Redefining war art, Roger Blackley

I was no soldier: An artist’s war diary
Ted Lewis
Steele Roberts, $39.95,
ISBN 1877228494

I  was no soldier tells the story of an art teacher’s experiences of World War 2. Ted Lewis volunteered in January 1941 for the medical corps and, in the Trentham training camp with a random sample of Kiwi blokes, brought a hush to the bunkhouse by kneeling for his bedtime prayers. A few nights later, he held his own in the boxing ring, revealing the survival skills that co-existed with an intense religiosity. Lewis sailed to Egypt on New Zealand’s first hospital ship, the Maunganui, and returned with a full complement of wounded. He created an illustrated record and his first cartoons (“the ward sister, strictly not for publication of course”).

Back in Egypt, Lewis volunteered for service on land where his artistic inclinations were discovered. Arrested for making a drawing from a position overlooking the Maadi camp, Lewis admitted to being a trained artist. The offending drawing was torn from his sketchbook, but Lewis gained from the episode by entering the army drafting office, taking over from Peter McIntyre who had been appointed official war artist. Lewis’s first expedition into the desert was on behalf of “Public Relations”, largely assisting cameraman Ronald McIntyre in fabricating battle shots for the filmed version of the Libyan campaign. (So much for the superior documentary value of film!) An appendix includes excerpts from Ronald McIntyre’s Films without make-up, in which Lewis is described as “a grand travelling companion”, if “amazingly naive”.

While the devout Lewis may have been perceived as naive, he was far from prudish. One anecdote from the initial voyage concerns a soldier who, taking four condoms in preparation for shore leave, was slapped by his mate and told not to skite. Lewis employed his own leisure rather differently, exploiting the opportunities for “cultural tourism” that accompanied his sojourn in the Holy Land and the subsequent liberation of Italy. He viewed the unparalleled – indeed unrepeatable – exhibition of Rome’s unwrapped treasures at the Palazzo Venezia and bumped into a Canadian monk while inspecting an early Christian basilica. In Fiesole, he met an elderly Russian artist, who supposedly produced copies of old masters for “the art gallery in Moscow”. Failing to recognise a professional forger, Lewis informed him that there were “no original Italian works in our country” (he’s wrong), but that “Many of our people were interested in art history, a subject studied in our universities” (wrong again, if he means the 1930s).

The subtitle, An artist’s war diary, belies a polished text crafted for posterity in the genre of the personal memoir. Peter McIntyre’s swashbuckling 1962 memoir, The painted years, includes the phrase, “The truth is, I was no soldier” – the precise sentiment Lewis deploys in both conclusion and title. While we are told that Lewis’s “war diary was discovered by former pupils”, the evidence of this beautifully designed book suggests a long-standing collaboration between family and friends intent on honouring the memory of Ted Lewis as an artist. They have thereby contributed towards a wider understanding of what can be meant by “war art”.

Lewis represents a particularly important species of artist at war, the draftsman working at the very centre of troop command as curator and interpreter of maps. I was especially interested to read about the exhibition of “nearly a hundred paintings and drawings” staged at the Italian mountain village of Matelica in November 1944 by Lewis and three draftsmen from other units. Mounted for troops from the front lines, whose life in Italy was the subject of many of the works, this exhibition represented a very different type of war art from Peter McIntyre’s “action” paintings. Not only did Lewis’s humorous cartoons directly address the experience of troops in the field, but their appearance in military publications meant that, from the soldier’s perspective at least, Lewis’s topical interventions certainly enjoyed greater visibility than McIntyre’s official paintings.

Lewis asks, “Does any war really end?” His own life was marked indelibly by his experiences in North Africa and Italy, and he writes of a painting he later produced for a prisoner of war convention as “a piece of therapy to lay low the incessant recurring trauma”. Lewis’s war arguably ended with his death in 1992, but the posthumous publication of I was no soldier demonstrates this particular war’s longevity. War art is conventionally understood as filmed, graphic or painted records commissioned by the State from designated war artists and secured in official archives. Ted Lewis, in contrast, is representative of the many other war artists whose productions enjoyed little more than “hobby” status but which at times cast crucial light on the nature and meaning of New Zealand’s engagement with the global catastrophe of World War 2.

 

Roger Blackley teaches Art History at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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Posted in Art, History, Non-fiction, Review and War
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