On the front line

Finding new ways to interpret war
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
2018 marks the centenary of Armistice Day, and that landmark commemoration means war themes feature strongly in many of this year’s temporary museum exhibitions. It’s interesting to see how different venues are approaching the subject from different angles.

Earlier this month I went to Compton Verney in Warwickshire to view the art gallery’s two new spring exhibitions. The institution has been keen to establish strong links to the armed forces; it is the first gallery in the UK to sign up to the Armed Forces Covenant - a way for businesses to demonstrate that they are welcoming spaces for military personnel and their families.

The first exhibition, Created in Conflict: British Soldier Art from the Crimean War to Today cleverly subverts the traditional notion of wartime art: while there is no shortage of powerful visual imagery created in times of conflict, depictions of life on the front line are often told by an artist one step removed from the action. What happens when the soldiers themselves become the artists?

The exhibition features artworks and craft objects like quilts and toys, all produced by members of the armed forces, either while serving on the battlefield, during captivity or while convalescing in hospital.

It’s an intriguing show that deftly crisscrosses the boundaries between art exhibition and museum display. As works of art, the pieces on display are often beautiful in their own right; but the stories they hold and the intimate insight they give into the lives and experiences of individual soldiers mean their impact is doubly powerful.

Highlights include an exquisitely crafted miniature kitchen scene set inside a matchbox, and a carefully embroidered housewife kit (the sewing kit that’s allocated to every soldier) – such delicate objects encourage the viewer to challenge the traditional notion of military masculinity.

A teddy bear with a goofy smile takes on a new poignancy when you read that it was created by a badly disfigured veteran in an early example of craft being used as a medically recognised form of therapy. Elsewhere, weapons of war and death are transformed into objets d’art – bombshell casings inscribed and repurposed as vases and tankards.

As well as invoking more traditional wartime themes like friendship, loss, homesickness, the exhibition urges the viewer to question the nature of art: why do we have such an urge to create, even – especially – in the most extreme conditions? Why does it hold such healing power?  

War is an underlying presence in the gallery’s second exhibition, Ravilious & Co: the Pattern of Friendship, as well. An exploration of the artist, illustrator and designer Eric Ravilious and his contemporaries – including many women whose art has long been overlooked – it traces the artists’ intertwined lives from their interwar student days through to Ravilious’s untimely disappearance in a plane crash while serving as a war artist in Iceland in 1942 (his body was never recovered).

The most moving part of the exhibition deals with the aftermath of the artist’s death; a letter his friend Paul Nash wrote to his widow Tirzah Garwood takes on even more sadness when surrounded by the artworks his friends went on to create – and the implied absence of all the work the artist himself had yet to do.

Both exhibitions run at Compton Verney until 10 June.

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