Of the few good things to emerge from the Great War’s horror, arguably the most extraordinary is the poetic canon. Charles Hamilton Sorley (of the haunting “mouthless dead”) gifted Patricia R. Andrew this title in a letter, “The war is a chasm in time. I wish that all journalists who say that war is an ennobling purge etc., etc., could be muzzled.”
Tracing a corresponding cohesive trove in visual art is more problematic. Yet Andrew’s study is ambitious, attempting to cover all 20th century wars, from the Boer War to as yet unresolved Middle Eastern conflicts. It studies work variously produced in situ, on return, and from an unseen distance (consider McCance’s response to Hiroshima). There are Fine Art disciplines, but also cartoons, propaganda, buildings, memorials and even the development of camouflage, particularly Mackintosh Patrick’s role in the war effort. This volume sees conflict from the perspective of nurses, munitions workers, Red Clydesiders, conscientious objectors and more. The term “war” itself invites controversy, the status of The Troubles (included in the volume) being unresolved.
The unifying word “Scottish” is also broad. There are Scots-born artists, those with adopted nationality, Scots working elsewhere (while he always justifies his space, Mackintosh’s Jazz-period English exile is possibly too generously covered for this theme), and there are fleeting visitors like Searle ,whose later Singapore POW work is truthfully more worthy of study. From the POWs in Scotland, we have the evocative Italian Chapel on Orkney.
That’s an extraordinary vista, which brings reviewing problems of its own, but it is worth focussing on one character who emerges strongly – Muirhead Bone, the first official War Artist appointed in 1916 with a propaganda objective, his fine materials delivered carefully to the Front. There were of course many highly-respected artists serving without that remit, but significantly few felt able to respond in painting. Many, like Cadell, wrote painfully, copiously, but never recorded their experience visually (it was probably easier to smuggle out poems where censorship was undeniably a factor). Bone was “permitted to show neither the actual killing of soldiers, nor any dead.” Scathingly, Wilfred Owen called Bone’s “Somme pictures… the laughing stock of the army”. Curiously, they were much admired on enemy territory. The architect-trained artist drew landscapes and ruined villages. Although complicit with the propaganda machine, he did not escape unscathed, suffering a breakdown on his return. There are, of course, questions here about the creative acceptance of any monarch’s shilling; more recently, ex-soldier and artist of the Bosnian conflict Peter Howson suffered very publicly in that role.
Below that level, Andrew states that much of WWI’s art “was at best illustrative” with “Boy’s Own jingoistic derring-do, and often downright mawkish in its sentimentality”. There were notable exceptions – Nevinson stands out (reviled as unpatriotic) but the harder take of Vorticism only grazed Scottish Art. Maybe the amateurs fared better and were perhaps less subjected to censorial scrutiny. Hiram Sturdy did not shy from the consequences of conflict in “Blowing bodies to smithereens”. This asks unanswered and probably unanswerable questions regarding the responsibility and integrity of artists in wars. There were heroes, and particularly heroines. Norah Neilson Gray was determined that her hospital studies should not be relegated to the “Women’s Work” section of the Imperial War Museum, and Rebecca West’s piece on “The Cordite Makers” shows that the woman’s role was far from cosy.
This is only WWI. We need to know why that war impacted so lightly on the Colourists. Later, how did Scotland receive Kokoscha and Jankel? How does Schotz’s anguished Holocaust “Lament” speak from its distance and how does Mach’s “Polaris” assert? Are we free of Dallas Brown’s “Ulster Wall”’s scrutiny? Where do we place the conscientious objectors’ contribution here, and where are the trench-produced artifacts? And what of Bellany’s retrospective cry, and the enduring witness of Barns-Graham?
Perhaps that is the chasm. This is a beautiful book (as is expected of Birlinn titles), but are the shells detonated too widespread to realise their real impact in one volume?