HOME     V O R T E X    V O R T E X    V O R T E X 3    V O R T E X 4    V O R T E X 5     P E R S O N A L  B L O G

Conference Papers

Online papers / Journal Articles

Paul Gough
Dead Lines: Codefied Drawing and Scopic Vision in a Hostile Space
A version of this paper first appeared in POINT, Journal of CHEAD, winter '98 ISSN 1360-3477, pp 34-41

The military have long used drawing as a navigational and exploratory tool. From the early 18th century, British military academies trained gentlemen cadets and sailors to analyse and record landscape and coastline with the aim of neutralising and controlling enemy space. This paper explores the tenets of scopic control and its manifestation in the first global war of this century. Between 1915 and 1918 military sketching required avant-garde British painters to adopt the systematic coding of surveillance with varying results. The second half of the paper examines the antithesis of the analytic drawn line, the silhouette or shadow which has become one the of the familiar tropes of martial iconography.
    From the OP (Observation Post) I saw a completely featureless landscape, save here and there a few broken sticks of trees. I made a pencil drawing of this barren
    piece of ground, but what use my superiors would be able to make of this sketch I could not imagine.(1)
Thus ended the Vorticist artist William Roberts first and only foray into reconnaissance drawing. Few of the other young 'moderns' serving in the armed forces during the Great War could subvert their artistic tendencies in the pursuit of technical objectivity. The poet David Jones, for example, having already been promoted sideways from 'Maps' to 'Observers' was soon moved on 'because of my inefficiency in getting the right degree of gun flashes'.
(2) Reconnaissance drawing (also known as Panorama or Field sketching) required technical control, a common graphic language and a healthy disregard for what the manuals termed 'artistic effect':
    It may be premised that, from a military point of view, it is not necessary to be an artist to produce a useful panorama. Indeed, it is better almost that the artistic
    sense should be absent, and that instead of idealising a landscape, it should be looked at with a cold, matter-of-fact eye. Thus the sketcher would note rather the
    capabilities of the country for military purposes than its beauties of colouring or the artistic effects of light and shade.
i Neutral outline
The Field Sketch was the graphic trace of scopic control. In the trenches of the Western Front the trained military draughtsman shared something of the solitary fixation of the sniper: ceaselessly scrutinising a fixed front, homing in on a hidden enemy and picking out (or off) the target. Like sniping, the military sketch could be taught. Within years of the establishment of the first military academy at Woolwich in 1741, a drawing master had been appointed and the Gentlemen Cadets set lessons in 'Sketching Ground, the taking of Views, the drawing of Civil Architecture and the Practice of Perspective'.
4) During the 18th and 19th centuries the military academies at Woolwich, Dartmouth, and later Sandhurst and Marlowe attracted such high calibre artists as Paul Sandby, David Cox and Alexander Cozens. John Constable, though, rejected the offer of a post in 1802 remarking that had he accepted 'it would have been a death blow to all my prospects of perfection in the Art I love.' (5) For all its remunerative attraction military sketching was regarded with some disdain, a process of 'tame delineation', of reducing the aesthetics of nature to something ordinary or (to borrow Gainsborough's dismissive phrase) something 'mappy'. For others, the task of 'breaking ground' and issuing a neutral report was, like the very term 'military intelligence', a contradiction in terms.

Drawing for military purposes has two distinct fields of vision: information-drawings gathered during mobile reconnaissance (by peripatetic patrol) and drawings made from static, elevated positions - customarily the preserve of the artillery spotter. Where the patrol sketch is often a collage of hasty impressions later re-arranged to form a spatial narrative, the panorama is primarily concerned with scopic control and spatial dominance. The artillery panorama works on the same premise as military mapping; surveillance and graphic survey will eventually neutralise a dangerous terrain and assure mastery over it.
(6)> Foucault wrote of the system of permanent registration that operated in the plague town in the 17th century. (7) On the septic terrain of the First World War battlefield the panoramic drawing was an integral part in segmenting and immobilising perceived space. The stasis of the battle line, however, meant that the panoptic ideal could never be attained: dead ground (space beyond or concealed from retinal view) camouflage and concealment were constant frustrations to retinal surveillance. Foucault's concept of a transparent space was constantly frustrated by the fissured and volatile landscape of the battlefield. The military sketch, though, provided the nearest graphic proof of Bentham's paradigm: systematic observation 'in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded' (8)

The battlefield was a malign industrialised space where visibility was a 'trap'. The military sketch was the spring in that mechanism. Jay Appleton, developing Konrad Lorenz's thesis on the atavistic landscape, proposed a habitat theory which categorises any landscape into hierarchies of 'prospect, refuge and hazard'. (9) The panoramic viewpoint is the paradigm of Appleton's system; military drawing systematised the graphic language so that trees became datum points and ridge lines became the immutable co-ordinates of a functional terrain, a strategic field. Or as Henry Reed phrases it in this poetic fragment 'Judging Distances' from Lessons of the War, it is a domain where the temporal elides with the spatial:
    Not only how far away; but the way that you say it Is very important. Perhaps you may never get The knack of judging a distance, but at least you know How to
    report on a landscape : the central sector The right of the arc and that, which we had last Tuesday And at least you know That maps are of time, not place, so
    far as the army Happens to be concerned - the reason being , Is one which need not delay us. Again, you know There are three kinds of tree, three only, the fir
    and the poplar, And those which have bushy tops to ; and lastly That things only seem to be things.
Spatially, the artillery panorama has clear areas of jurisdiction. The foreground is considered irrelevant. To the gunner, the near is already controlled. The middle distance and the horizon are the focal points. These, to borrow Appleton's phrase, are the prospect-rich domains and the most coveted. Panorama drawings are predicated on trajectories and barrage lines. The horizon is the ultimate goal in that it holds the promise of further territory for martial exploitation. During the First World War the horizon took on special value when seen from the noisome mess of the front-line trench. Secreted in their observation posts, gunners described the green and unspoilt distance as 'The Promised Land' - perfect, but forever locked in an unattainable future.

These concerns, as W.J.T. Mitchell has observed, are the essential discourses of imperialism. Empires, according to him, move outward in space 'as a way of moving outward in time, the "prospect" that opens up is not just a spatial scene but a projected future of "development" and exploitation.'

The promise of control permeates every level of military drawing. In contemporary drawing manuals the unmodulated pencil line is given the authority of military language:
    A line should be as sharp and precise as a word of command. A wavering line which dies away carries no conviction or information because it is the product of
    a wavering mind. Every line should be put in to express something. Start sharply and finish sharply. Press on the paper.
Similarly, by ridding the page of ambiguity or doubt the drawings aim to pre-ordain the future. This is also true of the written word which uses the active and instructive tense of military command - a language where the passive or conditional does not function: 'Brigade will commence at ..., Objectives shall be taken by ..., reinforcements will be moved to ... etc'. (13) Maps and charts drawn up before offensives bear a similar code; barrage lines are clearly marked in minutes of advance, in June 1944 the objectives beyond the Normandy beachhead were marked out in time - D Day plus one, plus two, etc - as well as in actual space.

Instruction manuals in military sketching equate clarity of line with clarity of purpose. Ambiguity and doubt is (quite literally) ruled out. The margins of failure (like the estimated casualties rate) are clearly prescribed and then codified. Any blank, undrawn areas of the paper is not intended to be read as negative space but the area set aside for instructive wording.

The panorama, though, could only make sense in a war where both sides were predominantly static, where a battlescape was shared but where the zones of control were clearly demarcated. The view from the opposing emplacements might be radically different but the contested ground was rationalised and systematised using to a shared vocabulary of grid and line. In his analysis of the tourism of war, Jean Louis Deotte, has argued that the beachline of Normandy in 1944 constituted a common world, a shared objectivity for both defender (cooped in a concrete pillbox) and attacker (exposed in a tin landing craft). Both sets of adversaries experienced a 'reversibility of the points of view' because 'enemies share in common the same definition of space, the same geometric plane ... they belong to the same world of techno-scientific confrontation, the substratum of which, here, is sight'.

ii Shadow and Silhouette
Circa 1916, the fixed linearity of the trench war fractured into a myriad of fragments. War in the air, under the sea, on every front, (including the Home Front) the onset of globalised conflict, all bought about an omnidirectional and multivalent trauma that, argues Stephen Kern, was echoed in the canvases of the Cubists and in the relativism of scientific theory. The 'proliferation of perspectives and the break-up of a homogeneous three-dimensional space'(16) also fractured the hegemony of the elevated eye and the supremacy of scopic control that had lasted unchallenged since the extensive panoramas of Ruisdael and de Koninck.

Poetic thought (as exemplified by Owen, Hulme, Read and other young 'Moderns') contended that the schism wrought by the war had to be expressed in the language of apocalypse. One of the more familiar tropes in this understanding was the sense of front-line as an edge, a chasm beyond which lay madness and the void. The desolated landscape was no more a vacant or negative space inhabited by solid, positive forms, it was rather an 'emptiness crowded ... more full of emptiness, an emptiness that is not really empty at all'.
(17) In a letters from the front, T.E. Hulme wrote how 'certain roads lead as it were, up to an abyss.' (18) and Wilfred Owen described in 'Spring Offensive' the sensation of topping a crest until suddenly exposed 'chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space' (19)

Faced with the negative sublime, the dispassionate and neutral outline was largely redundant. The tenets of panoramic drawing could not encode the absurd ruination of the battleground. Front-line drawings by Paul Nash and David Jones are dense with overlapping and confused marks; in Jones' drawings the pictorial space is saturated with a web of intermingling strokes, as if some graphic mist is engulfing everything. In the war etchings of Otto Dix the very surface becomes scabrous and infected, the ink bleeds uncontrolled from the drawn and engraved line.

By contrast, the systematised and hygienic line of the military sketch imposed a rural idyll onto the strategic field, in what is essentially a re- presentation of the home landscape, or as Mitchell describes it 'the "nature" of the imperial centre'.
(20) Thus, Foucault's transparent space becomes semi-opaque. The graphic line cannot completely eradicate the irrational, mythical domain of No-Man's-Land. What we find in its place is the shadow, a solid facade of tone that became one of the leitmotifs in the iconography of the First World War. It found a key part in the popular visual culture becoming a staple element in the visual diction of poster designers, front-line artists, official photographers and film- makers.

As an art-form it owes its name to one Etienne de Silhouette, financier to the profligate regime of Louis XIV, who had an unusual talent for cutting small back profile portraits. His skill with scissors, however, has outlasted his prowess with the public purse: he was removed from office after advocating a punitive regime aimed at saving France from bankruptcy. For some time after, the term a la silhouette was used as a byword for meanness. The art form, though, thrived in the 18th century providing a mass portraiture that was cheap and elegant, which did not require hours of sittings and hid unflattering features. During the Romantic period the silhouette became a familiar pictorial device suggesting drama, heroism and visual charge.

These characteristics were to influence its diverse use in the militarised visual language of the Great War. It was first used in the great recruitment campaign of 1914 and 1915. Posters of soldiers in unmodulated black printed against a white background were bold, direct images which did not have to specify badges of rank or regiment. The silhouette was the Everyman. It also edited out demoralising or detracting detail - a criticism that was often levelled at official war art by such artists as Nevinson who refused to paint ordinary soldiers as though they were
'castrated Lancelots'(21). Furthermore, it needed no expensive colour printing or expensive artwork, and the silhouette reproduced easily on the poorer quality newsprint that was used for the mass poster campaigns and became the norm for the newspapers of the later war years.

Although the silhouetted image was rooted in actualities - in that it reproduced the 'worm's eye view' of the trench world - its widespread use had a carefully contrived political message. The choice of the drawing of a vigilant sentry, for example, was not accidental. The image occurs regularly in the iconography of the Western Front for obvious reasons : a soldier would only reveal himself over the crest of a slope or above the parapet of a trench when he was convinced that he had absolute control of the surrounding territory. To reveal oneself in silhouette at any other time was to invite enemy fire. The poster image is thus a carefully contrived declaration of the authority of that soldier: he stands unchallenged and omnipotent, in full control of the surrounding terrain, owning, as Foucault would argue, the 'imperial gaze'.

Although graphically different, the silhouette drawing and the 'unwavering line' of the military panorama are two manifestations of scopic control. They both eschew ambiguity, they promise control and authority, mastery is vested in the boldness of the graphic (out)line and the tonal mass. As drawings, they were also readily achieved by the amateur hand or semi-skilled hand, an important aspect of their widespread dissemination in this period.

The impact of the silhouette has been reduced by its endless reproduction in the popular imagery of militaria and its unthinking use by film and art directors.
(22) It most truly belongs to the static conditions of the Western Front because it is essentially a one- dimensional form. In so being, it belongs (almost exclusively) to that fixed world of the coveted horizon. As so many artists and writers observed, the sclerotic conditions of the trench world led to the belief that beyond the close horizon of the enemy trench lay nothing. At that edge all three-dimensional forms - soldiers, trees, buildings, guns - were abruptly flattened not into two-dimensions but to form stripped of all texture and feature, that might only be expressed in a single dimension. The silhouette becomes the icon of that edge, and today some of the most imposing and powerful silhouette-facades are formed by the giant archways, obelisks and towers that litter the commemorative landscape in Flanders.

As a drawn, circumscribed form, the silhouette might be better regarded as negative space, a shadow rather than solid. This is the dark space, explored by Anthony Vidler in his consideration of the architecture of death and burial:
'Th(e])prone figure was then raised up, so to speak, in order to mark the facade of [the] temple, now become an image of a specter: a monument to death that represented an ambiguous moment, somewhere between life and death, or, rather, a shadow of the living dead.' (23)

1 William Roberts (1974) 4.5 Howitzer Gunner RFA:The War to end all wars, Canada Press, pp. 27 -28.

2 David Jones, in Rene Hague (ed) 1980, Dai Greatcoat, London, Faber.

3 General Staff, War Office (1914) Manual of Map Reading and Field, H.M.S.O., London.

4 Lt.Col. H.D.Buchanan RA (1892) 'Rules and Orders 1792' cited in Records of the Royal Military Academy 1741-1892, Cattermole, Woolwich, p.33.

5 John Constable to John Dunthorne, 29th May 1802. For a full account of Paul Sandby's tenure at Woolwich see Martin Hardie, (1966) Watercolour Painting in Britain, Vol.1, The Eighteenth Century, Batsford, London, pp 216 - 222. For an analysis of marine cartography and coastline drawing see Lucian de Lima Martins (1999) 'Navigating in Tropical Waters' in Dennis Cosgrove (1999) Mappings, London, Reaktion.

6 See Mapping the Landscape:Essays on Art and Cartography (1990) eds. Nicholas Alfrey and Stephen Daniels, Nottingham, Nottingham Castle Museum.

7 Michel Foucault (1975) Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, Paris, Editions Gallimard, English translation, Allen Lane 1977

8 ibid, p. 197.

9 Jay Appleton (1975) The Experience of Landscape, Wiley, London.

10 Henry Reed, Part II.' Judging Distances' from 'Lessons of the War'.

11 W.J.T.Mitchell (1994) 'Imperial Landscape' in Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, p16-17.

12 William G Newton (1916) Military Landscape and Target Indication, London, Hugh Rees, p. 27.

13 John Keegan (1976) The Face of Battle, London, Penguin, p.266.

14 For a full account of the history and current uses of field sketching see P. Gough (1995) 'Tales from the Bushy-topped Tree: a brief survey of military sketching' in Imperial War Museum Review, No.10, pp 62-74.

15 Diller and Scofidio (1994) Tourism of War, FRAC Basse Normandie/Univ.of Princeton Press, pp.116-177.

16 Stephern Kern (1983) On the Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918, London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, p.147.

17 Reginald Farrer (1918) Void of War, London, Constable, p.55.

18 T.E.Hulme in Sam Hynes (1955) Further Speculations University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, p.164

19 Wilfred Owen, Spring Offensive.

20 Mitchell (1994) op.cit., p.17.

21 C.W.R. Nevinson to C.F. Masterman, 25 Nov. 1917, Imperial War Museum, Dept of Art, Nevinson file.

22 For a fuller account see Paul Gough (1995) "The Silhouette as Icon of the Western Front", Journal of the Western Front Association No.43, April 1995, pp 28 - 31.

23 Anthony Vidler (1991) The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely, MIT Press.