Witness: Women War Artists At IWM North

By Culture24 Staff | 11 February 2009
a photograph of a crowded works canteen with two women arm in arm in the foreground and a bunch of women at a service hatch

(Above) Women's Canteen at Phoenix Works, Bradford, 1918 Flora Lion. © Imperial War Museum

Exhibition Preview: Witness - Women War Artists at Imperial War Museum North, until April 19 2009. Free.

A new exhibition at Imperial War Museum North focuses squarely on work by women war artists, from the First World War to the Kosovo conflict.

It’s the first major exhibition of its kind for over 50 years in the UK and features highlights from the Museum’s outstanding art collection alongside recent acquisitions, some of which are on public display for the first time.

It also shows how the role of the war artist has changed and evolved to a point where women are as likely to be accompanying troops to the front line as men, but as Curator Kathleen Palmer tells Culture24, the exhibtion is not about ghetto-ising women artist but rather about highlighting their work and telling their stories.

“We were concerned not to put the artists in this show into a ghetto by having a specific gender focus,” says Kathleen. “Clearly a lot of the work focuses on the experiences of women, it shows a lot about the roles that women have played in the nation’s war effort throughout the century and the enormous contribution that women have made but it also shows some quite influential artists doing some quite extraordinary work and entering into men’s workplaces and painting portraits of significant individuals.

"They’re not restricted to women’s work and I think it shows the breadth and depth of what they were recording."

a painting of a kneeling woman lighting a cigarette for a soldier lying on a bed

In an Ambulance: a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient , Olive Mudie-Cooke. © Imperial War Museum

A lot has evidently changed since the War Art Scheme officially commissioned the first women artists during the First World War and also since 1919 when the Imperial War Museum’s own official collecting took up the cause of women artists and commissioned about nine more.

“About four were commissioned by the official scheme and I think the exhibition makes clear the constraints of the official commissions they were given and the kind of opportunities they had,” says Kathleen. “The War Museum set up various collecting committees, one of which was the Women’s work sub committee who were collecting anything to do with women’s contribution to the war effort.”

Women’s art from this period largely focused on depictions of the home front and the IWM has drawn on some fine examples - such as Anna Airy’s Shell Forge and Flora Lion’s impactful Women's Canteen at Phoenix Works, Bradford, 1918.

There are however some important exceptions to this theme and visitors might like to pause before the paintings of Olive Mudie-Cooke, whose work has an immediacy born of experience.

“The Women’s Work Committee did find Olive Mudie-Cooke who actually served as a volunteer ambulance driver on the Western Front in 1916 and 1917,” says Kathleen. “She did have that personal experience that people associate with war artists. Whether she was sketching at the time we don’t know, but those works were certainly created from her own experience and I suspect she probably was sketching from the time.”

a painting of a store room with various machine parts on benches

(Above) In The Store Room, Margaret Abbess, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Gift of the artist, 2005. © Imperial War Museum

Like the preceding exhibitions in the IWM’s Witness series this latest exhibition highlights includes some interesting new acquisitions, notably a series of sketches and paintings from World War Two that reflect the life of the thousands of conscripted women who worked in the factories of the home front.

“One of the joys of putting together this particular exhibition has been finding some of the unofficial artists,” says Kathleen. “The works by Margaret Abbess came into the collection in 1995 and that was a great discovery for us.

“Conscripted into munitions work and working unofficially without a permit (you had to have a permit to draw or paint because of national security considerations in the Second World War) she compiled a great series of sketches whilst working in a Spitfire factory. She was drawing in secret - doing little sketches at work in the loos then going home at night and working them up into more finished drawings.

“She kept these in a folio for years and years and didn’t really think much of them. After the war I think she thought of them as embarrassing early works, but for us they are a fantastic find.”

Abbess was about to throw her drawings away until her granddaughter suggested showing then to the Imperial War Museum. “Of course we were absolutely delighted with them as she has such as nice eye for design,” says Kathleen.

Sadly Abbess died early in 2009 but she knew about the exhibition and was aware that her early work had become valued. Abbess’ story is just one of many highlighted by a typically contextual show that focuses as much on the stories of the artists and their sitters as it does on the artwork.

“The art is the focus of the show but it’s also a window into some of the wider issues in the collection,” says Kathleen.

a painting showing the crowded benches of a courtroom

The Dock, Nuremberg, 1946. Dame Laura Knight RA, © Imperial War Museum

The IWM has a strong track record of collecting and presenting the stories behind its precious artefacts. From the Department of Documents collecting personal papers just after the First World War right through to the Museum’s sound archive, the collecting of interviews and stories have been integral to the Museum’s approach to acquisition.

Another theme that emerges is the way many of the commissioned artists from the two world wars were evidently fulfilling their brief, whether it be recording sober records of the home front or propaganda. An interesting exception can be found in Laura Knight’s World War Two painting of the Nuremberg trials.

“She’s actually asking for that commission and I think the result is a lot more thoughtful and indicative of her own personal response than some of the portraits which were for propaganda purposes,” says Kathleen.

a pencil drawing showing an emaciated and shrouded figure cradling a baby

A Mother and Child at a Railway Station, Berlin, 1945, Mary Kessell. © Imperial War Museum

The backdrop of the Knight’s courtroom depicts the apocalyptic devastation of the war on German soil - she was evidently painting what she saw all around her when she witnessed first hand the devastation of German cities. “You see that also in Mary Kessel’s drawings of German refugees,” adds Kathleen, “they’re displaced because their homes have been destroyed.”

To this day the Imperial War Museum continues to commission artists who respond to modern conflicts in increasingly complex ways and the contemporary works in this exhibition are by artists with direct experience of war.

But it was not until 1982, when Linda Kitson was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to record the Falklands War, that a female artist was sent overseas with troops going into battle. The works on show depict the aftermath of warfare, its impact on people and landscapes, and the realities of combat.

“Her work has grown on me during the course of the show, because you can see how she got a chance to record a narrative whilst on duty as an official war artist,” adds Kathleen who also selected artists like Jananne Al-Ani whose work is commenting on the first Gulf War and reflects a more complex global society.

The latter illustrates how the business of war art and the way it is commissioned has evidently become more complex and considered.

a crayon drawing of a ship on fire seen from the banks of the shore

(Above) Sir Galahad Moored at Fitzroy. She continued to burn until she was towed out to sea and sunk as a War Grave. 16 June 1982, 1982 Linda Kitson. © Imperial War Museum

The IWM has been in charge of commissioning war artists since 1972 and of the 45 artists commissioned through the scheme since then 11 have been women.

“Certainly from our point of view, gender has never been the issue in those commissions but I think this exhibition has been an opportunity to look at the collection and look at our representation of women artists and start to think maybe we should be collecting more," says Kathleen.

“The Witness series just seemed a perfect way to look at the work of women war artists because putting them together with their biographies and their stories it gives you a fair context in which to assess their work.”

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