As weapons and tactics have changed, so has the way we see, understand and feel about war. During World War I war artists showed us, each in their own way, a war at the crossroads. People still engaged each other on the battlefield, but new technology was changing the ways they fought.
The Canadian artist A. Y. Jackson said: “What to paint was a problem for the war artist… the old heroics, the death and glory stuff, were gone forever… the impressionistic technique I had developed was now ineffective, for visual impressions were not enough.”
And yet he found an odd and inhuman beauty in some of what he did see and a way to paint it.
Gas attacks were feared; men who breathed poison gas died a slowly and agonizingly. Yet Jackson wrote:
“I went with Augustus John one night to see a gas attack we made on the German lines. It was like a wonderful display of fireworks, with our clouds of gas and the German flares and rockets of all colours.”
Arthur Lismer’s dramatic Sketch for Minesweepers and Seaplanes is all about planes and ships and danger. American seaplanes are flying out of their base at Shearwater, Nova Scotia, on the hunt for enemy submarines; minesweeping ships work below them. We see the machinery of war in action.
Alfred Theodore Joseph Bastien, a Belgian artist who was attached to the Canadian 22nd Battalion as a war artist, shares a different view of the war in this painting. He catches the loneliness and tension of a Canadian sentry on night-time watch, searching for signs of enemy movement in a dark landscape.
In the next painting the artist himself becomes the subject. William Topham, an English architect who became an artist after moving to Montreal, and then a war artist, gives us a glimpse into the war artist’s life when he paints his “home”.
“My home at Bottom Wood – about 1/2 way between Mametz and Contalmaison, in the trench the entrance to an old German dugout can be seen. The corrugated iron roof is covered by branches to conceal it from aircraft.” William Topham.
Women brought, and continue to bring, their own perspective to work as a war artist. In this BBC video about Women War Artists Kathleen Palmer, Head of Art at the Imperial War Museum in London introduces some of their work. It is interesting, enlightening, thought provoking.
The tradition continues: official war artists, some in and some from outside the armed forces, still record the conflicts around us and what happens to the people involved. It is an intensely personal way of seeing and understanding war.
It is up to us to seek out, examine and learn from their work.