Women at war: The female British artists who were written out of history

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The job of portraying battle has, traditionally, been seen as a male preserve. But Arifa Akbar discovers that women war artists also played a crucial role

Images of war, rendered on canvas, have traditionally been presented to us in the most morbid forms: John Singer Sargent's chilling trench portrait of blinded troops in Gassed, Picasso's orgy of civil-war violence in Guernica, bloodied battlefields and frontlines from which artists capture live conflict as bombs whizz past them.

What is not so well documented is the women who work on war's hinterland, both as artists and as subjects. Few would be able to name a female counterpart to Sargent – it is assumed that a creative response to such violent destruction can only be delivered from a male perspective, a Siegfried Sassoon or a Rupert Brooke crouching in a foreign field.

Yet women have, since the turn of the 20th century, been interpreting and illustrating war, casting a fascinating light on the forgotten social, industrial and personal histories born from conflict which, while not as graphic as the front line, are invaluable in fleshing out a fuller picture of the human cost of war.

From the early 1900s, when it was indecent for women to be witnessing war from the brutality of the front, female artists produced their own images, many creating unofficial portraits surreptitiously as they worked in weapons factories, in hospital wards and in the ambulance vans of the First and Second World Wars, others in Belsen and at the trials at Nuremberg, and more recently, at the mass graves in Kosovo and the bombed borders of Iraq.

In an effort to bring these extraordinary, yet forgotten, artists to public attention, the Imperial War Museum in London is to stage a comprehensive exhibition on the subject of women as eye-witnesses, participants, commentators and officially commissioned recorders of war, entitled Women War Artists. The exhibition, opening tomorrow, will bring the work of those from the early 1900s alongside a contemporary wave of artists, including the Turner Prize shortlisted artist Fiona Banner, and the Palestinian video-artist, Mona Hatoum.

Kathleen Palmer, the show's curator, hopes the museum's survey will redress the enduring myth of the war-artist as an intrepid man dodging bullets, gun in one hand and sketchpad in the other.

"It's often misunderstood what the role of the war artist is," she says. "A lot of people think it is frontline sketching. War art encompasses far more than battle scenes or life at the frontline – it is about artists' creative responses to all aspects of war as seen and experienced by ordinary people, civilians, as well as servicemen and women. We look at women who find themselves in the war zone but also at those producing images unofficially, without the permission of the government in the First and Second World Wars, and also at women entering male workplaces in order to draw them, which was a radical thing to do then."

The first official war-artists' scheme was set up by the British government in 1916, mainly for propaganda purposes and for memorialising the nation's war effort. A host of artists were commissioned for this purpose, though only four women compared to 47 men, and of these four, three had their work rejected, while one did not take up the commission, so there was effectively no "official" female representation. However, the more determined artists, working independently and without government aegis, found themselves close to the frontline through medical work in hospitals and ambulance units, and began recording what they saw.

Olive Mudie-Cooke, already a trained artist who was driving ambulances for the British Red Cross in France from 1916, was one such woman. The images she produced departed from "official" fare: they featured hospital and auxiliary staff – images of the forgotten army of wartime helpers that would later be dramatised and in the novels of Pat Barker, and Sarah Waters's The Night Watch.

"Olive Mudie-Cooke served in France and Italy as an ambulance driver," says Palmer, "and she created work that responded to the situations she found – other women, the brands of tanks, landscapes, dramatic watercolours of nurses and ambulance staff lighting a cigarette, or ambulances being loaded with equipment."

At the start of the Second World War, women artists were given more leeway after the government's War Artists Advisory Committee (Waac) was set up, though there were still grave imbalances. More than 400 artists were involved – 52 of whom were women, the latter receiving fewer and shorter commissions, lower pay and far less publicity. Two women were given overseas commissions but only one, Evelyn Dunbar, was entrusted with a salaried position, and both were allowed to travel abroad only after the fighting had ended.

It was not until 1982, when Linda Kitson was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to record the Falklands conflict, that a British female artist was sent overseas to accompany troops going into battle, although women were not permitted to stay overnight on naval vessels at the time so Kitson had to travel on the QE2.

In 1945, as victory in Europe looked likely, an artist called Mary Kessell was preparing to go to Germany. By the time she arrived, the war was over but she created memorably intense charcoal drawings of homeless women and children in Berlin, as well as the destruction of Hamburg. Kessell also produced images of the Belsen resettlement camp, home to refugees and displaced people including some ravaged survivors of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp a few miles away.

Another female artist to be given an overseas commission in the 1940s was Dame Laura Knight. At the time she was painting, women auxiliaries had become more common, although female involvement in combat was strictly prohibited. Corporal Daphne Pearson, a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (Waaf), sat for a portrait by Knight and revealed in a letter to her mother that the artist originally painted her with a rifle. The final painting features her brandishing a respirator instead of the weapon. It is not clear whether Knight was instructed to modify the image to make it less shocking, or whether she decided to tone it down herself. Corporal Pearson wrote in 1940: "I am being painted in a tin helmet and holding a rifle – Air Min [Air Ministry] will be furious but Dame Laura says my helmet is rather like a bonnet on the back of my head and the rifle makes a good line – Waafs are 'not to carry arms' – controversy is still raging and this will upset the apple cart. Dame Laura is adamant and firm."

Knight went on to become the first female artist since 1768 to become a full member of the Royal Academy. Her high standing enabled her to request an assignment to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1945, which resulted in her painting The Nuremberg Trial. The tribunal tried 21 leading Nazis, headed by Hermann Goering. Knight was deeply disturbed by what she heard during the trial, and the realism of the courtroom in her painting is ruptured by the rubble of the city of Nuremberg shown as a ghostly backdrop.

"The trials just fired her imagination," says Palmer. "She drew many of the key Nazis in the dock. Unusually for her, it showed the back wall of the courtroom to have dissolved and the ruins of the city of Nuremberg lying there. She felt the destructive force of war needed to be in the painting."

The British Red Cross, meanwhile, commissioned Doris Zinkeisen to reflect their work in Europe in the 1940s, and she produced Human Laundry, a stark, searing image of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp's starving survivors. Of her time there, she later said: "The shock of Belsen was never to be forgotten... The stable was used to wash any living creature down before sending them into hospital to be treated. Each stall had a table on which to lay the patient – the German prisoners did the washing. The church was used as a hospital for those that were alive.'" Despite her personal horror, Human Laundry is in some ways, a seminal work in women's war-art as it proved that women could unflinchingly present the most discomforting aspects of war.

Social realities on the home front were also being presented more robustly the 1940s. Women with some artistic training were sneaking sketchpads into factories, without permission, depicting the civilian population contributing to the war effort, while others drew street scenes that captured air raids, shelters; sometimes these were comical or bittersweet images, at other times, shocking and violent. This work would have been considered dangerous and illicit had the authorities known about it, as imagery around war was tightly controlled for fear that it could used as negative propaganda.

Palmer says: "Women's images of the Blitz were hard-hitting. They were working independently, so doing more their own thing. Priscilla Thornycroft was an artist who was quite closely associated with the Communist Party, making drawings of places in Camden Town, people in the streets with air raids going on. They were dark and quirky and they really captured what was happening to individuals. Officially, the Blitz was reflected in a more abstract way but her work was specific about the working-class experience of war on the home front. It was quite a nice counterpoint to the official commissions." A previously unseen work by Thornycroft in the exhibition features a scene that took place early on in the Second World War when an air-raid warning frightened a bolting horse that became impaled on railings. She painted it in the 1950s in a lustrous style to highlight both the beauty and tragic outcome of the horse.

Margaret Abbess had completed her foundation course at the Royal College of Art but was conscripted and sent to make Spitfire parts in a factory before she could take her art training further: "She documented the factory work when she shouldn't have done. She didn't have permission but was covertly making sketches in her rest breaks and going home to work on the images. She was thinking of throwing them all away in 2005 when a family member told her to bring them to us," says Palmer.

The question of how female war-artists chose to represent ordinary working women during these decades is an interesting one. Images of women on the home front were not always "feminist" in the modern sense; some adopted the style of their older male counterparts while others painted women in stereotypically glamorised incarnations, even in factory scenes which, in reality, would have been sweaty places of industry.

The most iconic example of this glamorisation is an image of Ruby Loftus, a 21-year-old "shop girl" who mastered the difficult skill of screwing the breech ring of the anti-aircraft Bofors gun, a technique that normally took men almost a decade of dedicated experience. Her story was picked up by the Ministry of Information, which was trying to encourage women into weapons production at that point. Her portrait was painted by Knight and promptly exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Yet the image must have borne little resemblance to the reality of her work: "Ruby Loftus was painted in the middle of the mechanical process but in a way that reinforced the female stereotype. She was made to look very glamorous, wearing lipstick and with machinery that gleamed. It made her job look easy," says Palmer.

The image may have added to the conspiracy theories bubbling around that suggested Ruby Loftus was a fraudulent poster girl of the war, who could not, in fact, have been strong or clever enough to do the job.

More contemporary wars have led to different kinds of artwork: the rise of photo-journalism, and images delivered daily on our television screens from conflict regions, have progressively reduced the shock value of frontline artwork. War artists these days can be seen to be taking an "alternative" perspective, pioneered by female artists of earlier decades, that bring creative, personalised responses to war. Mona Hatoum, for example, renders hand-grenades as jewel-like coloured glass objects that encompass a terrible beauty in her piece, Nature morte aux grenades, while Rita Duffy transforms a weapon into confectionery in Dessert, which features a gun, cast from an AK-47 rifle that was decommissioned through the Northern Ireland peace process, but made out of chocolate.

The message in both these works appears to critique the fetishised status that the weaponry of war has assumed in contemporary culture.

"[Duffy's] piece embodies the attraction of violence, the temptation of the empowerment which comes from joining paramilitary organisations" and yet, "the gun is neutered: only made of chocolate, it cannot be used," comments Palmer.

The German artist Frauke Eigen, who photographed scenes from Kosovo in 2000 following its ethnic cleansing, has explained why she decided to photograph the personal effects from bodies exhumed from mass graves of genocide victims in Kosovo, rather than the bodies themselves.

"The sight of these bodies and the strong stench of formaldehyde made me leave the place, and on my way out I saw these clothes laying there in the sun for drying after they had been washed. For some reason, maybe because these clothes were much more human-like and recognisable than the bodies, I felt far more touched and disturbed and started to take pictures." Hatoum, similarly, has said she resists the demand for the literal horror of war.

"When I started making these works I was criticised for not showing the 'spectacle of horror' but expecting the viewer to imagine for themselves the impending disaster. I personally felt that this was precisely the strength of the work and a sign of maturity in the way the work conjures up certain images in the viewer's mind."

And in her sentiment, Hatoum sums up much of the spirit, imagination and force of a century of women war-artists.

Women War Artists, Imperial War Museum, London SE1 (020 7416 5320)9 April to 6 January

The art of war: women at the front

Dame Laura Knight RA (1877–1970)

Knight trained at the Nottingham School of Art and began by taking her subjects from the world of circus and ballet. These images were well received and established her as a leading artist of her generation. By the outbreak of the Second World War, Knight was the most important woman artist in Britain and the first to be elected a Royal Academician since 1768. Knight worked various commissions for the War Artists Advisory Committee and, at the end of the war, she was granted permission to paint the trial of major war criminals at Nuremberg. She spent the first months of 1946 in Germany, making her one of only three women war-artists commissioned to travel abroad to record the war.

Anna Airy (1882–1964)

Having trained at the Slade School of Fine Art, she was one of the first women to be officially commissioned. Invited by the Munitions Committee of the Imperial War Museum in 1918 to produce four pictures representing typical scenes in munitions factories – the shell forge at the National Projectile Factory in Hackney Marshes (London), a gun forge near Manchester, the aircraft assembly shop at Armstrong-Whitworth, Hendon, and the Singer factory in Glasgow. The conditions under which Airy worked were stringent and included penalties for any delay in her work. One painting, showing munitions girls leaving work, was produced at the request of the Ministry of Information's British War Memorials Committee in 1919. It was rejected by the Committee and later destroyed by the artist.

Margaret Abbess (1922–2008)

Abbess was offered a place at the Royal College of Art (RCA) but was conscripted into war work in 1942. Security was extremely tight in factories engaged in war production. Drawing sensitive subjects or places required a permit – which Abbess did not have. Nonetheless, while working in an aircraft components factory she produced several drawings of factory scenes. This work was produced in secret, often during breaks, and provides an unofficial insight into factory life. Most of Abbess's drawings began as small sketches which she later completed at home from memory. After the war, Abbess finished her studies at the RCA and worked for many years in art education. She kept her war drawings but felt they were of limited artistic value. In 2005 she considered destroying them, but was encouraged by her family to offer them to the Imperial War Museum.

Mona Hatoum (b. 1952)

Mona Hatoum was born in Lebanon to a Palestinian family. She studied in Beirut, moving to Britain in the 1970s. When civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975 she found it impossible to return home, and settled in Britain, training at the Slade School of Art. Hatoum's early work often includes performance and video ("Measures of Distance", above). She uses domestic objects such as kitchen implements and cots, or medical objects, such as trolleys and wheelchairs, to imply a sense of threat or violence. Her artworks have incorporated blades and pulsing electric currents. She now lives and works in London and Berlin. Her work is exhibited internationally and held in museum collections around the world.

Linda Kitson (b. 1945)

Kitson studied at St Martins School of Art and the Royal College of Art, where she specialised in illustration. She then taught at Camberwell, Chelsea and the City and Guilds Art Schools. Her drawings that appeared in "The Times" won her the Falklands commission from the Artistic Records Committee of the Imperial War Museum. Kitson became the first official female war-artist to accompany troops into action during the Falklands conflict in 1982. She travelled on civilian ships requisitioned by the Navy, as women were not permitted on naval vessels at the time. The original intention was for Kitson to disembark at Ascension Island, but instead she stayed with the forces throughout the conflict. She eventually produced more than 400 drawings showing all aspects of the conflict, except the actual fighting, most of which occurred at night. Her drawings were often completed at speed in hostile conditions.

Frauke Eigen (b. 1969)

The German-born artist studied photography at the Royal College of Art in London, and it was while working as a photo-journalist that she made her first trip to Kosovo, in 2000. While there, she was told that a mass grave containing the bodies of genocide victims had just been uncovered nearby. Witnessing the recovery operation, Eigen decided to photograph the clothes and personal items of the dead, rather than the bodies themselves ("Fundstücke Kosovo", left). Eigen recently completed a photographic project in Afghanistan.

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