Imaging war, Stella Ramage

Behind the Twisted Wire: New Zealand Artists in World War I
Jennifer Haworth
Wily Publications, $50.00,
ISBN 9781927167212

Recently, I had the privilege of watching the magnificently restored WWI propaganda film, Battle of the Somme (1916). Shot by official cinematographers during the preliminaries and first days of what became months of horrific attrition, living, moving, smoking, marching, working, waving, laughing men are immortalised. Across the span of a century, our eyes meet those of young soldiers, in that long-gone, masculine world behind the lines; we have the poignant knowledge of the brutal fate awaiting many, and the trauma facing all. I begin with the film, in the context of this review, because the contrast between it and the art of the book highlight some of the representational issues with which each medium grappled.

Firstly, there is the depiction of personhood. If the population density behind the lines surprised me in the film, perhaps this was due to the almost complete absence of crowds or even identifiable individuals in the landscapes painted by the New Zealand artists discussed by Jennifer Haworth. While formal studio portraits abound (mostly, though not exclusively, of high-ranking officers in dress uniform), figure studies from the front are rare. (An exception is Horace Moore-Jones’s Gallipoli portrait of The Man with the Donkey (1915), which was, ironically, adapted from a photograph. Haworth devotes an intriguing chapter to this convoluted tale of mistaken identity.)

But, although the camera beats the pencil when it comes to instantaneous recording of individuality, this doesn’t explain the relative absence of human figures in New Zealand’s war art. Painting after painting features scarred and shattered landscapes, ruined buildings, dead trees; occasional figures are mid-ground or background, hazy and isolated (or, indeed, imaginary, as are the grieving couple depicted by George Butler in Butte de Polygon: Thy Father and I have sought thee sorrowing (1920)). Oddly enough, the same is true of matériel: whereas the film celebrates well-oiled and lethal heavy engineering, the guns and tanks of the artists are forlorn, distant, derelict.

Part of the reason for this is logistical: Haworth points out that New Zealand’s official war artists – Nugent Welch, George Butler and Alfred Pearse – were not appointed until August 1918. By this time, trench warfare had largely been superseded by fast movement through the ravaged country as the German army retreated. Thus, the battlefields visited by these artists were, indeed, relatively deserted. Haworth, however, offers a deeper explanation: the unimaginable scale of human suffering was such that landscape symbolism, rather than figure-based realism, was needed to convey it. Butler, for instance – a devout Anglican who did most of his war work post-armistice – peppered his blasted heaths with Christian symbols and intimations of resurrection. Tony Martin, in his New Zealand Images of War (1990), offered a simpler, if more provocative, explanation for the dominance of landscape in New Zealand’s war art: “So much of New Zealand’s painting tradition was of the landscape school,” he wrote, “placid and romantic – hardly a training for the crowded violence of war.” Indeed, British WWI artist Eric Kennington demonstrated how powerful figure painting can be in capturing the immediacy and physicality of men caught up in the clutter of war.

This is not to say that either British or New Zealand artists were free (or willing) to portray the traumatic reality of violent death. A second theme raised by a comparison of the Somme film with the war art included in this book is that of censorship, whether externally or self-imposed. Censorship and war propaganda are conjoined twins. Mercifully, perhaps, they restricted the range of what could be shown to a home audience. In both film and book, corpses are few; they are mostly “the enemy” (or four-legged); they are shown only sketchily in the middle distance; and all are decorously complete: there are no dismembered or not-yet-dead bodies.

After Passchendaele (October 1917), Haworth writes, official imagery of Allied corpses was banned. But unofficial soldier-artists, such as the remarkable Arthur Lloyd, flew beneath the radar of the military censor, and some sketches by Butler showing dead New Zealand soldiers – such as his Burial Party near Solesmes (1918) – survived. Depiction of the injured, meanwhile, often emphasised the positive: rescue rather than suffering, bandages rather than blood. One example is Butler’s Stretcher Party (1918), which Haworth has used for the cover of her book. Although Haworth finds haunted, anti-war pathos in the works of her canon of artists (the official trio already mentioned plus 12 others), only Pearse seemed inclined to a pacifist stance based on graphic depiction of violence. In an article of January 1919, he wrote:

Why may not the real horrors of battle be illustrated? Every time I have painted the reality I have been requested to alter it. Why? Nothing would prevent wars so much as for the masses to see the torn and mangled forms. Heads and limbs blown away from their bodies and other terrible mutilation of horses and men I have had the sorrow of seeing.

Few of Pearse’s war works survive, apparently; Haworth suspects that the New Zealand High Command quietly “lost” them.

A further question arises from the persistence of pencil and paint in the age of the camera. Why use the former at all for recording history? Moore-Jones’s sketches of Gallipoli terrain were apparently useful for map-making at the time, but war artists were primarily memorialising for a future audience. Was painted imagery considered to have a higher status than photography in this commemorative role? More pragmatically, painting was also regarded as making better propaganda than photography. Tony Martin, quoted by Haworth and referencing 1918 correspondence relating to the decision to appoint official artists, writes that the “military hierarchy … acknowledged that artists had certain advantages over photographers … an artist could arrange the composition of a painting and make use of symbolism in order to achieve ‘a more vital and arresting’ impact.” The officers engaged in this blatantly propagandist discussion were clearly unaware of the furore caused by Frank Hurley’s photographic records of the Australian contingent on the Western Front during 1917. Hurley was a consummate and courageous photographer, whose images of the war remain iconic; but he also occasionally used artistic licence – in his case composite negatives – to enhance the emotional, if not the factual, truth of battle. Hurley found himself in a world of trouble from his superiors: what was allowable, even encouraged, in painters was, apparently, deplorable in photographers. The artificial staging of “over the top” footage from Battle of the Somme has received similar opprobrium.

Haworth has, primarily, structured her chapters around specific artists (or groups of artists). Her biographical emphasis, involving a lavish deployment of words and images on each pre- and post-war career, perhaps distracted her from more focused consideration of “war art” as a phenomenon in itself. At times, this made me question the “in” of her subtitle. Haworth’s concluding chapter is one of the most interesting, tracing the fate of these scattered artworks and the rescue of many of them from archival oblivion.

Sadly, this book is let down by poor editing. A well-edited text is like a BMW bowling along a smoothly tarmacked road, allowing the reader-driver to enjoy the ride and admire the unfolding vista. A poorly edited text is like riding a bike with a flat tyre on a rutted gravel track. One is constantly jolted, and exhausted by the effort of steering. It’s not that Haworth can’t write – on the contrary, there are lyrical passages, particularly in her aesthetic and moral responses to the images she describes. Even the most venerable of volumes may harbour an occasional blunder, but in this case lapses are far too frequent – a spine-jarring pothole every couple of pages. Sentences suffer from confused grammar and punctuation; words are wrongly used or even misspelt; extra or missing words force repeated reading to decipher meaning (“but did it is not known”) or simply sound uncouth (“He done everything he could”); abbreviations are idiosyncratically punctuated (“V.C’s”); entire phrases are repeated almost verbatim within a paragraph. A further irritant is Haworth’s rookie mistake of frequently putting surnames first in her endnote references (Pugsley, Chris; Mackle, Tony), a construction which makes no sense outside a bibliography.

This work deserved better. Haworth has produced a sensitive, substantial and handsomely designed book, crammed with beautifully reproduced images, replete with research, and impeccably timed for the WWI centenary. Pity about the rough ride.

Stella Ramage is a Wellington writer and editor.

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Posted in Art, Non-fiction, Review, War
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