papers / Journal Articles
'The Tyranny of Seeing' :
Bosnian War Artist
Art Review, November 1994
Technically, the Artistic Records Committee of the Imperial War
Museum was right to reject Peter Howson’s Croatian and Muslim
for its permanent collection. The Museum insists on eye-witness
accounts from its commissioned artist, and the now notorious rape
paintings falls outside this narrow, but vital, definition.
The tensions between making a factual, impartial record of war,
and attempting something more interpretive, may account for the
number of distinguished illustrators (among them Ardizzone, Ravilious,
Bawden, Ken Howard, Linda Kitson) commissioned by the Museum within
the last eighty years. Rightly or wrongly, ‘illustration’
suggests a neutral report, shorn of critical subjectivity.
The principle that authenticity is vouchsafed by the presence of
the artist as eye-witness harks back to when curators made crude
but necessary distinctions between images of war recorded by artist
in the field and work, however inspired, which was ruled ineligible
for purchase by the acerbic comments, “He was never there”.
The sacrosanct supremacy of the eye witness finally settled all
the fuss over John Keane’s memorable Gulf War canvas of Mickey
Mouse on what looks like a toilet next to a shopping-trolley full
of anti-tank missiles – an image so shocking to the Disney
Corporation as to incite a suit for breach of copyright. John Keane,
eschewing sketchbooks and pencils, had videotape and photographic
evidence of this weird sight which meant that he could ‘prove’
that the objects were arranged together, and that all he did was
‘report’ the incident as a powerful symbol. Within the
letter of his contract he was right, and the Directors of the Imperial
War Museum stood by their man.
In our telematic and multi-sensory age, sketchbook and pencil seems
to have no part in modern war. Keane spent weeks cataloguing his
62 rolls, editing hours of videotape, and reviewing news footage,
immersing himself in the spirit of war, before starting in his studio.
Howson, for all his sledgehammer style, faced with grotesque brutality
in Bosnia, was rendered inoperable by the casualness of it all.
“I can’t draw that,” he whispered to a television
crew standing yards away from a mess of bloodstained tarmac –
a scene made more appalling by the apparent pleasantness of the
green landscape around them.
The future dilemma for the War Museum is to know whether or not
an artist can claim that is was enough to know that such scenes
of desecration took place. Linda Kitson arrived in the Falklands
long after the fighting, much of which happened sporadically and
under cover of nightfall. Her bracing ink drawings capture the sordid
aftermath of battle, equally valid as war art but a disappointment
to those who wanted something more trenchant. “They might
be better”, observed one disappointed officer, “when
she has time to colour them in”.
John 'Ted' Baker and Ray Evans served in the 8th Survey Regiment
and both saw action in the North African and Italian campaigns.
In civilian life they worked respectively as a junior draughtsmen
and trainee architect and were thus ideal recruits for survey work.
They also proved to be adept at drawing military panoramas, though
according to Ted Baker this was an unusual skill, rare in either
the Survey Regiment or the Artillery. Neither soldier was taught
the skills specific to making a useful military panorama. Evans
received only minimal instruction in freehand drawing during his
six month initial training at Larkhill, achieving little more than
the briefest description of a landscape. In fact, perhaps the most
effective, certainly the most widely available, drawing course taken
by many soldiers was the famous correspondence course run by Percy
V Bradshawe's Press Art School, operating from Forest Hill in South
London. The course had also been popular in the Great War. 'I have
over 1000 pupils in the Army', Bradshawe claimed in The Studio in
May 1918, 'Drawing is a Military Utility, a happy hobby, or a lucrative
career according to your ability and viewpoint.' (36)
Twenty years on, Ray Evans was one soldier who had been assiduously
following the postal course; another was the watercolourist Colin
Newman who was serving as a cartographic draughtsman with the Royal
Engineers. Like Evans, he too went on to become a successful professional
artist after the war.
Perhaps the controversy over the verity of Howson’s rape painting
has little to do with art at all. The furore over what has not been
witnessed uncomfortably echoes the United Nation’s dilemma
over its avowed neutrality and its passive policing role. As with
their artists, the soldiers are warned to be inscrutable onlookers
rather than compassionate interlopers.