Christo­pher Allen on the art of war

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

TO be in­tel­li­gi­ble, a sen­tence needs to have both syn­tac­tic and se­man­tic co­her­ence: it is not enough to be try­ing to say some­thing more or less sig­nif­i­cant, it is also nec­es­sary for verbs to agree with sub­jects, for sub­or­di­nate clauses to be cor­rectly ar­tic­u­lated with main clauses, and so on. Punc­tu­a­tion man­ages the rhythm, pace and di­rec­tion of thought, and helps to give a sense of be­gin­ning, pro­gres­sion and end­ing.

In the same way, an aes­thetic ob­ject be­comes ca­pa­ble of giv­ing shape to the par­tic­u­lar kind of think­ing with which art is con­cerned only when it possesses for­mal co­her­ence. The dif­fer­ence be­tween a trained and an un­trained pain­ter is first of all ap­par­ent in the way that forms, colours and other el­e­ments seem of a piece in the work of the for­mer and a dis­parate jumble in that of the lat­ter. The re­sult is the same as when some­one speaks gib­ber­ish: no mean­ing can be con­veyed.

One of the most strik­ing things about great painters is the way that ev­ery­thing in their work comes to­gether in a com­plex of forms, hues, tones and sur­faces that is unique and at once recog­nis­able. But style is much more than a con­ve­nient for­mal sig­na­ture: like that of a writer, the style of an artist ul­ti­mately ex­presses a vi­sion of the world.

This vi­sion is the rea­son we value great or even just good artists: it is as though they have opened our eyes to as­pects of re­al­ity that we could not dis­cover for our­selves. Even in as mod­est a genre as still life, we feel that Chardin, Cezanne or Mo­randi, for ex­am­ple, have re­vealed an al­most bot­tom­less depth of be­ing where, with­out their help, we would have seen only ba­nal­ity. How can a few ap­ples and pears, bot­tles and jugs, seem so full of life? When we glimpse the ob­jects in pho­to­graphs of the artist’s stu­dio, we can see quite clearly that there is noth­ing in­trin­si­cally mean­ing­ful about what are in them­selves lit­tle more than props.

Nor, con­versely, are there ob­jects that will be in­her­ently sig­nif­i­cant as sub­jects of a still life — al­though some things, such as the prod­ucts of in­dus­trial man­u­fac­ture, are par­tic­u­larly ob­tuse and re­sis­tant to mean­ing. And vi­sion can­not be sim­u­lated through the adop­tion of gim­micks or the copy­ing of art fash­ions. As the word it­self im­plies, it is a mat­ter of see­ing, and see­ing comes from look­ing; if an artist has the po­ten­tial for any kind of orig­i­nal vi­sion, it will be found only by pa­tient and hum­ble at­ten­tion, and the con­comi­tant, si­mul­ta­ne­ous ef­fort to crys­tallise what is un­der­stood in con­crete form. For what is ul­ti­mately seen is through rather than on the sur­face of things, and the artist must re­shape the world to make vis­i­ble what he has per­ceived by in­tu­ition.

These re­flec­tions were sug­gested by the ex­pe­ri­ence of Re­al­ity in Flames, an ex­hi­bi­tion of art from World War II that mainly com­prises the work of mi­nor artists of the time but con­sti­tutes a fas­ci­nat­ing and of­ten mov­ing an­thol­ogy of im­agery of war as ex­pe­ri­enced from dif­fer­ent points of view. For the first thing that strikes one about the ex­hi­bi­tion is the va­ri­ety of mo­tifs and sub­jects that one would not nor­mally see in the main­stream his­tory of art but that are thrown up as com­pelling by the ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances of the time.

An artist is not usu­ally go­ing to be in­ter­ested in paint­ing a bomber on a tar­mac, or a gi­gan­tic anti-air­craft searchlight, for ex­am­ple. But the ur­gency of the sit­u­a­tion makes these things top­i­cal and even fas­ci­nat­ing, evok­ing a life-and­death strug­gle, the out­come of which re­mains un­known at the time. Painters seize on this new ma­te­rial al­most op­por­tunis­ti­cally in the sense that they rep­re­sent some­thing that they know will in­ter­est a con­tem­po­rary au­di­ence, but also of course with in­volve­ment and em­pa­thy in their re­sponse to the hu­man di­men­sions of their sub­jects.

In re­al­ity, this is all very far from the work of the great artist in the pur­suit of a deeper vi­sion of the world. Mo­randi spent the war look­ing at a few bot­tles and ul­ti­mately achieved some­thing


of which none of these painters was ca­pa­ble; they doc­u­ment their time, but he pon­ders some­thing time­less. Monet, sim­i­larly, spent World War I, within earshot of the front and its in­ces­sant ar­tillery, paint­ing a gi­gan­tic frieze of lily pads on wa­ter fringed with hang­ing wil­lows — an al­most mys­ti­cal med­i­ta­tion on the eter­nal flow of life be­yond his­tory and the hu­man ego.

The point, in other words, is that while the war had some im­pact on the more im­por­tant artists of the time, it re­ally gave the lesser ones some­thing to paint: it pro­vided artists who had, aes­thet­i­cally speak­ing, very lit­tle to say un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances with im­por­tant and ur­gent sub­jects. and thus helped them to be­come more sub­stan­tial than they would other­wise have been. And with­out these artists, we would not have these im­ages that tell us much more than doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy could about what it felt like to live through the un­speak­able hor­rors of the war.

The first pic­ture that we en­counter is a case in point: it shows a cou­ple of fig­ures, sil­hou­et­ted against a ter­ri­fy­ing wall of flame, scram­bling to es­cape the wreck­age of a crashed bomber. It is cer­tainly not a great paint­ing, hardly even a good one, but it is a vivid record of a dra­matic ex­pe­ri­ence. An­other de­picts the rear gun­ner of a Halifax bomber, only his head vis­i­ble in the frag­ile and vul­ner­a­ble glass bub­ble in which so many such men died from the ma­chine-guns of pur­su­ing fighter planes.

A third, Colin Co­la­han’s The Monster, has a mas­sive Avro Lan­caster pro­filed against a livid dawn sky, its crew milling around in front like prey about to be de­voured. And de­voured they of­ten were, as we see in Stella Bowen’s group por­trait of an­other bomber crew: the day af­ter she be­gan the paint­ing, the plane was lost with only one sur­vivor. The rest of the faces had to be com­pleted from pho­to­graphs.

Many of the pic­tures deal with as­pects of life on the home front, in­clud­ing fac­to­ries and ship­yards pro­duc­ing ma­te­rial for the war ef­fort. The con­tem­po­rary art world at the time, par­tic­u­larly

Clock­wise from above: War Me­mo­rial in a Coun­try Town (1943) by Don­ald Friend; En­ergy of War (1940) by Ivor Fran­cis; Im­age of Mod­ern Evil (1943) by Al­bert Tucker; Ground Staff (Flight Sergeant Oswald Ossie Fer­gu­son) (1942) by Colin Co­la­han; Zero Trou­ble over Lae (1943) by Roy Hodgkin­son;

Head of a Sol­dier, sculpted in the Mid­dle East, (c1941) by Lyn­don Dadswell

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