War paint

Heroic depictions of military conflict are quickly exposed as propaganda. William Feaver on how some

"A new subject has been found for art," Wyndham Lewis told the readers of the Daily Express. "That subject matter is not war, which is as old as the chase or love; but modern war."

The great war had ended three months before, and an article on "The Men Who Will Paint Hell" was timely, now that Armistice celebrations had died down and talk of commemoration filled the letters columns. Having been through Passchendaele and the Slade, Lewis was well qualified to address the subject. Indeed, he probably owed his survival to a friend's suggestion as to how to avoid returning from compassionate leave to his gun battery: "Why not paint a picture instead?"

In 1917, Lewis had secured a commission from the future Lord Beaverbrook to paint A Canadian Gun Pit for the Canadian War Memorials Fund. Being a modernist, he produced a zigzagging composition of a robotic gun crew, readying shells for loading. It was, he told the soldier turned critic Herbert Read, "one of the dullest good pictures on earth". Objectively speaking, it was just dull.

The follow-up, A Battery Shelled, was a calculated throwback to The Battle of San Romano in the National Gallery: same size, similarly stylised, with three potential war poets posted where Uccello had planted jousting Medici. Below them, in a jazzy mire, stick figures struck busy attitudes, and smoke froze into totemic cusps and twists.

The new subject did not have to be treated this way, but Wyndham Lewis persisted with his brand of mixed modernism. He fancied himself the most hawkish of painters and writers, carrying on with his hostilities through the interwar years. "As a theme for pictorial art," he wrote, "war differs from most others in that it is spasmodic and ephemeral." Logic and vanity led him to conclude that the combative modern artist, namely himself, was ideally suited to continuing - perpetuating - the war by other means.

In his biography of Wyndham Lewis, Some Sort of Genius, Paul O'Keefe quotes the artist on the chore of writing letters to the relatives of men in his battery who had been killed: "They are perfectly easy to write, for the more crudely conventional the better." Lewis liked to be snide and, by his standards, A Battery Shelled was a devastating blow aimed not so much at war ("merely a stupid nightmare") as at those who regarded war art as part of the war effort: pictures of decent chaps doing the right thing in awful circumstances.

Lewis, crudely unconventional as he was, had the pleasure of seeing A Battery Shelled reproduced on the front page of the Daily Graphic under the headline "A Contrast in War Pictures for Prosperity", its angularities contrasted with drab photographs ("camera pictures") of guns and rubble and with a famous history painting, Ernest Meissonier's 1814, showing Napoleon and staff riding through the trampled snow contemplating a conventionally bleak future. Painted 50 years after the event, 1814 was a fully detailed tableau intended to take the viewer back to a time when one man, apparently, held the reins of destiny. Up to 50 years later and beyond, the Meissonier approach remained popular. Who better than John Lavery, William Orpen, Eric Kennington and Norman Wilkinson to portray a heroic type like Dick Hannay (created by John Buchan in 1915) out there having a good war?

The shine of that sort of war art wears off rapidly; because, in retrospect, heroic accounts stand revealed as propagandist formulations. The aviator who actually had a life expectancy in the air of 45 minutes transmutes into the eternal Biggles. Gradually, propaganda and counter-propaganda on every side become recognised as matching overall. An anti-war art comes into its own. From the First World War, Otto Dix emerged as the Goya of the western front, while Paul Nash, who as an official war artist was issued with a special pass and driver, turned modernism to advantage by depicting shell holes and trenches as applied cubism. His brother John, who had remained in active service for the duration, produced, in 1918-19, Over the Top, a plain account, from memory, of how it was to scramble up and plod forward into no-man's land while one after another of those around you fell, "missing", in the snow. Like Stanley Spencer, whose Memorial Chapel in Burghclere hymned the experiences of the private soldier, scrubbing floors or scrambling under mosquito nets in arid Macedonia, John Nash viewed modern war not as a new subject, but as a common experience needing no exaggeration.

Lewis, Spencer, the Nashes and Kennington lived to contribute to the official war art of the Second World War. This time, the whole exercise was on a more consciously cultural footing. Under Kenneth Clark's direction, artists were picked as much for their idiosyncratic distinction as for their ability to work efficiently. It was thanks to Clark that art became a reserved occupation for those he most admired: Henry Moore, whose shelter drawings invested stinking conditions with snug dignity, and John Piper, whose studies of bombed churches (currently on show at the Imperial War Museum) rivalled Graham Sutherland's for genteel, semi-abstract theatricality. Art from the ashes: a response such as theirs to Baedecker raids indicated confidence in an ability to nurse their heritage. And how very civilised and moral-boosting was Paul Nash's Totes Meer of 1940-41: a painting based on snaps he had taken of an enemy aircraft dump near Oxford. He added, for symbolic whoosh, an owl swooping over it in search of vermin.

"Britain at War", an exhibition staged at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1941, was a mix of paintings, drawings, posters and photographs supplied by the Ministry of Information. In the catalogue, Herbert Read explained that the war art scheme had "one aim - to bring us a little closer to the reality - to the pathos, to the humour and tragedy of the war - aspects of the war which only the sensitive artist can see and record". In this instance, the deserted scenes by Sutherland and Piper were outnumbered by busy images of people being chirpy and stoical and getting on with the job. Edward Ardizzone was particularly good at suggesting in his drawings that the war was a perishing nuisance, but that the spiritual descendants of Jack Falstaff and Mistress Quickly lived on, happily enough, in blitzed Maida Vale.

Photography, however, was the new war art. To Bill Brandt in Picture Post, George Rodger in Life, Lee Miller in Vogue, the blackout, the ruins, the displaced persons, the incongruities of life going on, were a surfeit of subject matter. To Humphrey Jennings, it was surrealism rendered poignant, Mass Observation rendered poetic. With his film editor, Stewart McAllister, he composed Listen to Britain, cutting together rhythms and echoes, the train passing over the bridge, "Music While You Work" welling up over the lathes, Flanagan and Allen crooning to a lunchtime audience in the works canteen, and a multitude of Mecca dancers swirling to the sound of Sandy Macpherson and "Roll Out the Barrel" in the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool.

British war art from 1939-45 thrived for certain reasons. Where, on the Continent, circumstances did not favour programmes of recording invasion and occupation except in boastful or abject terms, in Britain it was possible to carry on with the full spectrum of artistic activity, everything from the cartoonists James Boswell and Carl Giles demanding "Second Front Now" and defying the ruling classes, to Eric Kennington turning out manly pastel portraits of fighter aces in spotted cravats. Soviet war art was largely a postwar product; German war art, keyed to victories, tailed off after 1942. The Imperial War Museum is unique, in that paintings and photographs of ordinariness that persists while normality is suspended preponderate on its walls and in its archives. Most other war memorial museums in the world stress derring-do.

Over the past 50 years, however, the usefulness of an Edward Bawden or Evelyn Dunbar as roving reporters, producing straightforward but stylish accounts of what they had witnessed, has been largely superseded. It is probably no longer possible, in the age of proliferating satellite facilities, to carry on drawing RAF stations, in the manner of Eric Ravilious, or film-making with reference to metaphysical sonnets, as did Humphrey Jennings. Don McCullin was not allowed to cover the Falklands war for fear that he might get in too close and upset the voters. Linda Kitson, the official war artist on the spot, did a perfectly good job from a military point of view.

Battles are not what they were; coverage is not what it was, in that transmission takes events from immediate and personal to famously universal in split seconds. All the same, the landscape of war, the face of war, the spasms of war, the mess of war, is still best described as it has always been described, in epic and lament, in Goya's Desastres de la Guerra, in the hacked body parts in the margins of the Bayeux Tapestry. False Goyas treat wars as great opportunities for making the flesh creep. In the Royal Academy's "Apocalypse" show, for example, Jake and Dinos Chapman's model bloodbath operates both as a homage to the Indiana Jones ethic and as a skit on the spectacular sentimentality of Saving Private Ryan.

Wyndham Lewis's New Subject was never new, any more than his mode of representation was genuinely new. (It was Epstein meets H G Wells plus a touch of El Greco.) What Lewis self-consciously suppressed in himself, or in his art, was the capacity to be uncalculating and the ability to be direct.

Since his time, drawing has become an increasingly unconventional practice: slowish, fallible, obviously unreliable. Yet drawing is the most immediate of means, recording while reacting while editing. Drawings describe, where photography and video merely reflect.

War art of human value (over and above political worth) gives something of the smell, the sickly excitement, the disgust, the tedium, the elation, possibly, certainly the waste. As when Ronald Searle on the Burma Railroad and in Changi Gaol, from 1942-44, drew all that he could, as no one else could, on any scrap of paper he could find. He drew not as exercise, not as "war art", still less to exercise the imagination. Drawing was his hold on life.

Paul O'Keefe's Some Sort of Genius: a life of Wyndham Lewis is published by Jonathan Cape (£25)

William Feaver is writing the biography of Lucian Freud

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of stealthy wealth