EXHIBITIONS / Blitz and pieces: To understand the true horror of the Blitz we should ignore hands-on displays and consider the work of Elizabeth Watson, says Iain Gale

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The Independent Culture
In his book The Myth of the Blitz, Angus Calder writes 'We, born since, have ignored how frightening and confusing the period from April 1940 through to June 1941 was for the British people. Perhaps we simply cannot comprehend that fear and confusion imaginatively. Myth stands in our way.' Fifty years on, we are only beginning to de- mythologise the Blitz. The Imperial War Museum's Blitz Experience can recreate a raid over London, but it is still high theatre. We know the Brits will prevail. The fact that in 1940 we very nearly didn't is better conveyed in a modest exhibition of watercolours which opened at the museum last week.

In September 1938 young Elizabeth Watson was an artist. A year later she was a truck driver, a privately educated graduate of the Slade steering a fruit lorry, hastily converted into an ambulance, through the devastated streets of London. The paintings and written memoir in which she recorded her experiences are a marked contrast to the official art and literature of the time. Spurning the heroic and unhindered by the requirements of official propaganda, Watson tells it as it really was. In Bus Hit in Bishopsgate, she challenges the viewer to imagine the carnage in the shadows and details this in her writing with an artist's eye: 'Everything was covered with a thick, dark Prussian Blue dust from the explosion. I just avoided stepping on a blue arm and then noticed a Prussian Blue head in the gutter.'

In the most chilling of her works (shown right) - a Vorticist nightmare with a stretcher party pieta and a baby crushed underfoot - Watson captures the horror of a direct hit on a huge underground shelter in Fetter Lane. She wrote: 'Someone came up looking for the baby of a woman they had sent to hospital. We had seen it: we had to tell him that it was not alive. It had been trampled on in the mud.'

However, if she became accustomed to the horrors of war, Watson also learned how important it was to grasp any glimmer of humour, however black or ironic. In The Crater in Front of the Bank a huge bomb crater gapes at the junction of Threadneadle Street: 'There had been a hit through to the Underground . . . A red London bus hung by its back wheels to the edge of the crater, dwarfed to a toy . . . I noticed the sign above the crater, clear in the moonlight. It said 'Dig For Victory'.'

Rather than echoing the gung-ho spirit of such propaganda slogans, Watson's words and images reflect her own instinctive Socialism. She discerns a true spirit, born of the shared suffering exemplified in a drawing of life in an Underground shelter. In high contrast to the monumental sleeping figures of Henry Moore's treatment of the same theme, Watson shows: 'Little girls in pink party frocks; everyone was dressed up and sitting playing cards . . . ' It may still smack of the myth of the Blitz, but this image has an honesty of observation. In the unimpeachable vision of Elizabeth Watson we are afforded a better glimpse of the actuality of war than any vouchsafed by carefully restored tanks and guns. Relics, taken out of context, merely become monuments. But every picture tells a story.

To 19 Jun, Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Rd, SE1 (071-416 5000)