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Women War Artists at the Imperial War Museum

2011 June 7

A couple of weekends ago I went to see the Women War Artists exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. I strongly recommend it for anyone with an interest in art and / or history as it’s a great collection. I won’t go through the exhibition work by work, but here is a slideshow of some of the key pieces and an audio slideshow featuring curator and Head of Art at the Imperial War Museum Kathleen Palmer talking about some of the star items. If you’re super keen I recommend buying the book as there are many more artworks and artists in there than make it into the physical exhibition.

Women and art

Charcoal drawing of children waiting for train

Waiting for the Train on the Anhalter Bahnhof, Berlin, December 1945 - Mary Kessell

Just to get one thing out of the way before I get stuck in: women artists are not an invention of the 20th Century, they have been around for a very long time indeed. Just because you may never have heard of them doesn’t mean they don’t exist or they weren’t producing accomplished, arresting and intelligent works alongside male artists. But there are reasons you have never heard of them.1

Let’s get another old chestnut out of the way: there’s no feminine unity of theme, approach, subject or style in art produced by women, just as there’s no equivalent in the work of men. However in small collections of art by any group you can sometimes see common patterns based on the conditions of production.  For example very few of the works in Women War Artists directly depict combat. This is not womanly squeamishness, they weren’t allowed on the field. Similarly there aren’t many images of chisel-jawed tommies striding forth in a blaze of noble violence, because the government paid their official (and male) war artists to produce most of the top propaganda. Female artists were drafted in for specific jobs, for example Laura Knight’s famous, glamorous portrait of Ruby Loftus.

Unofficial artists

Britain has such a wealth of art documenting the experience of war not only because it was diligently collected by post-war art committees (including the Imperial War Museum Women’s Work Sub-Committee, created in 1918) but also because the government commissioned artists to record the war. The first official war artists scheme was set up in 1916, to create propaganda and to commemorate the national war effort. 51 artists were commissioned, 47 men and four women, and of these four, three had their work rejected and one did not take up the commission. But while there was no “official” female representation, women artists recorded the impact of the war on civilians, what they saw in the factories and military hospitals, as nurses, drivers and auxiliary staff close to the frontline.

In the Second World War over 400 artists were commissioned, of whom 52 were women. Only two were given overseas commissions and only one – Evelyn Dunbar – was given a salary. But again a rich body of ‘unofficial’ work by women emerged during and after the war, and this forms the bulk of the Women War Artists exhibition, documenting everything from queues at the fishmongers (fish was popular because it wasn’t rationed) to shipyards and weapons factories, bombed out streets and army camps and hospitals.


To my mind the most powerful work in the exhibition, and in fact one of my favourite paintings full stop (because I think it’s brilliant, not because I particularly want to look at it) is Human Laundry by Doris Zinkeisen. Commissioned by the British Red Cross to record their activities, Zinkeisen arrived at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, soon after it was liberated. Her painting shows a scene in the stable that was nicknamed the ‘human laundry’ in which survivors were washed and de-loused by staff from a nearby German army hospital before being treated in the makeshift hospital at the camp.

Painting - Human Laundry, 1945 Doris Zinkeisen

Human Laundry, 1945 Doris Zinkeisen

The contrast between the sparkling white uniforms and plump pink arms and faces of the German nurses and the grey emaciated bodies of the camp inmates is full of quiet horror. The ambiguous, unreadable expression of the foreground nurse and the blurred faces of the other nurses and the two doctors also contrast with the realism and detail of the water spreading across the floor, the texture of the metal buckets. What were they thinking, as they washed these half dead creatures? Whatever it is, we have no sign of their emotion. Then there’s the contrast between the tenderness and intimacy associated with washing somebody and the industrial, mechanical nature of this operation, underlining the sheer scale of the task. They found 60,000 sick and starving people at Belsen, alongside 10,000 corpses.

I know you know this, I’m sure you studied it at school just like I did. But that’s one of the main reasons war art is so important – it’s not just propaganda, it communicates the human cost of war more powerfully than the numbers do, or at least it does for me. I can’t imagine 10,000 dead bodies. I can’t really imagine 100. But I look at a painting like Human Laundry and I can grasp it, the horror of it.

However, I think the painting also contains if not hope, then the possibility of hope (or at least I feel it does compared to photographs of the same scene) The hope of a new beginning is present in the symbolism of washing, and in the way that the water spreads like a shadow across the bottom of the painting, but the people are picked out in light.

A woman’s place

Across the way from the exhibition is another gallery, which is just called ‘The Art Collection’ and looks to be part of the museum’s permanent exhibitions. There are some very fine works in there as well (John Piper! Paul Nash! <3) but my companions couldn’t find any by women. I hope that when the Women War Artists exhibition closes in January some of the works will remain on permanent display alongside the works of male artists rather than being returned immediately to the vaults and forgotten all over again.

  1. I wrote an article about that here, if you’re interested. []
3 Responses leave one →
  1. caracolquiscol permalink
    June 8, 2011

    I fucking love this post!
    I fucking adore this blog!
    Everyday gets better. Thank you very much.

  2. Sarah J permalink*
    June 8, 2011

    Oh wow, thank you so much! It’s great to know people are reading and enjoying what we write (well, ‘enjoying’ might not be the right word for this post, but you know what I mean ;-) Thanks for the love!

  3. June 9, 2011

    Oh, I had no idea this was on. I think I might go visit tomorrow!

    Thanks for the heads up!

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