Nostalgia turns to violence

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The Independent Online
I happened to go round the National Army Museum's show devoted to the artist Rex Whistler on 24 June, his birthday. He was killed on 18 July 1944, so Monday marks the 50th anniversary of his death at the age of 39. He was the first man in his battalion to be killed in the follow-up to the D-Day landings. He was leading three tanks into action when his vehicle became enmeshed in fallen telephone wires. Incautiously, he let his men out of the tank and they came under enemy fire. He was blown up by a mortar bomb while trying to organise the remaining vehicles.

I don't recall knowing much about Whistler before I saw the exhibition. But the poster triggered an immediate response. It was a self-portrait, painted on the day he got his uniform. Whistler posed himself on the balcony of some affluent friends' house in Regent's Park where, typically, he had been offered a sitting room as a studio. The artist is shown as a slender figure with a dashing mixture of insouciance and seriousness. There is insecurity and scepticism in the gaze. He has included various pieces of scene-setting. In front of him are paint brushes tied in camouflage netting; beside the artist-subject is a drinks tray, and beyond him, on a chair, are his Sam Browne belt, his stick and his cap with the leek on it (Whistler was in the Welsh Guards). Art, society and war are on display.

It had taken Whistler a year to get a commission. He spent the time badgering high-powered people among the army acquaintances of the glamorous, arty set for whom he seems effortlessly to have become a friend as well as an artist of every sort of image, from panels for dinner parties to book illustrations. He was famous as much for his charm as for his work.

His determination seems strange to someone of my generation, but perhaps Whistler's was quite a common experience: for five years he had either been trying to get into uniform, or (for most of the period) training in it. The long periods of waiting must have been even worse for people who did not have a prodigious workload. The exhibition in the Army Museum shows just how much Whistler could fit in. He was designing sets for stage and film, and illustrating books all the while. To the evident delight of his brother officers, he was decorating the dimmest billets with mock- Classical paintings (in which Colonel Blimp turned up everywhere). His commanders infuriated him by believing he was too valuable to be at the sharp end of war.

In one way they were right: his oil paintings set one by the ear. But I hope it is not sentimental to say that the late flowering of his talent gives us work of high seriousness, and that perhaps it was a combatant's sense of urgency which flushed it out. One painting, of the Viscountess Ridley in 1940, seems especially strong: she looks a difficult creature, at once frosty, feisty and full of feeling. I am drawn to it because she was the mother of Nicholas Ridley, and I now see why there was a lurking beauty in the face of that man (especially shown by a photograph of him taken by David Rose for this newspaper).

More obviously appealing is the painting of the artist himself, sitting in the shade of a hayrick in East Mersea, Essex. It shows a rather ordinary brick house and a stout church tower, a corrugated-iron barn roof and what looks like the back of a bus. It is a painting of striking ordinariness (both meanings intended).

The exhibition sent me back to A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55. This was the catalogue of a Barbican show seven years ago. It points out that many soldiers believed they were fighting for the survival of a relaxed, robust, rural idyll that, in truth, was not to be found in the real countryside, which many ordinary soldiers never visited.

I increasingly see the force of Roy Strong's remark that exhibitions are at their best when they are arguments (as indeed most paintings are). The Barbican show argued that Graham Sutherland, Michael Ayrton, John Minton and many others were working out the place of violence - especially the new institutionalised and industrialised violence - in an imagination animated by hedgerows, sunrises and human sweetness. I find myself wanting to see more plain, if rather elegaic, niceness in the work of the period than the catalogue's writers allow, but their grimmer view is creeping up on me.

Certainly, a toughness darkens and enriches Rex Whistler's later work. Devotedly light-hearted and mockingly deferential as much of his work is, the later portraits of soldiers, billets and a countryside waiting for war are moving because he doesn't sentimentalise.

But just because Whistler and the others were embattled romantics, there is no reason to give up on the romantic itself. I think one of the problems of being a late-20th-century person is the feeling that our generation has betrayed the romantic, if troubled spirit that informed many of the people who fought 50 years ago and which seems to flood these Whistler pictures.

At first I thought I found a nostalgic composure in Whistler's paintings, and believed that is why I liked them. Now I think I draw a harder lesson. The power of these pictures (as in Ayrton's, Sutherland's and the rest) is in laying out the challenge to hang on to a map of the human heart as we work out the vertiginous modern world. He was struggling, and he makes me feel I should work harder at the same game.