On entering the Women War Artists’ exhibition one is faced by a wall of statistics highlighting the unequal opportunities of female war artists compared to those of their male counterparts. For example, the Imperial War Museum (IWM) outlines how in 1916 the government commissioned 51 official war artists that included only 4 women (and consequently 3 of these 4 had their pieces rejected). Such an opening ensures the show’s spectacular works gain respect not only for being created during difficult times of war, but also for the prejudice these female artists had to overcome.
The exhibition is comprised of four interconnecting rooms that offer a range of pieces from Linda Kitson’s 1982 Falkland sketches to the video installation of Mona Hatoum Measures of Distance about the conflict in Lebanon. Refreshingly they avoid an overpowering focus on the First and Second World Wars with works covering an array of conflicts throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This ensures that war as a concept rather than a specific historical event is at the heart of the exhibition.
…a burial site in Kosovo express the horror of genocide…
Most thought-provoking among the pieces on display is Frauke Eigen’s Fundstücke Kosovo. Eigen’s photographs of clothing and private affects from a burial site in Kosovo express the horror of genocide in an uncomfortably personal way. Whilst one can become worryingly desensitised to graphic images of dead bodies, Eigen’s photos are compelling due to their “everyday” quality. The normality of the items brings to light the reality that the owners will never come to claim these possessions.
The Struggle for Equality
Such artworks clearly justify a collection of women’s war art. In fact, by placing the show across the balcony from the overwhelmingly male Breakthrough art exhibition, the IWM suggests individuals like Eigen should be given equal attention to the more famous Paul Nash or C.R.W. Nevinson. Unfortunately the IWM does not continue this equality, and whilst Breakthrough has been open for three years Women War Artists is only open for ten months.
The exhibition runs until 18 January 2012.
Admission is free.
Image courtesy of The Imperial War Museum and Laura Knight