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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
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.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering