Painting the Casualties of War 2

Thomas Calloway "Tom" Lea III (1907-2001), The 2000 Yard Stare (1944), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 71.1 cm, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, VA. By US Army, Tom Lea, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of these two articles looking briefly at the impact of war on art, I covered two major painters who were killed in battle during the Franco-Prussian War, and some paintings of the carnage of the First World War. Those included a couple by Henry Tonks, a former surgeon who became an influential teacher of painting prior to the war. One of Tonks’ many successful students was Paul Nash; another was C R W Nevinson, whose most famous painting is shown in that article.

Paul Nash (1892–1946), The Menin Road (1919), oil on canvas, 182.8 x 317.5 cm, The Imperial War Museum, London. By courtesy of The Imperial War Museums © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2242).

In the Spring of 1918, the British War Memorials Committee commissioned the young artist Paul Nash, and his younger brother John, to paint works for the intended Hall of Remembrance for the war. Nash’s principal work, in ‘memorial size’, was The Menin Road (1919). It shows a section of the Ypres Salient known as Tower Hamlets, after what is now a part of eastern London. This area was destroyed during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge. Nash started work on this large canvas in June 1918, completing it the following February.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Gassed (1919), oil on canvas, 231 x 611.1 cm, The Imperial War Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

John Singer Sargent’s commission was for a single large canvas destined for the central gallery of the hall, for which he painted Gassed (1919), based upon sketches he made when he touring the front with Henry Tonks. Mustard gas attacks were used in the Western Front in August 1918, just three months before the end of the war. Here a group of blind and injured soldiers from an attack are led to medical aid in the Corps dressing station. Just visible in the distance, behind the wounded soldiers, a football match is in progress.

George Bellows (1882–1925), The Barricade (1918), oil on canvas, 122.2 × 212.1 cm, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL. Wikimedia Commons.

Artists on the other side of the Atlantic were just as moved by the war. George Bellows had strongly opposed US entry into the war, and was horrified by the many stories of atrocities allegedly committed by German troops when they had entered Belgium. One, in which the Germans had apparently used the local population as a ‘human shield’, he expressed in The Barricade (1918).

Albin Egger-Lienz (1868–1926), Finale (1918), oil on canvas, 140 x 227 cm, Leopold Museum (Die Sammlung Leopold), Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Although history mainly remembers the destruction in northern France, other parts of Europe and the world were as severely affected. The Austrian painter Albin Egger-Lienz lived in the Tyrol, where heavy fighting took place from the entry of Italy into the war in 1915 until its end. His paintings, like Finale (1918) above, are just as provocative as those from the Western Front, here showing a pile of mangled and contorted bodies in a trench.

Félix Vallotton (1865–1925), Châlons War Cemetery (1917), oil on canvas, 54 x 80 cm, La contemporaine, Nanterre, France. Image by Ji-Elle, via Wikimedia Commons.

Félix Vallotton’s most moving painting of the First World War is this view of Châlons War Cemetery from 1917, with its countless rows of crosses receding into the town of Châlons-en-Champagne. There are a total of more than 4,500 French war graves from the First World War here, with other nationalities, and many more were added from the Second World War.

When the world yet again went to war in 1939, there were more war artists to record it, some of whom tragically became its victims.

Early in 1942, the young war artist Eric Ravilious, friend and former pupil of Paul Nash, was appointed to an air station at York. At the time, his wife required surgery, so he was temporarily appointed to a flying school in Hertfordshire, where he was able to sketch from the rear cockpit during flight.

Tiger Moth 1942 by Eric Ravilious 1903-1942
Eric Ravilious (1903–1942), Tiger Moth (1942), graphite and watercolour on paper, 45.7 × 55.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2017), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

This air station flew the Tiger Moth (1942), which Ravilious has captured so well here.

With his wife had recovered, Ravilious next flew to Iceland, where he joined RAF Kaldadarnes on 1 September. Its primary role was to monitor the Iceland-Greenland gap, which required flying in some of the most hostile conditions. Losses were high, and on the day of Ravilious’ arrival a Lockheed Hudson failed to return from its patrol. Three aircraft took off at first light the following morning to search, one carrying Ravilious, who had chosen to join its crew. His aircraft also failed to return, and no trace was found of it.

Paul Nash (1892–1946), Battle of Britain (1941), oil on canvas, 122.6 x 183.5 cm, The Imperial War Museum, London. By courtesy of The Imperial War Museums © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1550).

From the end of June 1940 for four months, the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) and the British Royal Air Force fought a succession of intense air battles over the UK, mainly the south and east coastal areas. The startling distant view in Paul Nash’s Battle of Britain (1941) incorporates many elements of air warfare, including vapour trails (contrails), smoke marking the spin and crash of a downed aircraft, formation flight, and defensive airships. Below this action are the low hills, estuary, and a winding river typical of much of the English south coast.

Other painters were simply murdered because of their parentage, religion or ethnicity.

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Šid under Snow (1935), oil on canvas, 81.4 x 100.3 cm, The Pavle Beljanski Memorial Collection, Novi Sad, Serbia. Wikimedia Commons.

In the mid-1930s, the Serbian artist Sava Šumanović painted landscapes, including this barren view of Šid under Snow (1935), in the town where his family had lived for generations. Over the following two years he painted a series of groups of nude women, based on a single blonde model.

In 1939, just before the start of the Second World War, Šumanović had his first solo exhibition in Belgrade, where he showed over four hundred of his paintings, mainly from the last nine years while he had been living in Šid. He lived there quietly and painted prolifically until 1941, when the Nazi Independent State of Croatia was formed and started a campaign of genocide against the Serbs. He was arrested and put into a concentration camp, where he was executed on 30 August 1942, at the age of only 46.

I close with one of the most visually arresting paintings of the effects of war on the living, showing a US Marine fighting in the Pacific in 1944.

Thomas Calloway “Tom” Lea III (1907-2001), The 2000 Yard Stare (1944), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 71.1 cm, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, VA. By US Army, Tom Lea, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tom Lea’s 2000 Yard Stare (1944) relies almost entirely on the horrifying, staring facial expression of the Marine in the foreground, who has clearly not slept for weeks, and is brown from the sun and accumulated dirt. Behind him the forest has been all but destroyed, and a harsh rock ridge rises to the fighter planes above. The ridge appears stained with the blood of the casualties. This painting attained fame when it was published in the widely-read news magazine LIFE.

War is an abomination. How many times do we have to re-learn that the slaughter of people and destruction of lives and culture is utterly wrong? If you’re in any doubt about what’s going on in Ukraine now, note that Russian forces have already plundered paintings and other artworks by Arkhip Kuindzhi, Ivan Aivazovsky and others from the rubble of Melitopol and Mariupol’s museums. Now I wonder who last did that sort of thing?