Christopher Allen on the art of war
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
THE WAR REALLY GAVE THE LESSER ARTISTS SOMETHING TO PAINT
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