War in my Art: Works inspired by Birdsong
Having reflected for the majority of last week’s posts on the subject of war, I made the decision to seek inspiration further by visiting London’s Imperial War Museum. There, tucked away behind the major exhibitions of planes, military instruments, uniforms, the holocaust and even a WW1 trench reproduction, is a collection of war art to rival all of London’s major galleries. There is something about war as a subject matter which loads each and every painting with a heavy significance, because you know that for these images to have been produced, the painter has either lived through the hell portrayed, or at least witnessed it first hand. Consequently the pain which is captured is visceral, the emotions cutting, cynical, raw. Yet these works are undoubtedly beautiful. At the centre of the IWM’s collection is Sargent’s gigantic work, Gassed, an incredible, moving image, which shows soldiers who have been temporarily blinded after a gas attack helping to guide one another with in caterpillar-like line, while all around them, soldiers similarly afflicted fill both the foreground and background. It’s scale is startling, but the small moments of human kindness in desperate times are even more striking.
This painting is not unique in it’s superb captivation of WW1, and as you stroll around the collection at the Imperial War Museum, paintings which you may never have seen before seem somehow familiar – for it is clear that as the memory of war slips further and further into the past, with survivors now few and far between, and photographic and film accounts being scarce and of poor quality, it is the paintings of war which now take centre stage in helping a modern audience to imagine the apocalypse of trench warfare. It is, for example, immediately clear to me that the cinematography in Spielberg’s new film, Warhorse, is inspired by the haunting trench landscapes of Paul and John Nash.
Yet before I even set eyes on the Imperial War Museum’s collection, I was myself emotionally engaged with the subject of war, and sufficiently inspired to begin painting it as a young artist. The source of my inspiration was the novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. The novel is the only book every to have made me cry. It’s depiction of war is so striking, so accessible, that it is impossible not to be caught up with the plight of its characters and the horror of war. For a 15 year old reading the story, I was unintentionally drawn wholeheartedly into this evocative re-imagining of the First World War, even though so many people in my generation appreciate little about it – for most they think WW1 is all about wearing a poppy every 11/11. And when I finished the novel, one of those rare moments of inspiration flooded into my head – I knew immediately that I wanted to paint a tryptic based on the scenes conjured in my head. And the fact that I then painted war without pictorial reference is, I suppose, testament to what a superbly descriptive writer Sebastian Faulkes is. Having at last got home to my parents’ house in Sussex, I was able to photograph the paintings which resulted from that inspiration. I painted them at the age of 15, before I really appreciated that I might have artistic talent, and certainly before I took it seriously. Nevertheless, I like the paintings to this day probably since their imagery, like their subject matter, has timeless significance.
Following these works, I moved onto another tryptic of war paintings, this time depicting the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War. I donated the collection to the history department of my old school Our Lady of Sion School in Worthing, where I believe they are still hanging to this day. Sadly I don’t have any photos of the works, but before I donated them to my school, the paintings attracted the interest of Worthing Town Hall. As a result, the works were exhibited in a special exhibition marking Remembrance Sunday in November 2000. A photograph of me with the Mayor of Worthing and the pictures hanging on the wall behind us was on the front page of the local Newspaper that month. That paper was then painted into the background of another of my very early works in which I mourned the death of my guinea pigs. So here it is, the only picture I have left of that second war tryptic.
The conclusion of this post is, I suppose, the potential of a well-written novel to empower the mind, and to recreate past tragedy in the minds of innocent, often unappreciative generations. That novel, Birdsong, is not only a must-read. It is also now a must-see, a televised adaptation having premiered on BBC television last Sunday which is every bit as beautiful, sensitive and poignant as the novel, and so much more powerful in its portrayal of war than the current cinematic offering, Warhorse.
- War in reflection: Poems from the trenches, photos for peace (normsonline.wordpress.com)
- War on film: War Horse v Pan’s Labyrinth (normsonline.wordpress.com)
- War on canvas: Guernica – history repeating itself (normsonline.wordpress.com)