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Battle lines

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

The introductory room to Women War Artists at the Imperial War Museum confronts the visitor with a large canvas of a women’s canteen in 1918 by the little-known Flora Lion. It’s an honest painting, workmanlike but dull. Hanging to its left is Laura Knight’s famous ‘Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring’ (1943), and in between is a monitor playing a wonderful film clip of Dame Laura and Ruby going to see the painting at the Royal Academy. Ruby, overcome by emotion, kisses Dame Laura; Dame Laura bobs about, smoking furiously. Of course, Laura Knight on film and in paint grabs the attention; Flora Lion is inevitably sidelined. And that sets the tenor of the show, which is rather a shame, as there is work of real interest among the more obscure names.

There are also low art, illustrational things, such as a couple of slightly caricatural drawings, of a woman window-dresser and a bus conductress, by Victoria Monkhouse. The second room is dominated by Laura Knight’s large painting of the Nuremberg trial, with the court scene interestingly elided with the devastated city, offering two kinds of reality for the spectator to juggle with and consider.

Down the left wall are four large conté drawings of the Falklands War by Linda Kitson, while Mary Kessell (close friend of Sir Kenneth Clark) contributes surprisingly powerful studies in sanguine of the ruins of Hamburg. There’s a wall of rather good drawings by Olive Mudie-Cooke, a new discovery for me, including a particularly impressive one of a burnt-out tank rearing up over the trenches. In the next room there are two unusual and intriguing watercolours of a Forces kitchen and canteen in 1942/3 by Erlund Hudson (another discovery), who died in March aged 99.

Apart from Laura Knight, who didn’t do her best work as a war artist, there are only two really good artists here: Evelyn Dunbar (1906–60) and Ethel Gabain (1882–1950). Dunbar was the only woman to be given a salaried post as a War Artist, but she is a deeply interesting painter, as was shown by the excellent exhibition of her work at the St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery, Lymington, in 2006. She’s represented here by three paintings, including ‘The Queue at the Fish-shop’ (1944). Gabain is better known as a printmaker (she was an excellent lithographer), but her painting ‘A Bunnyan-Stannard Irrigation Envelope for the Treatment of Burns’ (1943–4) is easily the best painting in the IWM’s show. The only work by Gabain in the display, it is half-hidden between two rooms. Nevertheless, the beauty of its subtle paintwork, and its serene clarity, shine forth.

A third artist, and the only one with a reasonable claim to be taken seriously as a modernist, is Paule Vézelay (1892–1984). She was suspect because of her friendship with the French communist André Masson, and it was only with difficulty that she obtained a permit to record the bomb damage in her home city of Bristol. Only one work by her was acquired by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, a powerful drawing of snapped and twisted girders shown here. Vézelay may be seen as the great missed opportunity of the WAAC: what might she have done (had she been commissioned) with her skills and imagination, and the will to do it? There were, of course, other talented women, but no sign of them here. What about Norma Bull (1906–80)? The few things I’ve seen by her in the past have suggested that she is an artist of originality and vision. Or Ray Howard-Jones or Mary Adshead? No exhibition can be exhaustive, but these are notable absences.

To accompany the show there’s a 96-page paperback by Kathleen Palmer, published by the Tate in collaboration with the IWM (price £12.99) which only really skims the surface of the subject. Even the business of naming them as Women Artists is fraught with difficulty, inasmuch as it threatens to ghettoise the participants. As Ms Palmer admits in her introduction: ‘Most would prefer not to be categorised or assessed as women artists, but simply as artists.’ Quite. But in a survey of war artists, women made up only 5 per cent of the official artists in the first world war, and fewer than 13 per cent in the second. However, things are changing. In the last decade, the proportion of women commissioned to respond to modern conflict has risen to over 40 per cent. We know that not until 1982 was a woman artist sent overseas into battle with troops. This was Linda Kitson (born 1945), who produced an extensive body of work about the Falklands conflict and then seems to have disappeared. Was she, as is rumoured, so traumatised by the experience that she has had great difficulty in working since? It would be interesting to know more.

Some critics contend that there are few women artists because women aren’t naturally skilled as painters, but this is nonsense. Undoubtedly, they weren’t given the same opportunities as male war artists in the past, as can be seen when you cross over the balcony and enter the Museum’s main display of war art. The difference in quality of painting and image is at once apparent. William Roberts paints the wagon lines in France (1922), Paul Nash paints spring in the trenches in 1917, and Eric Kennington offers a superb group portrait of ‘The Kensingtons at Laventie’ (1915). There are more brilliant harrowing things by Nash, as well as his beautiful ‘Battle of Britain’ (1941), and notable works by Frank Dobson, Eric Ravilious, William Scott, Leonard Rosoman and C.R.W. Nevinson.

In the Hall of Remembrance next door, Sargent’s great first world war panorama ‘Gassed’ joins forces with Paul Nash’s ‘Menin Road’, John Nash’s ‘Oppy Wood’ and an oddly modern-looking 1918 painting by John Dodgson of motor transport troops. These paintings make the Women War Artists look mostly trivial. I wish the exhibition and its attendant publication had more closely addressed the reasons why.

North of Oxford Street, a distinguished contemporary woman artist is holding her latest solo show at the commercial gallery Art First. Eileen Cooper (born 1953) has much to celebrate: a splendid exhibition of new work and her recent appointment as Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools — the first woman to take up this important post. Certainly her work has a new assurance and strength of image. She has always made memorable pictures of ordinary people enacting allegories of everyday life — what one might call the quotidian mythical — but her latest paintings and drawings have a new potency, an effortless sense of making real. Always prepared to simplify her renditions of the human body, Cooper is now able to pare back her compositions even further. The results are very effective.

The key image is called ‘Showing Off’ and appears on the cover of the catalogue. A young woman in a semi-transparent skirt flings out her leg in a wild dance step. The shape of her whole body, clothes and hair, sings against a bold red ground. She totally occupies and animates the picture space, her concentration transforming what could be an awkward pose into lines of flowing grace. Other paintings offer Scheherazade dancing in a long veil, a woman artist tracing her boyfriend’s outline, the artist painting on the floor, and a sleeping woman guarded by a black dog overshone by stars (shades of Douanier Rousseau). Occasionally limbs look boneless and schematised (a hand might resemble a flipper), but then these paintings are more about pattern and design than they are about anatomy, and the patterns are essentially fluid, linear and flat. It is from the interplay of tracery and colour that these works derive much of their impetus, and Cooper’s control of her medium has never been stronger.

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