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Books: Documenting war, populism, protest and propaganda

Three books show that the depiction of war in art is as various as other human responses to the phenomenon

At the outset of "Art, war and revolution in France, 1870-71" John Milner declares his intention to “observe artists responding to the fall of empire, war, siege, revolution and its aftermath and to ask if the imagery of the period is closer to documentary fact to to artists’ fiction”. Consequently the material for this long overdue study includes not only the wood engravings and lithographs of the popular press, the satires of Daumier, Doré, Pilotell and Cham, but also an extraordinarily rich vein of paintings and sculpture, ranging from the informal glimpses of the Impressionists to the grander work of post-Imperial salonists. Unsurprisingly, it was left to the three great military artists to tackle the soldiers’ actual experience in combat: Meissonier, Detaille and De Neuville. Some painters were involved politically, such as Courbet, whose anti-royalist views led him to a regrettable alliance with the destructive Communards; here also in context is the work of Manet, Corot, Tissot, Monet, degas, even Millet, and many others.

As promised, in this well illustrated book, Professor Milner charts the progress of the war, the Siege of Paris and its aftermath, while carefully examining the relevance of contemporary works of art. He interweaves this with fascinating stories of those artists caught up in the conflict (Meissonier escaping from Metz, with only his legion d’honneur to safeguard him as he passed through waves of advancing French troops; Rosa Bonheur laying home- made charges under her château at Fontainbleau, determined to blow up any approaching Prussians). The inevitable drawback remains that, while the war certainly inspired an extraordinary output of graphic material during its progress, this method precludes any consideration of the evolution of more formal battle paintings which were mainly executed in the 10 years’ aftermath: how the treatment of warfare developed as it memory receded, from the bleak to a more triumphalist mood, and how it influenced the resurgence of “academic” battle painting in Britain during the last quarter century. Nevertheless, we are given an interesting definition of the genre: “the depiction of warfare must have some level of private experience to inform it, public experience to give it wider meaning, composition to make it effective, dramatic effect to contain the narrative and a core of evidence to make it history. Successful battle painting, and other forms of war art, is a synthesis of these elements an can prioritise any of them.”

Michael Parris, on the other hand, is not so much concerned with images that document a war, but rather in Warrior nation: images of war in popular culture, 1850-1900, he is bent on examining all the factors that lead to making militarism acceptable in the popular mind: the “pleasure culture of war:. He argues that it is a peculiarly British propensity to foster aggression, that we (and our forebears) “deliberately immersed our children in a culture that promotes the martial spirit, elevates the warrior to heroic status and romanticises war”. He provides plenty of evidence to support his contention, covering the literature of G.A. Henty, W.E. Johns of “Biggles” fame, and the Boys Own Paper, as well as popular prints and advertisements, to show how this created a code of values which was responsible for Kitchener’s Army in 1914 and 1915.

But there are problems with taking such an insular view; how did we compare with the French in the 19the century, who, despite having a differently organised army, were deeply chauvinistic in responding to the calls to arms against Prussia? The Germans themselves saw militarism as an extension of the nation-state. Did the wars of Empire 9and the resultant literature) really impinge much upon the new urban proletariat in Britain? Surely there are many other factors at work in shaping the “national consciousness”, just as there are many points of view. By the outbreak of World War II, for instance, many people in Britain believed that it was a matter of social duty to resist the threat of German domination: to see their a actions in terms of a conditioned response in a militaristic culture belies the bravery and sacrifice this demanded. And, put simply, who today would suggest the the enjoyment of a military novel (say, John Master’s Nightrunners of Bengal) is tantamount to signing up to militarism?

Following this thought-provoking academic treatise, "Dispatches from an unofficial war artist" is the autobiographical account of Peter Kennard’s 30-year career as an active campaigner for human rights. Kennard has always sought to force public confrontation of the “terrible equations” of society; the desperate inequalities between peoples’ lives, abuse of human rights, and economic truths, such as child mortality in the Third World, could be alleviated by only a fraction of global arms expenditure. Kennard thus does not document war, but, as an artist, wages his own war against militarism and capitalism.

Using the device of (apparently) trawling through work now housed in studios named Archives A and B, Kennard explains how he came to his themes. Acknowledging the early influence of Goya’s “Disasters of war”, he was soon frustrated with both the inadequacy of painting as a means of conveying man’s brutality, as with organised politics. He explored printmaking, a traditional vehicle of British satire, and went on to photomontage, the medium developed most famously (but by no means exclusively) by John Heartfield and Georg Grosz, and which remains so well suited to the political message. Taking the global view, he protested against the Vietnam War, then was a major contributor to the nuclear disarmament movement, producing brilliantly provoking images for CND and END that convey their messages through shocking juxtapositions of everyday artifacts with symbols of violence, for example, “Haywain with Cruise Missile, 1980”, a comment on the proximity of American missile bases to the tranquil Suffolk countryside, and “Protest and survive, 1981” , an indictment of the government’s futile advisory pamphlet about surviving nuclear war. Kennard’s work has attacked, among other, the Pinochet regime in Chile, the economic effects of the arms race, the 1990-91 Gulf War, homelessness in London, and, most recently, the Millennium Dome. The very accessibility of his images has enabled them to achieve mass circulation in newspapers and magazines, such as Private Eye, New Society and New Statesman, as well as being seen on advertising hoardings and at political rallies. He has exhibited regularly since 1968, occasionally attracting censorship as when, at the Barbican Arts Centre (“Images against war, 1965-85”) two of his pictures were removed before the visit of a high ranking Chilean.

And while he has been a consistent campaigner for civil liberties, Kennard has explored new horizons for the presentation of his ideas, pursuing photomontage beyond the artful manipulation of photographic collage, to include objects, such as in the “43 pallets” (dust, oil, acrylic and photograph on wood) or the “Newspaper/1994” series (carbon toner, charcoal and pastel on newspaper print), that bear ethereal traces of dispossessed people. “Welcome to Britain/1994” and “Our financial times/1995” involved the present mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, in a number of appearances, speaking on issues of world politics within an installation of placards, part artwork, part political rally.

There is no doubt that Kennard’s powerful work has been extraordinarily successful as a political tool and, while extending the boundaries of his chosen media could well have been at odds with accessibility, he has retained the ability to provoke controversy. His present work remains concerned with the role of the UN and its shortcomings as an international political force. He is unlikely ever to be short of fresh challenges.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Populism, protest and propaganda'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 111 February 2001