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Paul Gough
Dead Lines - The Art of War
A version of this essay was first published in the periodical Printmaking Today in the September / October issue of 2002

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
- Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons

These words, taken from the opening line of the English poet Wilfred Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth (1917) provided the title of John Walker's portfolio of 27 etchings, Passing Bells, published in 1998. A major British painter of the past twenty years, Walker has long used printmaking as a parallel activity, but this suite is possibly the most consistent body of prints to date. It is certainly the most harrowing. The imagery was stimulated by conversations with the artist’s father who had served on the Somme in 1916, a five-month long battle in which eleven of Walker’s family died. In these bare and denuded prints Walker captures something of the desolate banality of that first modern war: in a grotesque turn of pictorial phrase the soldier is depicted with a sheep’s bare skull, part victim, part gas-mask, a plaintive semi-human figure isolated in a wasted landscape.

In Walker’s suite of prints the visual components are stripped to the barest essentials, the tonal scheme coagulates into a denuded composition of figure and horizon, of corpse and tree stump. Earlier prints by Walker had drawn on some of the same pictorial language, indeed Roy Forward has written of the plates as being ‘wounded’ by the creative process; this is especially true of the Passing Bells suite. It is, writes Jack Flam:
    evident in the rawness of the drawn lines, which at times are like exposed nerves, and in the way the corrosive action of the acid on the plate is made to eat away at our sensibilities just as they did the metal.
With its taut line and acidic bite, etching seems ideally suited to describing the wretchedness of war. This is certainly true of Callot, Goya and Otto Dix whose war prints were shown to critical acclaim in touring exhibitions throughout Britain in the past two years. Each artist developed a specific process to highlight very different emotional responses; in Jacque Callot’s engravings of the Thirty Year War the meticulous and objective use of the engraving tool itemises the horror of the war, seeming to accentuate the casual misery.

Goya’s technical language was largely derived from Rembrandt especially in his control of lit forms. But etching and acquatint gave Goya the technical opportunity to develop a quite radical use of light. In his war work Goya introduced artificial light into the western idiom. Up until this point in the great project of the Enlightenment, natural sunlight was understood to emanate from the GodHead, illuminating the wonders of His work. In the Disasters of War prints, darknesses are beyond Godly illumination: artificial light - in the form of candles and lamps - now reveal only idiocy and hypocrisy in the Capricho prints, and efficient killing in the prints of war. Interestingly, we can see the legacy of this radical use of light in Picasso’s Guernica where the blinking eye of the sun is substituted by the all-seeing, ever-ready sphere of the electric light-bulb illuminating yet another slaughter on Spanish soil.

Just as Owen’s poetry has stimulated many writers and artists, so Goya’s prints of war have cast a long shadow over western art. This is not only true of the way that Jake and Dinos Chapman were moved to produce a three-dimensional quotation of Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra but also in the work of Contemporary British printmakers such as Elaine Shemilt and Paul Coldwell who cannot but be mindful of the emblematic power of Goya’s work.

Commenting on the background to his printmaking in the late 1990s Coldwell described how he made a body of work in response to Martin Bell's final radio report from Bosnia for the BBC. Coldwell said, ‘I have been particularly moved by the way that conflicts impact on the individual, creating upheaval and displacement.’ In 2000, for example, he worked on an etched medal where he wanted the two sides to suggest conflict between good and bad, life and death.
    My medal juxtaposes on one face the image of a skeletal plane, a dark reminder of menace, with that of a house, which I felt indicated a sense of place, protection and life, indeed what constitutes a home. Around the edge is the text from Primo Levi which indicates the choice we must make. In making the medal, I brought together my practice as both a sculptor and printmaker and as an artist who uses computers as a creative tool. The images for the medal were worked on the computer and pixilated to suggest news photographs. A deeply etched plate was then made and wax cast from it. I then re-angled the house and plane throwing them into bas relief.
In such ways the narrative and political possibilities of the print form are extended. Another British medallist, Alison Branagan, has produced limited edition engraved pseudo-military medals and ribbons as parodies of the recruiting and reward process of standing armies.

The physical and digital manipulation of the printed surface has allowed artists such as Elaine Shemilt to explore the visual scale of conflict . Shemilt contrives large installations using photographic pieces, screenprints on paper, and photo etchings. For her, controlling the medium is paramount, and the prints are often suspended from huge ladders, masts, pulleys and other ominous contraptions. Although war is a distant reference these are installations that explore dislocation, disenfanchisement and the camouflage of appearances. It was fitting perhaps that Shemilt was one of four Scottish artists invited by the British army to travel to the Falkland islands in 1999 to make artworks that might improve the one thousand yard passage that linked several military installations and was known locally as the
Death Star Corridor.

Using sound, historic and contemporary photographs, print media, found items and computer-generated imagery they created an interactive programme that could be projected onto one wall of a gallery space and located at key junctures in the corridor, now rather more kindly re-named The Millennium Mile.

Little should surprise us about artists working directly for the British (or any other) army. The first ever British Official War Artist was a Scottish etcher. Commissioned in 1916, Muirhead Bone was regarded as ‘the London Piranesi’ for his drypoints of grand and spectacular scenes of the industrial and architectural sublime. As a governmental artist he was ideal because he could describe with apparent objectivity the scale of the Empire’s war machine (and also the Hideousness of the Hun). During the early part of the war, there was a terrific demand for dispassionate and accurate images that could be used to augment British literary propaganda, and many of Bone’s drawings were immediately transferred to stone lithography so that countless folios of his prints could be circulated amongst the opinion-formers in Washington and other neutral countries. Although prolific, he was hidebound by a slavish naturalism and his war prints were denigrated by one critic as ‘too true to be good.’

We can see a reprise of the printmaker-as-recorder in the work of the regimental artist. Terence Cuneo and David Rowlands are amongst a small band of artists who produce highly wrought and militarily accurate images of the British armed services in action. Though they do not qualify as ‘printmakers’ in the usual sense of the term, their work is reproduced en masse in editions of over a thousand for circulation amongst veterans, regimental museums, and remembrance societies. In a rather oblique way they are a part of the genre of the military print and their profile is reminiscent of those nineteenth century history painters whose work was industriously copied by engraving workshops to meet the public demand for printed reproductions of historic events.

Although limited edition lithographs are available of Peter Howsen’s harrowing 1993 Bosnian work and the Gulf War experiences of John Keane there is little that is innovative in their approach to process. For that we must look elsewhere, usually in clandestine rather than official imagery of conflict.

Ulster artist Brendan Reid, for example, has had a long term project to etch sectarian images and words onto the steel body of a London black taxi cab – a vehicle habitually used by the para-militaries as command vehicle-cum-ambulance. Once inscribed, the cab would be re-assembled and returned to the streets of the province. Denis Masi is another artist who has long been involved with notions of power and power structures. He enumerate the range of his concerns as :
    psychological power, who, what, where; social power, rituals, rites, commemorative events; territorial power, lines, borders, barriers; media power, image, statement, view.
And a recent set of four inkjet prints Basic Shelter 1, have at their centre a technical drawing which relate to various unrealised public projects concerned with power. Masi harnesses the unique quality of the inkjet process to incorporate technical drawing, photographs and ‘jargonised’ text. In much the same way Jeremy Diggle created an extraordinarily rich image of the various elements that comprised a fictitious ‘topiary telescope’, a piece of camouflaged apparatus printed onto handmade Saunders paper in a limited edition of 15 for ‘Sylva Brittanicus: a millennium book of trees’.

Apart from curious exceptions such as Percy Smith’s etching cycle The Dance of Death, British printmaking lacks a visual language of protest. Overshadowed by the searing images of Kollwitz, Dix and Beckmann, British art can look tame and obsessed with technical prowess. An exception is the work of Peter Ford, director of the Off-Centre Gallery in Bristol, who as well as showing artists from the former Soviet bloc, has made striking prints of protest and complaint: a rare moment amidst our dread fascination with the iconography of conflict.