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A common cause: Britain's War Artists Scheme

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The Imperial War Museum's collection of Second World War paintings, acquired through the British government's War Artists Scheme (WAS), and subsequently augmented by judicious collecting, surveys the breadth of experience of civilian and military life, capturing the national mood and responses to the war, as well as shaping our memory of it. It shows the reality of modern war, the displays of force, but also the fear and the tedium, and how the familiar could be juxtaposed with the utterly strange and new. We see individuals at their most vulnerable and courageous, and how lives were shaped by extreme needs and everyday routines. We see the impact of a total war economy that ordered its entire population and exposed them to all its consequences. Understanding how British artists were able to work during the war and the particular concerns they addressed helps give necessary insights into their paintings and the forces that shaped them.

The WAS, administered by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) of the Ministry of Information, was devised, established and chaired by Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery and the then dominant figure of the British art world. As an act of patronage it was not unprecedented: recent examples had included schemes from the First World War, notably the Canadian War Memorials Fund, whose paintings Clark saw at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1917, and the Federal Art Plan in the United States, which was still operating at the beginning of the war, although Clark had grave reservations about the quality of its output. There was widespread understanding of the need and scope of such a project: "the camera cannot interpret, and a war so epic in its scope by land, sea and air, and so detailed and complex in its mechanism, requires interpreting [by artists] as well as recording.".

His public vision was to support and enable the production and purchase of high quality art to express the liberal cultural values of the British, as opposed to the controlled and centralised aesthetic of the Nazis. In addition, throughout the war, exhibitions were prepared and toured overseas, notably to North and South America, to influence the people of that hemisphere and build support for Britain's struggle. Clark's long-term agenda was to develop, and indeed exploit, a growing interest in the visual arts through a wartime exhibition program that was to have a lasting impact on British visual culture. At the end of the war, six thousand paintings by over four hundred artists were acquired by the committee and allocated to galleries around the United Kingdom and overseas, including Canada and Australia.

Artists were employed on contract, or commissioned to produce specific works, according to their particular ways of working, both in terms of style, quantity and subject matter. In short, they were given a great deal of freedom to say how much work they would produce and to choose their subject matter within these defined limits. Work was also purchased from other artists, many in active service, and permits given to enable them to work in restricted areas. Indeed, without the scheme, many would have lacked the opportunity to make any significant contribution to the Allied effort.

In Britain, depictions of industrial sites and workers had taken on a particular significance and urgency: there was a public need to know that the capacity to produce armaments existed and was being fully utilised. These images of working environments, of the relationships between buildings and their functions, and between individuals connected with or targeted by technology, give us clues about the roots and patterns of our present-day lives and are a measure of how much these have and are still changing.Images of shelterers from the Blitz, even at their most exposed and uncomfortable, , were part of a deliberate program of commissions to show how the country was coping.

There is an undoubted tension as we approach these pictures. We admire the technical skill and perhaps the courage of the artists, and their efforts to digest and interpret earth-shattering events. But we cannot stop there: the challenge is to try to re-enter these images, to relive what the artists saw, and to understand the context in which they sought to combine national priorities with their own artistic vision; to balance the duty to record and interpret all they saw with the restrictions of military security and the dignity of the individual; to weigh technological developments against the widespread destruction and chaos with which they were inextricably linked; to judge new industrial practice by its impact on society.

The WAAC was a marriage between the aspirations and traditions of visual culture and a complex, diverse and technologically driven conflict; between state patronage and an artistic community that might otherwise have struggled to define and justify itself during the war. It was government patronage that, in retrospect, seems to grow in its ambition and scale, rather than diminish. Kenneth Clark's carefully created project has left a legacy that, sixty years on, reveals a history that continues to be distinctive, disturbing and rewarding.

Roger Tolson
Imperial War Museum

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