Women War Artists, Imperial War Museum, London

They also serve, who only stand and paint

For thousands of years, war has been men's affair.

The lot of women was to wait and grieve, a role superbly summed up in a work called Pale Armistice by the now 80-year-old British artist Rozanne Hawksley. At first it looks like a wreath that might be laid on any war memorial, except that it's bleached of all colour, bone-white. On close inspection, you see that the wreath is composed of dozens of white kid gloves, standard women's attire in the years of the First World War. Closely interleaved, these phantom feminine hands seem to plead, stroke, clutch, pray, despair. Quietly, without show, they articulate the behind-doors suffering of millions.

That war was a turning point for women artists. The first official war art scheme was set up by the British government in 1916, and although only four of the 51 artists commissioned were women, and of these one dropped out and three had their work rejected, the newly established Imperial War Museum also commissioned nine women artists to record "women's war work". None was allowed access to the the battlefield, but some, such as Olive Mudie-Cooke, found themselves near the front line working in hospitals and ambulance units.

Mudie-Cooke's A VAD Convoy Unloading an Ambulance Train at Night After the Battle of the Somme is a dim brown watercolour with a pungent sense of actuality. A similarly modestly-sized work by the same artist in brown ink, Sanctuary Wood, makes a daring statement, for 1920, in its forlorn study of the remains of a spinney, still blasted and leafless two years on.

Women War Artists, which includes works being shown for the first time, is predictably stronger on women as eyewitnesses and recorders than as participants, although you could make a case for the latter in the work of Dame Laura Knight. Her hyper-realist oil of 1943, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring, is pure government-commissioned propaganda, succeeding brilliantly in making a heroine of young Ruby, a former shop assistant now toiling in a Royal Ordnance factory turning out Bofors guns. With her hairnet fashionably knotted into a turban, her clean-scrubbed face gleaming with concentration, she is fully in charge of the machinery she operates, with its whirring blade, flying sparks and puddles of oil.

There is personal participation, too, in Knight's giant fantasy canvas The Nuremberg Trial, which shows the now familiar courtroom benches surrounded by bombed-out buildings, some still aflame. "In that ruined city death and destruction had to come into the picture", she said.

A more harrowing marker of that time, though, is Doris Zinkeisen's Human Laundry, Belsen, April 1945, which contrasts the plump, crisply uniformed medical staff with the naked shadows of humanity they attend to on each bed. The scene is a requisitioned stable, and though the floor is clean scrubbed, tufts of straw still stuff cracks in the windows.

Yet few of the images in this show live up to the apocalyptic visions of John Piper and Paul Nash. Nor does it even attempt a definitive history of changing attitudes to gender in wartime. You'd never guess, for instance, from this selection, that young women now regularly defuse bombs in Afghanistan. The work of the Dame Lauras, for good or ill, is now done by the moving image.

To 8 January 2012; admission free

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing