Before war photographers and documentarians, before even war posters and fliers, there were war painters. In fact, the British government had an entire board called the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), and between 1939 and 1945 that committee purchased about 6,000 pieces of art from over 400 artists.
The War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), led by the National Gallery’s Director Sir Kenneth Clark, was set up by the Ministry of Information in 1939 in light of the significant role played by British artists in the First World War. Its purpose was to commission art in ways that could usefully serve the war effort through documenting the conflict, raising morale and promoting national culture. The works of art were to be displayed at the National Gallery, tour the UK and even overseas, and accordingly received considerable attention in the Press.
The National Maritime Museum is gearing up to display some of these paintings in an upcoming exhibit called “War Artists at Sea.” The majority of the paintings they’ll show are from the Second World War, but some of the artists worked during World War I, as well. During World War II, a man named Eric Newton wrote an intro for a catalogue of “War Pictures by British Artists” in which he wonders how the future might remember the true feeling of war:
Photographs will add a little visual information but how flavourless and how tantalisingly incomplete it will be. The newspapers will record the numbers of prisoners taken and the names of the towns captured, the questions asked in parliament and the amount of butter consumable per head per week. The photographs will show the shape of a Spitfire or the outward aspect of a house destroyed by bombs; but who is to hand on to future generations the tension and excitement, the weariness and laughter, the speed and power of to-days war?
In the days before our minds were drugged with “news” and our eyes blunted by photography such questions would have been merely rhetorical. The answer would have been “the artist, of course.”
Perhaps today’s governments should employ some war painters to capture the whirr of drones and hum of Humvees.