Imperial War Museums behind £2m project for new art on conflicts

Commissioning of more than 20 artworks is nod to 1916 government scheme to document first world war

Imperial War Museums has announced a £2m project for new art commissions depicting conflict, continuing a role dating back to the first world war.

The fund from royalties from Peter Jackson’s Academy Award-winning film They Shall Not Grow Old, which was commissioned by IWM, would ensure funding for more than 20 ambitious commissions bringing art to audiences across the UK, the museums said. Awards will range from £20,000 to £250,000.

The scheme reflected one first set up by the wartime government in 1916, which saw war art on an unprecedented scale, with artists dispatched to the western front “creating a record for society”, said IWM’s head of art, Rebecca Newell.

Thursday’s announcement was “a continuation of the engagement we have been supporting over the last 100 years”, with commissions covering artistic practice in the broadest sense possible, she added.

The first world war government scheme saw a marked shift from the Napoleonic-style, Waterloo-type paintings that had previously dominated, when war art mainly commemorated British triumphs.

“For the first time, artists were involved as soldiers, and older established artists sent out with the brief to record their experience, people’s experiences, to record what they saw, whether that was visceral or symbolic,” said Newell.

Back then, the government decreed half of all works would go to national institutions, the bulk to IWM where they are exhibited still today, and some to the Tate. The rest would be dispersed to museums and galleries across the nation, making it art for the people.

Muirhead Bone, an established Scottish artist known for his etched landscapes, was one of the first commissioned. William Orpen and John Lavery, both Irish and from the “glitterati of artists at that time”, were notable and influential in the field.

Henry Tonks, a surgeon and watercolourist, most famous for his facial disfigurement works, was another. Stanley Spencer, Christopher Nevinson and brothers Paul and John Nash were all dispatched to the frontline.

Detail from A Tank (1917) by the war artist Christopher Nevinson.
Detail from A Tank (1917) by the war artist Christopher Nevinson. Photograph: CRW Nevinson/Imperial War Museum © Artists Estate

The emerging voice of modernism was evident in conflict art, especially from the Slade, in abstractionism and cubism. “So, alongside these established painters, there was this new language being championed, which we recognise as modernism now, but at the time was revolutionary-type art – all being collected for the nation. It was everyone’s collection,” said Newell.

The IWM created its own first world war sub-scheme, in tandem with the government’s official scheme. This concentrated on the “home front” with a focus on women’s work, commissioning female artists and depicting scenes from areas such as nursing, ambulance driving, industry and laundry.

Fast forward through the second world war, the cold war, the Falklands conflict, where Linda Kitson was an official artist, through to Iraq and Afghanistan, “and there is a direct line all the way through”, said Newell.

Today the role of the war artist is completely different. “As a society, we understand conflict in a completely different way. For example, in WWI and WW2 there was clearly defined geography,” she said. When the censors ordered no depictions of dead enemy “there was a clearer understanding of enemy versus friend”, she added.

Artists today had to try to understand the “disembodied nature of warfare” which blurred the lines, she said, such as the absence warfare created, and the “hidden enemy” such as improvised explosive devices.

The challenge for new artists was how to capture some of those aspects of contemporary warfare – the seen and the unseen – which was the debate the IWM hoped its new commissioning would address.

The commissions can include performative works, such as theatre or ballet, or film-making. For Iraq, the IWM commissioned the film-maker Steve McQueen, whose work Queen and Country, on the theme of repatriation, took sculptural form, with a wooden structure containing postage stamp-sized images of deceased and injured soldiers. In 2017, it commissioned the film Electrical Gaza by Rosalind Nashashibi.

IWM will work in partnerships with cultural organisations to co-commission the new works as a continuation of its 14-18 NOW project set up to mark the centenary of the first world war.

Diane Lees, IWM’s director general, said more than 300 million watched Jackson’s film. But much had changed since 2018, with museums and galleries closed due to the Covid pandemic. “Financially, we know first-hand how challenging it’s been for cultural organisations throughout this period, which makes us all the more delighted that this money was set aside in such a way that we’ve been able to support others.”

Jenny Waldman, former director of 14-18 NOW, and now director of Art Fund, said of the Jackson film: “This fund is a tribute to his generosity and the enormous success of his film.”


Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

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