By Christine Lindey in England:
Women War Artists
Imperial War Museum, London SE1
Friday 05 August 2011
The Imperial War Museum sends out conflicting messages. Its very name implies an acceptance of establishment values and much of its exhibits glamourise war.
Visitors are greeted by the intimidating twin barrels of massive naval guns which must be braved to reach the museum entrance.
Numerous military weapons including tanks, jet fighters, guns, V2 rocket and a polaris missile dominate the first and largest gallery and are clambered over by excited children.
They and their parents also converge on audio-visual and olfactory reconstructions of the Trench Experience and the Blitz Experience – both open to being interpreted as vicarious thrills rather [than] pacifist warnings especially if not contextualised by an educational visit.
Yet some displays do decry the horrors of war – nowhere more so than in the quiet spaces of the two modestly sized art galleries.
Avoiding the razzmatazz of war as entertainment they exhibit works selected from the museum’s vast art collection based on British government official commissioning schemes in both world wars.
The commissioning bodies mostly excluded, sidelined or underestimated women artists so that they formed only 5 per cent of official war artists in WWI and 13 per cent in WWII.
One current exhibition explores the social attitudes behind this situation, introduces us to the exceptions and affirms the progress made since the 1980s by showcasing the work of recent artists. The imaginative inclusion of non-commissioned works by “unofficial” women war artists adds depth and context.
These rebellious women are among the most interesting. During WWII for security reasons artists had to obtain official permits to draw in public places.
As a Communist who had produced posters supporting the Spanish republic Priscilla Thornycroft was unlikely to get one so she went ahead anyway surreptitiously drawing the everyday around her.
Her drawings and prints brilliantly convey the wartime ambiance of Camden Town – then a working-class district of London. The warmth, humour and humanity of her work shines out among the more emotionally restrained commissioned works such as Ethel Gabain‘s.
Many paintings such as Gabain’s do not differ stylistically from the mainstream styles of those by male fellow artists. But their subjects differ. Since women war artists were not allowed to go on active service they focused more on the home front. We see service men at leisure or hospitalised and women working in factories, queuing for food, working on the land, in canteens and in hospitals.
Victoria Monkhouse‘s WWI watercolours show women doing jobs previously reserved for men. A window cleaner gingerly holds her ladder, yet she daringly wears trousers under her overalls and she has cropped hair – both of which signal her modernity. Such women would go on to claim greater social and political freedoms in post war.
This is reflected in the larger number of official commissions received by women in WWII. Perhaps the best known of these then, as now, is Laura Knight‘s Ruby Loftus Screwing A Breech-Ring, 1943.
This video is called Dame Laura Knight and Ruby Loftus.
Unusually for a woman Laura Knight had already achieved success before the war – a Dame of the British Empire since 1929 and the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy in 150 years her works were much sought after.
The Ministry of Supply identified Ruby Loftus as a model worker and commissioned the subject from Knight to encourage recruitment of young women into skilled factory jobs. The painting celebrated the 21-year-old Ruby’s mastery of a process which had previously only been done by men with eight years’ experience. Artist, painting and sitter were much discussed in the mass media so that Loftus also became a celebrity.
The curators argue that this propaganda painting glamourised its subject to recruit women into harsh factory work and that both artist and subject were singled out as exceptional people which implied that most women were incapable of such high achievements.
Organised thematically the exhibition sets up resonances across time. Near Knight’s ultra-realist painting is Rosanne Hawksley‘s non-commissioned Pale Armistice, 1991- a wreath is made up of overlapping women’s gloves holding a single artificial lily.
Worked in the “feminine” technique and materials of stitching textiles it commemorates the concealed suffering of the artist’s grandmother and her generation who lost their brothers, sons, lovers fiancées and husbands in WWI.
The gloves’ fingers appear to clasp each other in friendship and succor – their repeated white fingers recalling fragile petals or the feathers of the white dove of peace. Knight’s painting is an energetic call to action, Hawksey’s wreath a gentle lament.
This intelligently curated, informative exhibition is based on serious research and brings little known women artists to a wider public.
Exhibition ends on Sunday November 27.
For more information: london.iwm.org.uk