Witness 2 - The Art Of WWII At Imperial War Museum North

By Alice Kershaw | 02 February 2007
a painting showing two firemen with a hose as a burning wall collapses on them

Leonard Rosoman OBE RA. A House Collapsing On Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London EC4, 1940. © The Art Archive / Imperial War Museum

Alice Kershaw is impressed by Imperial War Museum North’s latest exhibition of the art of World War Two.

Following last year’s Witness, which focused on art from the First World War, Witness 2 is an exhibition of work from the Second World War and brings together art and personal accounts to tell the story of how the war affected citizens of Britain and the Commonwealth.

The free exhibition runs at Imperial War Museum North (IWM), Salford until April 29 2007 and features over 70 paintings, drawings and sculptural pieces in the Museum’s unconventional Special Exhibitions Gallery. It showcases pieces from the IWM’s impressive art collections alongside recent acquisitions and work that has previously not been exhibited outside London.

a painting showing a naked man with burnt skin in a bath, being tended by a nurse

Alfred Thomson RA, A Saline Bath, RAF hospital, 1943. © IWM

Alongside each piece is a ‘witness panel’, a descriptive first hand passage that reveals the experiences of those living and fighting during the war.

The panels are from the IWM’s extensive written and oral history archives and provide an important extra dimension to the work on display. In addition there are videos of first hand recollections inspired by some of the pictures.

Unlike last year’s Witness, Witness 2 has less very large pieces, and more that reflect the everyday realities of life, the domestic and personal situations of people.

a painting showing a bombed and wrecked landscape with soldiers moving around or resting as a bewildered man and woman survey the scene from the middle


(Above) Henry Carr (RA) Liberation, 1944. © IWM

According to Roger Tolson, Head of Art at IWMN, the pictures in this year’s exhibition are more reflective of a people “living under threat” who have to decide what sort of Britain they are fighting for.

They faced the everyday tension between wanting the removal of the ‘irredeemable evil’ of Germany and the constant poverty and discomfort experienced whilst waiting for this to happen.

a painting showing a long queue outside a fish and chip shop


(Above) Evelyn Dunbar, The Queue At The Fish-Shop, 1944. © IWM

A significant proportion of the pieces on display were commissioned under a scheme administered by the War Artists Advisory Committee during the Second World War.

The scheme collected art that was intended to demonstrate what was being fought for and why and the works were regularly displayed during the war. The works were collected by the Committee during the war and then distributed to collections at its end.

a painting showing an aerial dogfight with vapour trails puffs of smoke and explosions set against a blue sky and a large slab of brown landscape

Paul Nash, Battle Of Britain,1941. © IWM

One such piece is Paul Nash’s 1941 painting ‘Battle of Britain’. An abstracted view of an aerial dogfight during the Battle of Britain, the work was described by Nash as summarising "England’s great aerial victory over Germany".

The trails of the planes create compelling and oddly playful shapes in the sky whilst in the distance the menacing shapes of German planes can be seen approaching. The ordered rows of black planes are counteracted by the creativity found within the abstract swirls of clouds. Pictorially, Nash has pitted the liberalism of Britain against the fascism of Germany.

a painting showing a court trial scene with rows of defendants lawyers and military police whilst in the distance can be seen a wrecked and desolate landscape

Dame Laura Knight RA, The Nuremberg Trial, 1946. © IWM

‘The Nuremberg Trial’, 1946, by Dame Laura Knight, is based upon the charcoal studies Knight did whilst working as a war correspondent at the trial. She was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy since 1790 and is considered one of the most important female artists in Britain.

The painting reflects how disturbed she felt during the trial. The rows of the accused and their lawyers are depicted whilst the eye is drawn towards a background scene of rubble and flaming destruction.

Many of the other pieces of work that illustrate life on the Home Front are set during darkness, such as the works of John Minton, in which the landscape seems both full of fear and simultaneously liberating as nightfall was the only time the landscape could be explored.

a painting showing emaciated figures in a bleak hopsital ward being tended by plump nurses

Doris Zinkeisen, Human Laundry, Belsen: April 1945. © IWM

There is also a series of works illustrating life in the factories, showing the importance of production to Britain at the time.

The careers and travels of three official war artists, Edward Ardizzone, Edward Bawden and Anthony Gross, show the global nature of the war, as they travelled throughout the Commonwealth painting the forces at work.

Their primarily watercolour pieces are hung upon a backdrop of a large globe mapping their journeys. In the accompanying audio commentary Ardizzone describes the difficulty of painting in the desert, where it was ‘an invisible war’.

a painting showing women in RAF uniform pulling the ropes of a barrage balloon

Dame Laura Knight, A Balloon Site, Coventry, 1943. © IWM

The pieces are a mixture of the highly influential and important, alongside less well-known works which IWMN felt captured an aspect of the experience.

As the exhibition title illustrates, they are more than just aesthetic exercises, although they are striking pieces. They bear witness to one of the darkest periods and greatest conflicts of the last century.

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