(Blogpost) Commemorating World War II through Official War Art

Graham Sutherland, Dark Hill – Landscape with Hedges and Fields, 1940

In honour of VE Day, our most recent Art Snap Podcast features three artworks from Swindon’s collection, in which artists have directly responded to times of conflict.

Two of these reference World War One, with Augustus John drawing on his experiences of being on the Western Front, and Prudence Maltby looking at the legacy of the war 100 years later.

I also look at Swindon-born artist Leslie Cole, who was eployed by the War Artists Advisory Scheme, and was one of their most important Official War Artists in World War Two.

It should never be underestimated just how important this initiative was, as over 400 artists were employed to record social and military life during the war. And not only did this allow some of the greatest British artists of the Twentieth Century to produce some of their most powerful work, but it also gives us a comprehensive view of the complex consequences of war.

The Imperial War Museum owns around 7,000 artworks created in response to World War Two, many of which are available to view through their website. I’d like to take a moment to reflect on some of my favourite Official War Artists from the collection.

Leslie Cole is always hovering at the top of my list, and this isn’t just because he’s a Swindonian. Cole travelled extensively during his time as an Official War Artist, and left us with an incredible record of the war covering a number of countries and subject matter.   

For example, The Interior of an Aircraft in Flight (c.1941-2), shows the bleak and claustrophobic conditions of militray aircraft. Yet the pilot and accompnaying soldier are unbothered by their surroundings, as they’re furiously focused on the tasks at hand.

(Image available here: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-interior-of-an-aircraft-in-flight-7027/search/actor:cole-leslie-19101976/sort_by/date_earliest/order/asc/page/1/view_as/grid)

Cole’s most harrowing images come from his visit to Bergen-Belsen, when it was liberated in 1945. This depiction of the death pits is so unflinching that it is almost difficult to look at, yet it is so important to our understanding of the suffering endured by innocent victims.  

(Image available here: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/one-of-the-death-pits-belsen-ss-guards-collecting-bodies-7441/search/actor:cole-leslie-19101976/page/4)

When we see images like this, it is no wonder that when Cole returned from the war his portraits, such as Mary (Young Girl with Doll) from Swindon’s collection, are haunted by sadness and isolation.

Leslie Cole, ‘Mary (Young Girl with Doll), 1946, (c) Mr Russell Falkingham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Another of my favourite war artists is Graham Sutherland, who produced some of his most powerful wartime images closer to home. He responded to scarred landscapes and cityscapes in images such as The City: A Fallen Lift Shaft (1941). Here Sutherland manages to convey great emotion and fragility though his depiction of bomb-damaged buildings against a burning sky.

(Image available here: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/25861)

Swindon’s collection includes two wartime landscapes painted by Sutherland, which show how landscape painting in Britain developed in response to the turmoil of war. Dark Hill – Landscape with Hedges and Fields (1940), shown at the top of the blogpost, presents an ominous mound of fractured forms, which is difficult to separate from his disfigured images of London during the Blitz. It was painted at the beginning of the war, when he was staying in Upton with Kenneth Clark, who was the driving force behind the War Artists Advisory Scheme.

There are so many more stunning, moving and important images by significant Official War Artists. But to save me going on all day, I’ll end with this very apt and cheerful piece by Leila Faithful, VE Day Celebrations outside Buckingham Palace (1945), from the Imperial War Museum. This scene of great colour and animation conveys the excitement generated by the announcement of the end of the war.

(Image available here: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/8877)

Blogpost by Katie

2 thoughts on “(Blogpost) Commemorating World War II through Official War Art

  1. Dear Katie, I’m so sorry not to engage with social media to help promote Art on Tour. These Leslie Cole paintings especially are just astonishing and powerful, as you say, so unflinching and would be difficult to look at if not so very very good that you are pulled in by the visual quality. The WW2 room in the Kenneth Clark exhibition (Tate Britain) had me in tears. Though lots of great Sutherland (I didn’t see any Leslie Cole, all the more wonderful that you show them here. I must get my daughter to talk me through the use of facebook etc. Thank you, Juliet

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    • Hi Juliet, Thank you for your lovely response to the blogpost! I’m glad you find Leslie Cole as interesting and moving as I do. Don’t worry about social media – It’s just great that you’re enjoying the blogs and podcasts and we thank you for your continued support by reading, listening and contributing! Katie.

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