Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

Women War Artists

Witness: Women War Artists at the Imperial War Museum North

Up until very recently the powers that be wouldn't allow women artists anywhere near the front- so the pictures selected for this exhibition are mostly of  hospitals, factories, refugees, land army girls, blitzed buildings, food queues- war as drudgery, inconvenience, comradeship, good works. The best picture- judged soley as art- is Paule Vezelay's image of an inflating or deflating barrage balloon- which turns it into a quasi-organic, Dalian object of menace. Vezelay (an assumed name) was a British woman who lived in Paris and rubbed shoulders with the modernist avant-garde; it shows.

Most of the other artists- British-trained, British domiciled- are decently provincial. You come away with the idea that war brought out the best in them. Even so there's nothing more exciting than fine craftsmanship in any of their images. Some are comical- in the vein of Ealing comedy- in the vein of Dad's Army.  Rather too many are simply banal and of little more than documentary interest.

An outstanding exception is the work of Dame Laura Knight.  Knight was the first woman since the 18th century to be elected a member of the Royal Academy- and the first woman artist ever to be "Damed". She's a significant figure in British art history- and, within her conservative limits, an artist who took risks. Her record of the Nuremburg trials- all those little, balding mass-murderers sitting in their pews (Oh look, there's Goering!) fades cinematically into a composite landscape of ruined buildings, body-dumps and explosions. Her- evocatively named- Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring- is a British Rosie the Riveter minus the muscles- not a great painting- but an iconic image of a working woman at her work-bench. Knight also painted heroines. One of them- a recipient of the George Cross- gazes skyward with her tin hat tipped back-"like a bonnet" . Knight intended to give her a rifle, but the War Office- which refused to arm female soldiers- objected and in the finished image she's shown with a gas mask in her lap.

Things get hairier as we approach the present. Linda Kitson went on a troop ship to the Falklands- and her drawing of the Sir Galahad on fire is- unless I missed something-  the first and only image of violence.  Frauke Eigen- a German artist- is represented by  a set of photographs of clothes- unravelled sweaters, torn singlets- taken from the bodies in a Kosovan mass grave. These are- far and away-  the most disturbing and moving images on show.
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