform, impress or move the public until the development of photography. However, the World War Two art productions examined here display a certain number of characteristics which make them different in nature from many earlier works representing war.
- 2 The work of Lady Elizabeth Butler is a notable exception.
- 3 On this subject, and on the painting the male nude, which was considered a necessary stage of appre (...)
- 4 References as to where to see, online, the paintings cited are given in this and other footnotes. T (...)
3It must be added that women artists are, as a rule, not known for producing grandiose oil paintings of battlefield or battleship scenes.2 During the period of art history which mainly witnessed the creation of these sorts of works, women were almost exclusively confined to the private sphere and had little access to art training or to professional production.3 Even so, during the Great War, some women who worked near the battle fronts did produce some art works,4 which is why it can be said that the women war artists of the Second World War were “relatively” innovatory. They were nevertheless much more numerous during the Second World War and tackled different subjects, most notably those concerning the home front.
4If the painting of war scenes had long existed, the manner in which, institutionally, British Second World War works were produced seems particular to the United Kingdom. Whereas, in earlier wars, they usually resulted from private commissions on the part of monarchs or other leaders who wished to see recorded their valiant exploits or national events of momentous significance, the procedure in this case was quite different. An institutional decision was taken to commission, in an organized manner, from prominent artists, paintings representing the effects of war in and on the United Kingdom. The subjects were not to be the great and powerful few but the country itself, its population and institutions, its varied experiences of war: on the home front, in factories, streets and houses, in the Underground, and so on. There had been a similar scheme in the 1914-1918 War but the programme in the Second World War was much more far-reaching.
- 5 “[…] to record the suffering of the people in Britain under attack.” Their work showed “[…] a defia (...)
- 6 “By employing war artists, Clark and his committee were not only looking for a record of the war in (...)
- 7 £300 for a large oil painting, £10 for drawings and watercolours. Gardiner, op. cit., 474.
- 8 Gardiner, op. cit., 480. The women artists included Dorothy Coke, Evelyn Dunbar, Lelia Faithfull, M (...)
5Initiated in 1939 by Sir Kenneth Clark, who was director of the National Gallery, it went under the name of the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC). Clark’s stated motives were two-fold: he wished to promote the creation of a corpus of works which would bear witness to the effects of the war on the country5 and which would show why it was worth resisting the enemy offensive and, at the same time, by engaging a certain number of talented artists as salaried employees of the WAAC he wished to keep them away from the battle fronts and provide them with a livelihood during the period of war.6 In addition to employing full-time artists the WAAC bought and commissioned work from others who were not permanently employed by them.7 Over a six-year period, the WAAC purchased some 5,500 works from more than 300 artists, among them Edward Ardizzone (salaried and sent to France), Henry Moore (his famous “Shelter Sketches”), Paul Nash, John Piper, Eric Ravilious, Sir Stanley Spencer, Graham Sutherland (who was asked to “stand by and make pictures of debris and damage caused by air raids”). The scheme also included 42 women8 of whom only one (Ethel Gabain) was permanently salaried.
- 9 Exhibitions were also held at the Royal Academy and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Thanks to the “ (...)
6The paintings were displayed at the National Gallery, from which the permanent collections had been removed for safe keeping, and they were also put on show around the country and abroad in exhibitions designed to show what the United Kingdom was fighting to save and to prove that the country was still capable of representing itself through art and so was not beaten.9 Contrary to what one might expect and in spite of danger and difficulty, there was a great enthusiasm for the arts during the war, a phenomenon that Stephen Spender analyzed in the following terms:
- 10 Quoted in Bryan Hawkins, A Canterbury Tale: Michael Powell and the Neo-Romantic Landscape. Exhibiti (...)
There was a revival of interest in the arts because people felt that music, the ballet, poetry and painting were concerned with the seriousness of living and dying with which they themselves had been confronted.10
- 11 Most of the paintings concerned by this programme are held in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
- 12 Gardiner, op. cit., 473.
7A second scheme, known as the “Recording Britain” programme,11 privately financed by the Pilgrim Trust, enabled other artists to provide visual records of Britain. The objective of this programme was “keeping Britain’s cultural heritage alive in wartime” and “any landscape, coastline, village or city street, or ceremony characteristic of a period and of a district, and in danger of destruction or injury […]” could be recorded.12
- 13 Some of the various male organizers of the project turned to women artists on the grounds that they (...)
8This corpus of war art is examined here from a feminist perspective, drawing particular attention to the thematic and artistic originality of many of the women’s art contributions. It can first be broached in relation to the various themes which the artists chose or were asked to portray. The paintings cover a broad spectrum of activities and events taking place in Britain during the war and thus provide a record of people’s daily lives, their occupations, often significantly different from those of pre-war years. Women painters did not restrict their vision exclusively to women but they were heavily represented, not surprisingly in view of the predominance of domestic subjects depicted.13 Many cover food, which in the context of war meant queuing, managing the week’s rations, learning to can fruit and vegetables to preserve them for later use or frequenting canteens. Others relate to children and childcare − crèches and nursery schools − evacuees, caring for bomb victims − and the classic female act of participation in a war effort, the knitting group. Nevertheless, a large number of paintings portray the variety of new and sometimes unexpected jobs outside the home, which women moved into during the war: the ATS (setting up barrage balloons, making uniforms ...), the Land Army, factory work, civilian protection (air raid precautions, sand bag filling), piloting planes, nursing, operating and repairing machinery in diverse contexts … The corpus also includes a number of portraits of figures singled out as worthy of being drawn to public attention, both male and female.
- 14 For example, The Evacuation of Children from Southend, Sunday 2nd June 1940. (IWM ART LD 264).
- 15 Doris Zinkeisen: 1898-1991. Harrow School of Art and scholarship to Royal Academy Schools, in 1917, (...)
- 16 Mary Kessel: 1914-1977. Primarily known as a painter of figure subjects, decorations and for the bo (...)
- 17 Laura Knight: Nottingham School of Art, aged 13. Princess of Wales scholarship. Closely associated (...)
9The subjects portrayed reflect to a considerable extent the requirements of the WAAC and often centre on women and children: Ethel Gabain was asked to record the departure of evacuees from the East End of London and their arrival in their billets and we find among her works a series of lithographs on wartime children.14 However, women also painted male service personnel and, at the end of the war, three of them provided powerful records of the consequences of the Nazi regime in Europe. Doris Zinkeisen15 painted scenes related to the Belsen concentration camp, Mary Kessel16 recorded her vision of Belsen survivors and of the German civilian population and Dame Laura Knight17 became the official artist at the Nuremberg trials. Thus, women artists could sometimes tackle more testing or rewarding subjects of their own choice as well as those which were suggested to them.
10More than the simple question of the subjects approached it is of interest to look in more detail at the way in which these women composed their works, which involves examining some of the characteristics of their various approaches and styles. The predominant mode, and this is equally true of the male artists of the corpus, consists of realist renderings of human experience: realism, neo-realism or a relatively naïf style. This was, no doubt, in part due to the artist’s preference or usual choice of style, but it must be borne in mind that the officials in and around the WAAC were not avant-garde in their taste and oriented the production towards realist representations, considering these to be ethically better suited to wartime art work. As Sir Kenneth Clark put it:
- 18 Quoted in Gardiner, op. cit., 473.
The War Artists collection cannot be completely representative of modern English art because it cannot include those pure painters who are interested solely in putting down their feelings about shapes and colours, and not … drama and human emotions generally.18
- 19 IWM ART LD 7206. Paule Vezelay: 1892-1984. Joined the London Group in 1922. From 1928 turned to abs (...)
11Thus, more modernist painters either adapted their style or were not or, not often, chosen. A notable exception was Paule Vezelay, whose Damaged Steel Girders,19 painted when she was a war artist in Bristol in 1941, was accepted but only after quite a struggle. It offers a brilliant perception of the “drama” and the degree of destructive violence that war introduced into people’s lives and illustrates how the bombings and their consequences would necessarily stir up “human emotions”. It is thus as potent as any realist representation in its expression of the drama of war but Vezelay had to battle for it to be accepted. She wrote to the WAAC:
- 20 Letter quoted by Susannah Glynn, “Witness: Women War Artists”, <http://www.
My work is very modern, even in Paris. Is the committee so reactionary at the Central Institute that it is displeasing to them? [ …] Nevertheless, while the modern weapons and inventions are needed to win the war, it would seem most suitable that the most modern artists are most likely to record it in a fitting manner.20 [sic]
12More abstract paintings, such as Vezelay’s, nevertheless remain rare as most of the war artists’ works offer examples of the neo-realist style as practised in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. This style, adopted by the Camden Town Group of painters (Harold Gilman, Charles Ginner, Spencer Gore and Walter Sickert), was theorized in an article by Charles Ginner published in January 1914:
- 21 Charles Ginner, “Neo-Realism” quoted in Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900-1939, New (...)
It is a common opinion of the day, especially in Paris (even Paris can make mistakes at times), that Decoration is the unique aim of Art. Neo-Realism has another aim of equal importance … It must interpret that which, to us who are of this earth, ought to lie nearest to our hearts, i.e. life in all its aspects, moods and developments.
Realism, loving life, loving its age, interprets its epoch by extracting from it the very essence of all it contains of great or weak, of beautiful or of sordid, according to the individual temperament.21
- 22 William Coldstream, 1908-1987, produced work for Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge’s Mass-Observation (...)
These ideas seem to correspond to the preoccupations of war artists, both men and women, and to their wartime creations: the representation of that which lay “nearest to [their] hearts”. Certainly we get the impression that these artists were attached to the notion of “loving life”. Their works seem eminently relevant to the experiences of “ordinary” people in wartime and appear to create a link between art and society as advocated by the realist painter William Coldstream:22
- 23 Harrison, op. cit., 338.
The slump had made me aware of social problems and I became convinced that art ought to be directed towards a wider public. Whereas all the ideas I had learned to be artistically revolutionary ran in the opposite direction. Public art must mean realism.23
Kenneth Clark was equally aware of “social problems” in Britain and had a similar ambition to direct art “towards a wider public,” an agenda of which war artists were well aware. Thus, while some, like Vezelay, very satisfactorily combined art “directed towards a wider public” with styles other than realism, most adopted Coldstream’s approach, although not without their own individual perceptions and variations.
- 24 IWM ART LD 3987 Evelyn Dunbar: 1906-1960. Trained Royal College of Art. Muralist. Illustrator. Also (...)
13The well-known war painting by Evelyn Dunbar, The Queue at the Fish Shop (1944),24 is a good example of how the artist perceives the concerns of the general population: how to get food in times of rationing, what one has to put up with, an example of “life in all its aspects.” We observe how the artist achieves the “extraction of the essence” via the precise choice of her actants, the composition of the work, the use of colour … The queue fills almost the entire space of the middle ground and background of the painting, running off the edge of the frame on the left, suggesting it is interminable and, by extension, the queue at the food shop becomes the background to other activities of daily life, the backdrop against which others hurry to work, on foot or by bicycle. The young woman in the foreground is in a pictorially unusual and striking position, peeking out over the edge of the lower frame, as if underlining “Look! I am here, in the foreground!” If Dunbar is making statements about life during the war she is also making artistic statements, expressing her feelings via composition and the use of “shapes and colours.”
- 25 Leonora Green: Coupons Required, 1941: <http://vads.ahds.ac.uk/>.
- 26 Paintings at Caravaggio (<http://picasaweb.google.fr:gardenofmonet/Caravaggio>); Abraham van Beyren, (...)
14To remain on the subject of food, stereotyped as feminine, it is interesting to look at a painting which, despite its early date, is close to the aesthetic known as hyperrealism, Leonora Green’s, Coupons Required (1941).25 The work is a still life, a genre which brings to the fore everyday objects, often food, and is variously used to remind the viewer of the transient nature of human existence, or of its opulent extravagance, or of the beauty of simple aspects of life and of nature. Thus Caravaggio, a founder of the genre, included in his Boy with a Basket of Fruit (c 1593) a withering leaf, a spot of corruption on the fruit while later painters would show off the wealth of the house, (Abraham van Beyren, 17th century Dutch) or the delicate bloom of an apple or an orange (Paul Cézanne 1895-1900).26
- 27 The food in Coupons Required looks both appetising and copious, but for the fact that it is the rat (...)
- 28 Hyperrealism develops paintings which imitate photographic images emphasizing mundane everyday imag (...)
15The still life painter foregrounds his/her particular concern: Leonora Green places the key to her work in the left-hand corner, “Your Ration Book.” The painting then displays the precious components of an English person’s everyday experience in wartime, the elements of her/his diet only obtainable thanks to ration coupons, and in limited quantity — meat, sugar, butter, jam, tea. The social context is closer to Cézanne’s than to van Beyren’s, but the silverware of the wealthy household, a favourite subject of classic still life, finds an echo in the shiny stainless steel tea-pot, pride of the table, even if the tea to put in it is in short supply. Leonora Green’s painting is faithful to the genre, but adapts it with both severity and a touch of humour.27 The picture has a stark beauty and is closer to something one might find later, in the 1960s, than to the general run of 1930s painting thus anticipating the beginnings of hyperrealism.28
- 29 IWM ART LD 2371 Elsie Hewland: 1901-1979. Trained Sheffield College of Art 1921-1924 and Royal Acad (...)
16In the thirties, children were considered to be the foremost concern of women and we find them figuring, amongst other places, in the collective situations of the crèche or in the nursery school as in Elsie Hewland’s, A Nursery School for War Workers’ Children (1942).29 This institution was an icon of progress in Britain in wartime, as care for the small children of working mothers was seldom available before the war and was largely abandoned afterwards. In keeping with this optimistic mood, we note the bright affirmative colours, royal and light blue, the harmonious hues of pink and brown, the patches of white leading the eye from figure to figure, the composition which guides our eye past each group of children into the back of the portrayed room. Hewland creates an impression of a jolly atmosphere as she captures typical stances of small children — a little hand tucked into the panty top, the bob being pulled askew, or playing at looking upside down between one’s legs. In this wartime upheaval, the portrayal of an unremarkable everyday scene which would generally not be picked out for representation becomes worthy of the attention of those who love life, as Ginner said.
- 30 IWM ART LD 5775. In spite of the title, the little girl was apparently injured in a car accident an (...)
17Care for children, traditionally the domain of women, also includes looking after the many wounded in the bombing as Ethel Gabain’s child victim painting indicates (A Child Bomb Victim Receiving Penicillin, 1944).30
- 31 IWM ART LD 5469. We note that the title gives significantly full details of Miss Wade’s status.
18Similarly, women’s work as nurses was by now well established and we find them in the women war artists’ corpus. It is interesting to note that as ordinary people and their work become the subjects of paintings, so portraits abandon the traditional great and powerful, prominent politicians, military leaders or other public figures, in favour of more ordinary heroes, with consequences for artistic techniques. Doris Zinkeisen’s portrait of a reputed hospital matron: Miss S. A. W. Wade, RRC: Principal Matron, 101 British General Hospital, (1945),31 is painted with as much aesthetic professionalism as if she were a significant male public figure, but with none of the customary flattery. The red of the matron’s lipstick echoes the neat red cape, the shapes of the cape, collar and headdress echo each other to provide a frame for the strong-charactered face of Miss Wade, with her direct, confident gaze. The grey of her uniform is lightly echoed in the shading of her headdress whilst the pale pink and white of her skin finds an echo in the sky behind her. Certainly Doris Zinkeisen is keen to move her viewer to respect for this woman and her managerial competence, and (or but) she uses her artist’s interest in shapes and colours to do so.
- 32 IWM ART LD 626.
- 33 Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring, 1943. IWM ART LD 2850. Ruby Loftus had been called to the atten (...)
19Other portraits single out as subjects citizens who became examples for all, who participated in acts of heroism in a civilian context or who demonstrated exceptional diligence in their war jobs. Dame Laura Knight provided portraits of this sort. One example is that of Corporal J. D. M. Pearson, GC, WAAF,32 who came to fame (and won the George Cross) for risking her life to save a pilot from his crashed airplane. Laura Knight portrays her as if she were on the site of the crash, with the tool of her trade – what would be, in a classical portrait, a sword, globe or book here becomes a gas respirator. It is almost as if Pearson was unaware of the artist, or had been photographed without her knowledge. Her eyes so clearly fixed on the sky, and not the observer, stress her (exceptional) devotion to her job. The portrait of a heroine from among the people is an illustration of the concept of the “people’s war” at the same time as it no doubt participated in creating the concept. Even more of an advance in this direction is the same artist’s painting of Ruby Loftus, a simple factory worker who was famous for having mastered a male task involving a tricky technical skill in record time.33 Laura Knight here uses a strongly realist style and sets her subject in the factory workshop. For an English painting of the first third of the twentieth century it is innovatory in its approach. Once again form and colour play their role, the human figures in blue contrasting with the steely tinge of the metal disk: Ruby Loftus and the disk confront each other along the diagonal of the painting with the shape of the disk, her face and her headscarf echoing each other, the disk appearing ready to slice her in half if she gets the move wrong. Two slim feminine fingers are poised among the metalwork of the machine as the young woman, caught in mid movement, concentrates on her task.
- 34 Painting at IWM ART LD 2478.
- 35 A Bunyan-Stannard First-Aid Envelope for Protection against Infection in Burns, as issued to the RA (...)
20Besides innovation in their subjects, which was in keeping with other forms of progress in social and professional practices during the war, some of the women war artists’ paintings show imagination in their approach to form. For example, Evelyn Dunbar painting a hospital, uses a sort of comic strip technique, again closer to a style which might be found in the sixties (St Thomas’s Hospital in Evacuation Quarters,1942).34 Not only are different areas of the hospital shown simultaneously, via the division of space and subject into small boxes, but figures also overlap from one space to another, breaking the illusion of reality. Colour is used to ensure a unity of the whole, linking the subjects of one box to one another, and incidentally using the colours of the Union Jack. Ethel Gabain uses a somewhat similar composite technique in her informative demonstration of how to apply a special sort of protective bandage, the Bunyan-Stannard First-Aid Envelope,35 this work being particularly notable for the use of varied skewed angles creating an impression for the observer of being inside the unstable, manoeuvring bomber plane. It is also a rare example of a woman artist portraying a man’s world.
21Some of the most original and striking work was done in Germany at the end of the war. Doris Zinkeisen was one of the first people to enter Belsen concentration camp where what she witnessed inspired the series Belsen: April 1945.36 This work perhaps shows most vividly the role which painting could play in bringing to people’s awareness the horror of the camps. Here the artist is fulfilling the role of expressing human drama and emotions – ironically not through realism, as the WAAC claimed would be the case, but more thanks to the filter of expressionism, which was even more pronounced in Mary Kessel’s portrayal of her vision of camp victims in a series of charcoal drawings, Notes from Belsen Camp, 1945.37The technique evokes some of Henry Moore’s “Shelter Sketches,”38 drawn earlier in the war in London, as if the figures they present were premonitory of the massacre that was to take place elsewhere. Moore transformed the sheltering Londoners into so many skeletal figures; in Kessel’s work the skeletal figures genuinely exist.
- 39 The Nuremberg Trial, 1946. IWM ART LD 5798.
- 40 The Bells Go Down, 1943. IWM ART 16488.
- 41 This painting was unusual in that it was poster for the film, The Bells Go Down, dir. Basil Dearden (...)
22To portray the Nuremberg trials Laura Knight used a style which combines realism with what is almost a call on the surreal.39 In the foreground she depicts the rows of prosecuted Nazis facing the judges, with a long line of soldiers guarding them, all convincingly mimetic. But, as if to say that the enormity of the crimes committed by the accused parties could not be contained within the walls of an ordinary courtroom, Knight has opened up the space of the painting to include, in the background, a vision of a German city in flames: thus the accused parties face part of the evidence of their crimes. The effect of Knight’s painting reminds one of John Piper’s painting of St Paul’s Cathedral, standing surrounded by bombed buildings: The Bells Go Down, 1943.40 In this case, contrary to Knight’s vision, we see past the destruction caused by the bombs, through to the cathedral which is left standing.41 Laura Knight’s vision seems in fact more innovatory than Piper’s. The striking element in Piper is the association of the London ruins with the vestiges of the classical era, his buildings look almost like Ancient Rome or Greece, which suggests that we are witnessing something like an assault on the roots of Western civilization, but, finally, he is painting what can be seen. Knight, on the other hand, creates a visual metaphor: the trial scene, via an imagined décor, places the soon-to-be-convicted Nazis face to face with the consequences of their actions.
23Reference to Henry Moore and John Piper and comparison between paintings brings us to the question of the possible specificity of women’s art in relation to men’s work – is there a particularly female vision? We may also reflect on the impact of the women artists, compared with that of their male counterparts, and on the course of women artists’ careers after the war.
- 42 “Any argument that proposes ‘art has no sex’ ignores the difference of men’s and women’s experience (...)
24On the whole, feminist art theoreticians such as Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock hesitate to adopt a totally essentialist position but without completely abandoning the idea that there is some difference between art productions in terms of gender origin.42 Indeed, after examining a large number of men’s and women’s war paintings it seemed to me increasingly apparent that there was much the two genders shared, as regards the subjects of their paintings, the variety of approaches and styles and the degrees of aesthetic innovation. Moreover, if they are placed side by side without identification of their source, obvious differences in quality between men’s and women’s work are not apparent. Indeed, from certain points of view, the women seemed sometimes more creative or imaginative in the way they had directed their perception, in their choice of subject and in their rendering of it through mode, angle, etc., although objective judgements on the relative talents and abilities of the two sexes are hard to make.
- 43 “It is important to recognize that Moore already had considerable artworld [sic] prestige in 1940, (...)
- 44 Moore said what he saw were “hundreds of Henry Moore Reclining Figures stretched along the platform (...)
- 45 “Kenneth Clark had been made chairman of the War Artist’s Committee and invited me to become an off (...)
- 46 Moore was only commissioned for batches of work and did not carry out all those he was offered, dis (...)
- 47 “One contemporary poet, Sheila Shannon, found Moore’s images not triumphs of humanistic vision but (...)
25It must, however be recognized that a certain number of the male artists who were involved in the WAAC project went on to have highly prominent careers, acquiring international renown, which was not really the case for the women, and we may wonder why, for the simplistic conclusion that women were just not such good artists does not seem to be borne out by the paintings themselves. A more significant factor was probably that many of the major male WAAC artists were already on the way to establishing their careers before the war started.43 Their war art was useful in boosting their finances and in allowing them to continue to develop their personal styles or subjects. Henry Moore is a case in point. He said himself that the figures in his shelter drawings reminded him of the reclining forms he had already sculpted in stone.44 He initially turned down an offer from Kenneth Clark to be a WAAC artist but finally accepted after having done his “Shelter Sketches.”45 Adrian Lewis suggests that Moore had second thoughts when he was not able to sculpt due to lack of stone, and that he thought drawing would be a useful source of revenue. At the same time, mindful of his established reputation Moore did not wish to appear keen to be “too locked into the official scheme.”46 Moreover, Moore’s sketches were not unanimously appreciated: if, now, we find they offer an extremely powerful vision of the London population during the Blitz, some people, in the early 1940s, found them distasteful, even insulting.47
- 48 Parker & Pollock, op. cit., 48.
- 49 Ibid.,49.
- 50 Ibid.,158.
26Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock suggest that the reason why women have (and had) more difficulty in being recognized and reaching fame in the art world has more to do with the way the art canon is established, and with selectivity as to what is to be recognized/accepted as “art”, than with deliberate exclusion. They are reluctant to adopt the position that there is no “distinctive feature resulting from their gender in women’s art,”48 considering that women artists have “spoken and acted from a different place within their society and culture” and wonder why “modern art history remained silent about women artists?”49 They argue: “[t]o confront these questions enables us to identify the unacknowledged ideology which informs the practice of this discipline and the values which decide its classification and interpretations of all art.” Pollock and Parker note that “other [art] work documents areas of women’s life and labour — factories and the office — that are unacknowledged and repressed in prevalent representations of woman as homemaker and sexual object.”50 Thus they consider that the canon of high art often excludes women artists because the subjects relevant to women, or including women, are not considered sufficiently prestigious.
27These criteria changed for a time during the Second World War, which opened up professional opportunities for women in many domains including art. Kenneth Clark’s call to women artists meant that the subjects (often from daily life) allotted to them became artistically acceptable, and that the artists themselves were deemed to be fulfilling a useful and worthy purpose. They could even move outside of their appointed domains or adopt new ambitious or innovatory techniques, although they needed to be very determined to be granted the right to do so, as we saw earlier. However, all this was a temporary concession made to the wartime circumstances, for it was not on the agenda to give women a place within the canon outside the context of the war — the concept of just “for the duration” applied here as elsewhere.
- 51 Richard Moss, “Witness: Women war Artists at IWM North,” 11th February, 2009. <http://www.culture24 (...)
- 52 Nancy G. Heller, Women Artists: Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, New York: Rizz (...)
- 53 Eleanor Erlund Hudson: 1912- . Graduated from the Royal College of Art in the 1930s. She did hundre (...)
- 54 Joanna Pitman, “Women war artists: the other faces of war,” Timesonline, February 4, 2009.
28From 7th February to 19th April 2009 the Imperial War Museum North held an exhibition of women war artists’ work, which revealed that many of these women artists had been forgotten, and that their work had fallen into oblivion, in spite of its undoubted aesthetic worth. Indeed, the IWM display was said to be “the first major exhibition of its kind for over fifty years in the UK,”51 which confirms the idea that women artists and their work were expected to return to the background once the conflict was over. When one examines the book on women artists produced by the (American) National Museum of Women in the Arts52 and discovers the number of successful, professional women painters throughout the ages one realizes that it is not necessarily the production of the works or the establishment of their careers which are lacking but rather the lasting recognition over time. Many British women war artists continued their professional lives after the war but worked in domains (such as teaching or illustration) which were denied the status of high art. Parker, Pollock and Nochlin point out that it is as much a question of what is agreed to constitute the canon which excludes women as the lack of women artists as such, but this opinion is not universal. Priscilla Thorneycroft and Eleanor Erlund Hudson53 said, when interviewed at the time of the IWM exhibition, that they “never felt neglected as women artists, nor that men were promoted above them,” with Thorneycroft adding, “I always felt quite equal to the men.”54
29Indeed, when studying their paintings one feels not only that the women were “equal to the men” but that, from a feminine view point, above all, they provided an aesthetically and humanly rich perception of life during World War Two, the suffering, the courage and sheer resilience, the collective effort. Of equal importance, one feels that, often, their styles of painting announced art forms which would only come to the fore later, in the 1950s and 1960s.
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BONNET Marie-Jo, Les femmes dans l’art : qu’est-ce que les femmes ont apporté à l’art, Paris: Editions la Martinière, 2004.
CAREY Frances, Henry Moore: a Shelter Sketchbook, London, British Museum, 1988.
CLARKE Gill, Evelyn Dunbar – War and Country, Bristol: Sansom and Company, 2006.
Dagen Philippe, Le Silence des peintres : les artistes face à la grande guerre, Paris : Fayard, 1996.
FOSS Brian, War Paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain 1939-1945, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
FOX Caroline, Dame Laura Knight, Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1988.
GARDINER Juliet, Wartime Britain 1939-1945, London: Headline Book Publishing, 2004.
GLYNN Susannah, “Witness: Women War Artists,” Country Life, Friday 27 March 2009, <http://www.countrylife.co.uk/article/314302>, accessed 16/01/2010.
HARRISON Charles, English Art and Modernism 1900-1939, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.
HAWKINS Bryan, A Canterbury Tale: Michael Powell and the Neo-Romantic Landscape. Exhibition catalogue, 2004.
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HELLER Nancy G. (ed.), Women Artists: Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2000.
DOI : 10.2307/1358832
JONES Amelia (ed.), The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, London: Routledge, 2003.
LAKE Carlton, “Henry Moore’s World,” Atlantic Monthly, 209, 1, January 1962.
LEWIS Adrian, “Henry Moore’s Shelter Drawings,” inPat Kirkham & David Thomas (eds.), War Culture: Social Change and Changing Experience in World War Two, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995.
MOSS Richard, “Witness: Art of the First World War at Imperial War Museum North, February 20 2006, <http://www.24hourmuseum.
NOCHLIN Linda, Femmes, Art et pouvoir, 1989, Nîmes : Editions Jacqueline Chambon, 1993.
PALMER Kathleen, Women War Artists, London: Tate Publishing, 2011.
PARKER Rozsika & Griselda POLLOCK, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, London: Pandor, 1981.
PITMAN Joanna, “Women War Artists: the other Faces of War,” The Times, February 4, 2009, Timesonline.
POLLOCK Griselda, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and Histories of Art, London: Routledge, 1988.
ROBINSON Hilary (ed.), Feminism and Art Theory: an Anthology 1968-2000,
“Witness: Women War Artists at IWM North,” by Culture Staff, 11 February 2009, <http://www.culture24.org.uk/history>.
<www.24hourmuseum.org.uk>, accessed 10/01/2010.
One could also consider the differences in representations according to whether the art work was the result of an official commission, a personal impulse to record, or, in certain cases, the result of an illicit, concealed recording of a place or event but this question is not examined in this article.
The work of Lady Elizabeth Butler is a notable exception.
On this subject, and on the painting the male nude, which was considered a necessary stage of apprenticeship before the rendering of historical subjects, see Marie-Jo Bonnet, Les femmes dans l’art : qu’est-ce que les femmes ont apporté à l’art, Paris: Editions la Martinière, 2004, 37, 39-40 and Linda Nochlin, Femmes, art et pouvoir, Nîmes: Editions Jacqueline Chambon, 1989, 219
References as to where to see, online, the paintings cited are given in this and other footnotes. Those labelled IWM followed by their catalogue number are to be found on the Imperial War Museum site: <www.iwm.org.uk/>. Women’s World War I paintings include Olive Mudie-Cooke, In an Ambulance: a VAD Lighting a Cigarette for a Patient, c.1916-1917. (<http://north.iwm.org.uk/server/show/conMediaFile.79838>) and Flora Lion, Women’s Canteen at Phoenix Works, Bradford, 1918. (IWM 4434) The second is a representation of a home front scene during wartime and is particularly relevant to this article.
“[…] to record the suffering of the people in Britain under attack.” Their work showed “[…] a defiant united country.” <www.24hourmuseum.org.uk>, accessed 10/01/2010.
“By employing war artists, Clark and his committee were not only looking for a record of the war in paint, but hoping also to save a generation of artists. Indeed, when war broke out many found themselves without the livelihood they had been relying on.” <www.24hourmuseum.org.uk>, accessed 10/01/2010. Kenneth Clark, “[I aim to …] keep artists in work on any pretext and, as far as possible, to prevent them from being killed,” quoted in Juliet Gardiner, Wartime Britain, 1939-1945, London: Headline Book Publishing, 2005, 473. Thus the substantial loss of talent which occurred in the Great War was not repeated, but all the same, three major artists were killed: Thomas Hennell, Eric Ravilious and Albert Richards.
£300 for a large oil painting, £10 for drawings and watercolours. Gardiner, op. cit., 474.
Gardiner, op. cit., 480. The women artists included Dorothy Coke, Evelyn Dunbar, Lelia Faithfull, Meredith Frampton, Ethel Gabain, Grace Golden, Dame Laura Knight, Stella Schmolle Anna Zinkeisen and Doris Zinkeisen (older sister of Anna).
Exhibitions were also held at the Royal Academy and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Thanks to the “Art for the People” campaign they were sent to villages, munitions factories, Army camps, etc.. Overseas destinations included Japan (1940), the Dominions, New York and the USA (1941). Gardiner, 482-483.
Quoted in Bryan Hawkins, A Canterbury Tale: Michael Powell and the Neo-Romantic Landscape. Exhibition catalogue, 2004.
Most of the paintings concerned by this programme are held in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Gardiner, op. cit., 473.
Some of the various male organizers of the project turned to women artists on the grounds that they would be best able to represent women in wartime.
For example, The Evacuation of Children from Southend, Sunday 2nd June 1940. (IWM ART LD 264).
Doris Zinkeisen: 1898-1991. Harrow School of Art and scholarship to Royal Academy Schools, in 1917, with her sister Anna. Painter, commercial artist and theatrical designer. Works include posters for London Underground, murals for RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth.
Mary Kessel: 1914-1977. Primarily known as a painter of figure subjects, decorations and for the book illustrations done throughout her life. Studied at both the Clapham School of Art and the Central School of Art in London. One of only two women to be commissioned to go overseas by the WAAC, in 1945. The Bergen-Belsen camp was also rendered in paintings by the male artists Leslie Cole and Sergeant Eric Ravilious.
Laura Knight: Nottingham School of Art, aged 13. Princess of Wales scholarship. Closely associated to world of theatre and dance she painted many dancers and actors. Received the DBE in 1929 in recognition of her work: first woman artist to receive this title. Her principal painting of Nuremburg, discussed below, was preceded by a number of studies of the various participants – prosecutors and defendants.
Quoted in Gardiner, op. cit., 473.
IWM ART LD 7206. Paule Vezelay: 1892-1984. Joined the London Group in 1922. From 1928 turned to abstract work. Became a member of the French Abstract movement.
Letter quoted by Susannah Glynn, “Witness: Women War Artists”, <http://www.
countrylife.co.uk/culture/article/314302/Witness-women>, accessed 16/01/2010.
Charles Ginner, “Neo-Realism” quoted in Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900-1939, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981, 41.
William Coldstream, 1908-1987, produced work for Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge’s Mass-Observation project, realistic scenes in and around Bolton (“worktown”).
Harrison, op. cit., 338.
IWM ART LD 3987 Evelyn Dunbar: 1906-1960. Trained Royal College of Art. Muralist. Illustrator. Also portraits and landscapes.
Leonora Green: Coupons Required, 1941: <http://vads.ahds.ac.uk/>.
Paintings at Caravaggio (<http://picasaweb.google.fr:gardenofmonet/Caravaggio>); Abraham van Beyren, Still Life with Fruit and Lobster/Nature morte de banquet (<http:// insecula.com/oeuvre/00029580.html>) ; Paul Cézanne, Nature morte aux pommes et aux oranges, 1895-1900 (<http://insecula.com/oeuvre/00013661.html>).
The food in Coupons Required looks both appetising and copious, but for the fact that it is the ration for a whole week, a detail which would not have escaped the wartime observer.
Hyperrealism develops paintings which imitate photographic images emphasizing mundane everyday imagery. It arose out of Pop Art.
IWM ART LD 2371 Elsie Hewland: 1901-1979. Trained Sheffield College of Art 1921-1924 and Royal Academy schools, 1926-1930 (awarded British Institute and Landseer Scholarships).
IWM ART LD 5775. In spite of the title, the little girl was apparently injured in a car accident and not a bomb victim!
IWM ART LD 5469. We note that the title gives significantly full details of Miss Wade’s status.
IWM ART LD 626.
Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring, 1943. IWM ART LD 2850. Ruby Loftus had been called to the attention of the WAAC. The Ministry of Supply wanted her painted at work in the Royal Ordnance Factory in Newport. She is making a Bofors Breech-ring. It was the most skilled job in the factory, requiring 8-9 years training. Loftus, 21 at the time of the painting, mastered the technique in a few months.
Painting at IWM ART LD 2478.
A Bunyan-Stannard First-Aid Envelope for Protection against Infection in Burns, as issued to the RAF, 1943-44. IWM ART LD 3849.
IWM ART LD 5467.
IWM ART LD 5747 (a-g).
In particular, Tube Shelter Perspective, 1941. Tate Collection. (<http://www.tate-images.com/index.asp>), Painting n°05709.
The Nuremberg Trial, 1946. IWM ART LD 5798.
The Bells Go Down, 1943. IWM ART 16488.
This painting was unusual in that it was poster for the film, The Bells Go Down, dir. Basil Dearden, 1943, centred on Auxiliary Fire Service Volunteers working in the East End of London during the Blitz.
“Any argument that proposes ‘art has no sex’ ignores the difference of men’s and women’s experience of the social structures of class and the sexual divisions within our society, and its historically varied effects on the art men and women produce,” Rozsika Parker & Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, London: Pandora, 1981, 48. Parker and Pollock argue that it is not sufficient to consider that women artists have something in common simply because they are women but that one cannot ignore the fact that women, as women, live (and have lived) through different experiences within society than those of men.
“It is important to recognize that Moore already had considerable artworld [sic] prestige in 1940, although it was largely the British Council’s active promotion of his career from 1947-48 onwards which made him world famous.” Adrian Lewis, “Henry Moore’s Shelter Drawings,” inPat Kirkham and David Thomas (eds.), War Culture: Social Change and Changing Experience in World War Two, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1995: 122.
Moore said what he saw were “hundreds of Henry Moore Reclining Figures stretched along the platform” and “tunnels like holes in my sculptures,” quoted in War Culture, 118. See also Frances Carey, Henry Moore: a Shelter Sketchbook, London, British Museum, 1988; Carlton Lake, “Henry Moore’s World,” Atlantic Monthly, 209, 1, January 1962.
“Kenneth Clark had been made chairman of the War Artist’s Committee and invited me to become an official war artist … [but] I volunteered instead for the [Chelsea Polytechnic] course in [precision] tool-making.” Moore started sketching one day after seeing people sheltering in the underground. Clark saw the work “and pointed out that I now had no excuse for refusing to be an official war artist.” (Moore quoted in War Culture, op. cit., 114).
Moore was only commissioned for batches of work and did not carry out all those he was offered, discreetly forgetting subjects he was not interested in. See the correspondence between Moore and the WAAC secretary E. Dickey, quoted in War Culture, op. cit., 114-115.
“One contemporary poet, Sheila Shannon, found Moore’s images not triumphs of humanistic vision but ‘soulless megaliths’ incapable of human emotion and only ‘half alive’ […]. In 1941 Eric Newton described Moore’s images as ‘unearthly studies of a white, grub-like race of troglodytes swathed in protective blankets,’” War Culture, op. cit., 120.
Parker & Pollock, op. cit., 48.
Richard Moss, “Witness: Women war Artists at IWM North,” 11th February, 2009. <http://www.culture24.org.uk/history>, accessed 16/01/2010.
Nancy G. Heller, Women Artists: Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2000.
Eleanor Erlund Hudson: 1912- . Graduated from the Royal College of Art in the 1930s. She did hundreds of drawings of the home front and local women in voluntary work. Several of her works acquired by the WAAC. Priscilla Thorneycroft: 1917- . Studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, graduating in 1937. Member of the left-wing Artists International Association and of the Hogarth group of communist party artists. Produced several ant-fascist posters for the Spanish civil war campaigns. Worked as an illustrator and was not a commissioned war artist. Focused on representations of war experiences among the working-class population.
Joanna Pitman, “Women war artists: the other faces of war,” Timesonline, February 4, 2009.Haut de page