BOOK REVIEW / Sirens and sensibilities: 'London's Burning: Life, Death and Art in the Second World War' - Peter Stansky and William Abrahams: Constable, 18.95

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The Independent Culture
WATCHING the intent audience of Peter Grimes at Sadler's Wells in 1945, Edmund Wilson felt they were 'petrified and held in suspense' by Benjamin Britten's harmonising of 'the harsh, helpless emotions of wartime'. For Wilson, the opera spoke for 'the blind anguish, the hateful rancours and the will to destruction of these horrible years'. Yet Grimes also dramatises Britten's inner disquiet as a misfit in society. National context fuses with personal content.

Despite its comprehensive subtitle, London's Burning tells the story of only a select few: Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore, Humphrey Jennings and Benjamin Britten. Through their work we see how the political and aesthetic legacies of the 1930s flow into the early 1940s, while the final section on Peter Grimes sets the on-the-spot involvement of the Home Front against the ambivalence of the 'outsiders' and conscientious objectors Britten and Pears, returning from 'exile' in America.

But the home-based artists, too, found that events overlapped with personal preoccupations. Indeed, one of this book's (unstated) themes is the egotism of art, the way that the excitement of the work comes to dominate any sense of being involved in a 'war drive'. Thus the films of Humphrey Jennings brought together his interest in Surrealism, the captured moment, the incongruous detail, and his political idealism (or left-wing elitism), giving a poetic intensity to his portrayal of 'ordinary' people.

The balance of private and public interest is clear in Paul Nash's efforts for the Oxford Arts Bureau: 'you realise that unless architects, painters, poets, writers & so on are intelligently used they will be wasted in ARP & observations posts & die a lingering death from penury or rheumatism'. They were saved, if not 'intelligently used', by organisations like the Ministry of Information, whose chaotic enthusiasm was wonderfully caught

by Evelyn Waugh: 'Sir Philip Hesketh-Smithers went to the folk-dancing department. Mr Pauling went to woodcuts and weaving; Mr Digby-Smith was given the Arctic Circle.'

Stansky and Abrahams are particularly strong on artists' entanglements with institutions. Bureaucrats quailed at Nash's demands for first- class train fares and reverse-charge telephone calls (Kenneth Clark suggested they might accept such calls in emergencies, say if he were 'arrested for sketching'). Clark pops up constantly - as Director of the National Gallery, Chairman of the War Artists Advisory Committee, head of the Films Division at the Ministry of Information. Like a bossy genie, he find funds, arranges exhibitions and soothes egos - inevitably it is Clark who intercedes when the blimpish Air Commodore Peake, bewildered by Nash's 'Aerial Creatures', objects to all those pictures of crashed planes on the ground, not heroic planes in the air.

Sutherland was the most realistic of Clark's proteges: 'It was difficult to see how anything I could do as a war artist could help the course of the war and - of course - it didn't. One cannot escape the fact that some of us were protected.' What he did recognise was how the war could help his art: 'the possibilities of destruction as a subject'. In the blitzed cities, his passion for natural form combined with an awed reaction to violent, man-made forms, like the East End factory where 'there were machines, their entrails hanging through the floors, but looking extraordinarily beautiful at the same time'. In a similar way, Nash's private interest in 'The Personality of Planes' prompted his patriotic art: 'I first became interested in the war pictorially when I realised the machines were the real protagonists.'

Moore, too, resisted joining the War Artists Scheme (despite Clark's urging) until he found a subject which matched his own obsessions, stumbling on the sleeping crowds in Belsize Park Underground station in September 1940. When offered other commissions - coalminers, First Aid Posts and 'Objects Dropped from the Sky' - he declined and retired to concentrate on his sculpture, his shelter drawings paving the way for the Northampton Madonna and Child of 1944. Moore's studies were used to convey the stoic spirit of Britain under siege. This was partly true, for he was moved by the Londoners' endurance, but he was equally fired by a subject which could blend the contradictory formal approaches he admired: the art of Masaccio and the 'abstracted' sculpture of archaic societies.

Though well illustrated, London's Burning is weakened by a flat, lecture-like style, with flurries of statistics, bland judgements ('masterpiece', 'landmark') and unpursued side-issues: the relation of art to propaganda, the myth of the 'British character'. Yet if the authors never plumb the depths of their theme, they do track the way the events, atmosphere and cumbersome institutions of wartime Britain allowed artists to develop unrealised features of their work. The effect is fascinating, like seeing rare minerals form in heated rocks under pressure: the results are powerful, beautiful and, above all, unpredictable. Perhaps this is a clue to the book's unanswered question - 'the relation of art to war, and war to art'.