Mimesis: African Soldier @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I’ve reviewed three of the four already:

Across the corridor from these two spaces is a door opening onto a darkened corridor leading to a blacked-out screening room in which is being shown a new art film by John Akomfrah, titled Mimesis: African Soldier.

John Akomfrah

Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957. His mother and father were both anti-colonialist activists. His father served in the cabinet of Ghana’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. When the latter was overthrown in a coup in 1966, his mother fled the country with young John. Surprisingly, maybe, they fled to the epicentre of the colonial oppressor, to the home of racism and imperialism, to Britain, where John became a British citizen, trained as an artist and went on to become a famous and award-winning maker of art films.

John Akomfrah in front of Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

John Akomfrah standing in front of a screen showing Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

So prestigious has Akomfrah’s career been that in 2008 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2017 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Also in 2017, Akomfrah won the biennial Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art, having been chosen for the award for his ‘substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution.’

It is a story in itself, and one not without irony – how the son of vehemently anti-British anti-colonial activists went on to become a lion of the British art establishment.

Purple

I first heard Akomfrah’s name when I came across the massive multi-screen installation of his film Purple at the Barbican a few years ago.

In the long darkened space of the Barbican’s Curve gallery, Purple projected onto a series of massive screens a combination of historic archive footage of industrial life in the West – coal mines, car factories, shopping centres and street scenes from the 1940s, 50s and 60s – and stunningly beautiful modern footage shot at remote and picturesque locations around the planet with pin-prick digital clarity.

The purpose of Purple was to inform its viewers that humanity’s industrial activity is polluting the planet.

As a theme I thought this was so bleeding obvious that it made no impact on my thinking one way or the other: I just sat entranced by the old footage, which had its own historic interest, the 1960s footage in particular, tuggingly evocative of my own distant childhood – and enjoying the aesthetic contrast between the historic footage and the stunning landscapes of, for example, Iceland – which made me desperately jealous of the lucky researchers, camera crews and prize-winning directors who get to fly to such breath-taking destinations.

Mimesis: African Soldier

Visually, Mimesis: African Soldier does something very similar.

There are three big screens instead of the six used by Purple (the screening room at the IWM is a lot smaller than the long sweeping Curve space at the Barbican where Purple was screened).

Once again the screens intercut creaky old archive footage with slow-moving, almost static ‘modern’ sequences shot in super-bright digital clarity at a number of remote locations – both of which are fascinating and/or entrancing in their different ways.

The vintage black-and-white footage shows black African and Indian soldiers, labourers and carriers at work during the First World War. There’s a lot of footage at docks where all manner of goods are being unloaded by black labourers and heaped up into enormous piles of munitions and rations. Other footage shows Indian troops on parade, marching – and then footage of what appear to be black soldiers going into battle.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of an ‘archive’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

The modern sequences are completely different in every way. For a start they are in colour. They are shot with stunning digital clarity. But most of all they are very, very slow.

For, as with Purple, the visual contrast is not just between the black and white and modern colour footage – there’s a rhythm thing going on, too, in that the old footage has that speeded-up, frenetic quality (due to the discrepancy between the speed of the cameras it was shot on and the different speed of the projectors we now play it on) which brings out even more the hauntingly slow, almost static nature of the modern sequences.

In the colour sequences which I saw, a black soldier is walking through a jungle, very, very, very slowly, until he comes upon a skeleton hanging from a tree, and stops dead. Different screens show the static scene from different angles. Pregnant with ominousness and meaning.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

In another ‘modern’ sequence a handful of black men in uniform are on a wet muddy beach. The beach is dotted with flags of many nations, and also random crates. The men stare out at sea. They turn. One picks up a crate. Another takes off his helmet and wipes his forehead. All very slow.

In another sequence an Asian man in army uniform and wearing a turban is standing in a landscape of dead and fallen trees, and slowly chopping a piece of wood with an axe. Very slowly. The ‘bock’ sound of each blow of the axe is amplified on the soundtrack which, from amid a collage of sounds, sounds of docks, works, men, soldiers, guns going off.

By and large the loudness and business of the audio track contrasts eerily with the Zen slow motion movements of the black and Asian actors.

Installation view of a 'modern' segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Mimesis: African Soldier is 75 minutes long – long enough to really sink back and become absorbed and entranced by this audiovisual experience.

The message

So much so that it’s easy to forget Akomfrah’s message. This is that some three million African and Asian men served on the Allied side during the Great War, as labourers, carriers and soldiers, and their story – indeed their existence – is rarely if ever acknowledged.

This is spelled out in the wall label outside the gallery, in the wall label in the corridor leading to the screening room, in the ten-page handout to the exhibition, and in the extended prose descriptions about the film on the museum’s website:

And in the interviews Akomfrah has given about the work:

But having read all these sources and listened to all the interviews, none of them get me much further than the basic idea. All these texts just repackage the same basic fact:

Between 1914 and 1918, millions of African and colonial soldiers served in long campaigns that spanned the whole of the African and European continents, contributing to victories throughout the First World War. These soldiers from British and French African territories were brought to Europe’s western front, where hundreds and thousands lost their lives alongside unknown, unheralded and undocumented African labourers and carriers. Mimesis: African Soldier seeks to commemorate these Africans and colonial soldiers who fought, served and died during the First World War.

This information takes less than a minute to process and understand – in much the same way as I have in the past processed all manner of obscure or (to me) unknown aspects of this war, of the other world war, and of countless other historical episodes.

It was, after all, a world war. It had a global reach and consequences which are almost impossible for one person to grasp. A few months ago I was reading about the Mexican Revolution and the role played in it by the notorious Zimmerman Telegram in which the Germans promised to give Mexico back large chunks of Texas and other neighbouring states, if only Mexico would come in on the side of the Allies.

You could argue that Mexico thus played a key role in the First World War. Who knew?

To take another example, not so long ago I made a conscious effort to break out of the straitjacket of always viewing the war through the experiences of the British on the Western Front, and read two books to try and understand more about the war in the East.

Who in this country knows anything about the course of the First World War in Galicia or Bulgaria or Romania, let alone the vast battles which took place on the huge eastern Front? Who is familiar with the ebb and flow of fighting in little Serbia, which caused the whole damn thing in the first place?

Or take the example of another First World War-related exhibition I visited recently: I knew nothing about the role played by the Canadian army, which not only supplied cavalry on the Western Front, but also proved invaluable in setting up lumber mills behind the Front which supplied the millions of yards of planking from which the trenches and all the Allied defences were built. I had never heard about this until I went to the Army Museum’s exhibition about the painter Alfred Munnings who documented their contribution.

For me, then, the message that some three million Asians and Africans fought and supplied invaluable manual labour to the Allied side is just one more among a kaleidoscope of aspects of the war about which I freely admit to being shamefully ignorant.

Not being black, and not coming from one of the colonies in question, it doesn’t have a salience or importance greater than all these other areas of which I know I am so ignorant. Why should the black dockers have more importance than the Canadian lumberjacks? And why do their stories have any more importance or relevance than the millions of Russians, and Poles, and Romanians and Hungarians and Ukrainians and Jews who died in fighting or were massacred in the ugly pogroms and racial violence which characterised the war in the East?

Surely all human lives are of equal value, in which case all deaths in massacre and conflict are equally to be lamented and commemorated.

Art film as a medium for education

As it stands, the mere presence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum as part of this year-long commemoration means that all visitors to this part of the building will read the wall labels explaining the importance of the millions of Africans and Asians who aided the Allied war effort.

And since the IWM gets around two and a half million visitors, that’s potentially a lot of people who might have their minds opened to this overlooked aspect of the war.

But I’m not sure the film itself does very much to educate and inform. It’s an art film. It moves very, very slowly. The soundtrack is a disorientating mash-up of what is presumably the sounds of ships and docks and workmen with what seem to be African tribal music, chanting and so on. I get that this is the aural equivalent of the mash-up we’re seeing on-screen, but I’m not sure it really adds anything to anyone’s understanding.

In a nutshell, I’m not sure art films are an effective way to convey information about anything, apart from the film-maker’s own aesthetic decisions.

Comparison with Bridgit 2016

I had much the same response to Charlotte Prodger’s film, Bridgit 2016 which won the 2018 Turner Prize. It was intended to be a lecture about LBGTQ+ rights and gender and identity, but I found all the information-giving parts of it boring and sanctimonious (where they weren’t factually incorrect).

Instead, what I responded to in Bridgit 2016 was not the right-on, politically correct sentiments but the haunting nature of some of the shots, especially the sequence I saw (like every other visitor, I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) where the camera was pointed at the wake being made in the grey sea by a large ferry, presumably off the Scottish coast somewhere.

The way the camera didn’t make any kind of point, and the way that, for at least this part of the film, Prodger wasn’t lecturing me about LGBTQ+ rights, meant that, for that sequence at least, the film did what art films can sometimes do – which is make you see in a new way, make you realise the world can be seen in other ways, make you pay attention enough to something humdrum in order to let the imagination transform it.

Which has a liberating effect, far far from all political ideologies, whether conservative or socialist or politically correct or politically repressive. Just that long shot of the churning foaming wake created by a big ship ploughing through a cold northern sea spoke to me, at some level I can’t define.

Which is better at conveying information – art film or conventional display?

Similarly, like Bridgit 2016Mimesis: African Soldier comes heavily freighted with the moral earnestness of a Victorian sermon (and it’s as long as a Victorian sermon, too, at a hefty 75 minutes).

Akomfrah wants ‘Britain’ to ‘acknowledge’ the contribution of these millions of colonial subjects who fought and died for their imperial masters.

OK. I accept it immediately without a quibble, and I can’t imagine anyone anywhere would disagree. Isn’t this precisely what visiting museums is all about? That visitors are bombarded with all kinds of information and facts about the subjects of exhibitions they have chosen to visit? That people visit museums to learn.

And if the aim of the film is to educate, you can’t help wondering whether the point wouldn’t have been better made, more impactful, if it had been replaced – or maybe accompanied – by a more traditional display of hundreds of photos of the time accompanied by wall labels giving us facts and figures and, maybe, the stories and experiences of half a dozen African and Asian soldiers.

The rise and rise of the ‘forgotten voices’ trope

But as I reread the text around the film asserting that its aim was to restore an overlooked aspect of the history of the war, to rediscover lost voices, and restore people to their rightful place in history, I found myself more intrigued by this aspect of the display – the claim to be rediscovering, reclaiming and restoring – rather than its actual content.

How each era gets the history it requires

History is written for its times, responding to the cultural and economic needs of its day.

Machiavelli wrote his histories of Rome as warnings to Renaissance princes. Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution to thrill Victorian society with a vision of how Great Men direct the course of events.

The often-ridiculed ‘Whig’ historians reassured their liberal-minded readers by writing British history as if the whole thing, from Magna Carta to the reform acts of the 1800s, demonstrated the inevitable rise of the best and fairest possible liberal democracy.

Tougher minded Edwardian historians set out to show their readers that the British Empire was a force for peace and the enlightened development of the colonies.

The historians I read as a student (Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill) were Marxists who showed in their particular areas (the long nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution, the British Civil War, respectively) that history consisted of class struggles which confirmed Marx’s underlying theory of a dynamic and the forward march of history which would inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution.

And so they were very popular among students as the Cold War 1950s turned into the heady student revolutions of the 1960s and on into the strike- and violence-soaked 1970s and 1980s.

But, as I understand it, during the 1970s and 80s there was also a reaction against these grand, high-level (and very left-wing) narratives among a younger generation of historians who decided instead to specialise in provincial studies of particular localities (I’m thinking of John Morrill’s studies of Chester or David Underdown’s studies of the West Country during the Civil War). These tended to show that events at a local level were much more complicated than the lofty, and dogmatic, Christopher Hill-type versions suggested.

And it’s possible to see these reactions against the Marxist historians as a symptom of the way that, throughout society, the old communist/socialist narratives came to be seen as tired and old fashioned, as Mrs Thatcher’s social revolution changed British society and attitudes in the 1980s.

But another trend, when I was a student in the 1980s, was a growing move towards apolitical oral history, with a rash of books telling the ‘untold stories’ of this, that or the other constituency – generally the working classes, the class that didn’t make policies and diplomacy and big speeches in the House of Commons, the ordinary man or woman throughout history.

I’m thinking of Lyn MacDonald’s accounts of the key battles of the First World War in which she relied heavily on letters and diaries with the result that her books were marketed as telling ‘the untold stories of…’, ‘giving a voice to…’ the previously ignored common squaddie.

This ‘popular’ approach prompts pity and sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ of the past without being overtly left or right-wing, and it is an approach which hasn’t gone away, as these recent book titles indicate:

  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of D-Day’ by Roderick Bailey
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust’ by Lyn Smith
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Second World War’ by Max Arthur
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Burma’ by Julian Thompson
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Falklands’ by Hugh McManners
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine’ by Xun Zhou

To bring us up to date, the end of the Thatcher era coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism as a viable political theory. I’ve watched as over this period, the past 30 years, increasing numbers of progressive thinkers, writers, historians, artists and so on have become steadily more in thrall to questions of identity – especially the twin issues of race and gender – which have spread out from academia to become two of the broader, defining issues of our time.

And watched as a new generation of historians, including many women and black and Asian historians, has arisen which has packed bookshelves, magazines, radio and TV programmes with new interpretations of history which ‘restore’ the place of women and non-white figures in British and world history.

Combining all this, we arrive at the present moment, 2019, where there is:

  1. more cultural production than ever before in human history, with an unprecedented number of poems, plays, radio programmes, TV documentaries, films and art works ranging over all of recorded history in search of subjects and people from the past to restore, revive and reclaim
  2. and this unprecedented output is taking place in an age obsessed by identity politics, and so is ever-more relentlessly conceived, produced and delivered in terms of identity, specifically the two great pillars of modern progressive ideology, race and gender

Adding the ‘forgotten stories’ trope to the inexorable rise of identity politics helps to explain the explosive proliferation of books, plays, movies, documentaries and radio programmes which use the same rhetorical device of reclaiming the stories of unjustly forgotten women and unjustly forgotten people of colour from pretty much any period of the last 3,000 years. Thus, to give just a few examples of each:

Forgotten Women

  • 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Anne Seymour, Jane Dudley & Elisabeth Parr
  • Ladies of Lascaris: Christina Ratcliffe and The Forgotten Heroes of Malta’s War
  • Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Margaret Douglas, Mary Howard & Mary Shelton
  • Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I
  • Roaring Girls: The forgotten feminists of British history
  • Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans
  • Invisible Women. Forgotten Artists of Florence
  • War’s Forgotten Women
  • Forgotten Desert Mothers, The: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women
  • When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Forgotten people of colour

  • Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • The Forgotten Black Cowboys
  • Forgotten black TV and film history
  • 5 Forgotten Black and Asian Figures Who Made British History
  • Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion
  • The Forgotten Black Heroes of Empire
  • Black servicemen: Unsung heroes of the First World War
  • Forgotten? : Black Soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo
  • The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War
  • Black Athena: The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

My point is that the whole notion of listening to ‘forgotten voices’ and restoring ‘forgotten histories’ has become a central trope of our times, and moreover it is, a moment’s thought suggests, a potentially bottomless well of material.

Once you have accepted the premise that we need to hear the voices of everyone who has ever lived, then there is potentially no end to the number of forgotten women whose voices we need to hear and whose stories we need to be told, just as there is no end to the number of forgotten black slaves, entrepreneurs, soldiers, heroes, scientists, writers, pioneers, cowboys, immigrants, poets and artists whose voices need to be heard and whose stories need to be told.

A flood of forgotten voices

To return to Akomfrah’s film, what I’m trying to do is understand the times I live in, and understand how a politically-committed work of art like Mimesis: African Soldier fits into it.

My view is that the Imperial War Museum commissioning this piece, and John Akomfrah making it, are very much not ground-breaking or innovative.

The opposite. Mimesis: African Soldier is smack bang in the centre of the cultural mood of our times. We are in the middle of an absolute flood of such productions:

I’m not saying any of this ‘forgotten history’ is untrue or unworthy. I’m just pointing out that each era gets the ‘history’ it asks for and, on some level, needs. That societies write history not to reveal any ‘truth’ (there is no fixed historical ‘truth’) but to manufacture the stories they need to sustain their current social and cultural concerns.

For reasons which are a little too deep to be tackled in this blog post, our culture at the moment is undergoing an obsessive interest in identity politics, focusing in particular on the twin issues of race and gender. ‘Diversity’, already a major concern and ubiquitous buzzword, will only become more and more dominating for the foreseeable future.

And so history retold from the perspectives of race and gender, history which perfectly reflects the concerns of our day and age –  is what we’re getting.

And, of course, it’s popular and fashionable. And lucrative.

History retold from the perspectives of race and gender is the kind of history which historians know will get them academic posts and high student approval marks from their evermore ‘woke’ pupils, the kind of history TV companies know will get them viewers, which publishers know will get them readers, and which artists know will get them museum commissions and gallery exhibitions.

Summary of the argument

All of this is intended to show that, if I have a relaxed approach to the political content of Akomfrah’s film, if I read that millions of blacks and Asians laboured and fought for the European empires and accept it without hesitation, filing it next to what I’ve also recently learned about Canadian lumberjacks, or about the troops who fought and died in Palestine or East Africa – it is not out of indifference to the ‘issue’. It is:

1. Because, on a personal level, there are hundreds of aspects of the First World War which I don’t fully understand or comprehend, and all kinds of fronts and campaigns which I am pitifully ignorant of – and I am pretty relaxed about living with that ignorance because life is short and I have umpteen other calls on my time.

2. Because, on a cultural level, Mimesis: African Soldier can be seen as just one more artifact in the tsunami of cultural products in our time which all claim to be unearthing ‘the untold story’ and restoring ‘the forgotten voices’ and putting the record straight on behalf of neglected women, ignored people of colour and any number of other overlooked and oppressed minorities.

I am trying to understand my complete lack of surprise at finding the film on show here, or at its subject matter, and the complete lack of factual or historical illumination I felt when watching it.

Summary on the film

The political motivation behind Akomfrah’s piece is worthy, if entirely uncontroversial.

And because it has no voiceover or captions and because it relies for understanding and meaning on the introductory wall labels, the film is not that effective as purely factual information. A conventional display would have been infinitely more informative. In fact, in his interviews, Akomfrah emphasises the enormous amount of research which went into the making of the film. Well, following that line of tnought, I couldn’t help thinking the whole project would make significantly more impact if it was accompanied by a book which dug really deeply into the subject, with maps and figures and deeper explanations, explaining just how many people came from each colony, willingly or unwillingly, how they were deployed, the special conditions they worked under, and so on, all liberally illustrated with – that favourite trope of our times – the actual stories of African and Indian soldiers in their own words. Ironically, there are no voices in the film: just silent and slow moving actors.

But quibbles about its meaning and purpose and its place in broader cultural movements aside, there is no denying that, as a spectacle, Mimesis: African Soldier is wonderfully hypnotic and tranquilising. The archive footage is artfully selected, the contemporary sequences are shot in stunning digital clarity, the two are edited together to make entrancing viewing.

And, just as with Purple, Mimesis allows the viewer’s mind to take the archive footage and modern scenery (its foggy jungles and muddy beaches and lonely Asian chopping wood) as starting points from which to drift off into reveries of our own devising, making our own connections and finding our own meanings.

Installation view of the 'beach' sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of the ‘beach’ sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918 @ the Army Museum

The story

During the First World War, Canadian multi-millionaire press baron Max Aitken (b.1879) made it his mission to document the war effort of his compatriots. He set up the Canadian War Records Office in London, and made certain that news of Canada’s contribution to the war was printed in Canadian and British newspapers.

Aitken also commissioned artists, photographers, and film makers to record life on the Western Front. In 1916 he established the Canadian War Memorials Fund, a charity that commissioned artists to record the war. The Fund ended up employing some 100 artists, resulting in over 800 paintings, prints and sculptures.

One of these was Alfred Munnings. Born in Suffolk in 1878, Munnings had progressed through apprenticeship to a Norwich printer, to Norwich Art School, and then had some of his works selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (1899). Throughout the Edwardian era he made a minor name for himself as a painter of landscapes and horses, especially in Cornwall, where he became associated with the Newlyn School of painters.

When the First World War broke out Munnings volunteered for the army but was rejected due to the (amazing) fact that he was blind in one eye, having managed to damage it in a bramble bush aged 20.

In 1917, his participation in the war was limited to a civilian job outside Reading processing tens of thousands of Canadian horses en route to France. Later that year he was assigned to one of the horse remount depots on the Western Front.

It was at this point that he was contacted by the Canadian War Memorials Fund and commissioned to record the activities of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. He made numerous paintings of officers and men on horseback, marching, training, resting, watering the horses. All of this was well behind the lines for Munnings never saw any kind of action. Only one of the paintings in this exhibition shows the cavalry in combat, mounting a charge, and this was an imaginative reconstruction of a charge he didn’t witness.

On the basis of his popularity with the cavalry, Munnings was then invited by the Canadian Forestry Corps to tour their work camps, and he produced drawings, watercolors and paintings showing draft horses and men involved in the arduous work of chopping down trees, shaping and hewing them and piling them on horse-drawn carts to be transported to lumber mill and the finished planks sent, again by horse-drawn carts, to the front.

These paintings shed light on an under-reported aspect of the war – not only the use, by both sides, of millions of horses as draft animals, but the use of lumber as a material which needed to be felled, drawn to lumber mills (themselves constructed behind the lines) with the planking then also taken to the front by horse.

Thus by the end of the war he had produced a large number of drawings, sketches and some 44 oil paintings depicting

  1. the Canadian cavalry
  2. the Canadian Forestry Corps
  3. landscapes, rather idyllic landscapes of the scenery well behind the front

In January and February 1919 the Royal Academy held an exhibition displaying 355 art works produced through the Canadian War Memorials Fund, including forty-five paintings by Munnings. His paintings received praise from critics and visitors alike.

This body of work, and publicity from the RA exhibition, laid the foundation for Munnings’ post-war career. He spent the next thirty years painting old-fashioned equestrian portraits for an impressive number of aristocratic and upper class clients, as well as producing a large number of paintings of race horses.

In 1919 Munnings was admitted to the RA, and 25 years later, for his unbending commitment to utterly conventional political and artistic tastes, Munnings was elected president of the Royal Academy (1944) and then knighted. In recent decades his racehorse paintings have become very collectible and one was auctioned for nearly $8 million in 2007.

The exhibition

This exhibition is the first time Munnings’s forty-five paintings made for the Canadian War Memorials Fund have been reunited and shown together since that Royal Academy exhibition 100 years ago.

(Almost all of the paintings have been loaned from the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and, once it closes here in the Army Museum, the exhibition will move on to the Munnings Art Museum in Munnings’s old house at Dedham in Suffolk.

The paintings

Once you’ve seen the first few, you immediately get Munnings’s style, which doesn’t change much.

It is Newlyn School-style plein air realism, without the wonderful luminousness of, say, Henry Scott Tuke or the charm of Stanhope Forbes. He uses wide thick semi-impressionist brushstrokes but for a solidly realistic goal.

I was put off by the gloss finish of much of the oil which reflects the gallery lights. You have to find the right angle not to be distracted by reflections. Then again, the further back you stand, the more effective this kind of semi-impressionistic style becomes.

Idyllic landscape

You can see the influence or the similarity with similar idyllic sunlit landscapes of the Newly School painters. And the two fancy-free Edwardian children at left, little girl with straw boater.

A Stream Bed at Labergement, Jura Forest by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

A Stream Bed at Labergement, Jura Forest by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

The Canadian Cavalry

There are a dozen or so paintings like this showing the Canadian cavalry marching along a straight French road, along another straight French road, stopping by a stream, bivouacking among tents, marching along another straight French road, punctuated by the one imagined depiction of a charge. They all have a sort of muddy realism.

Fort Garry's on the march by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Fort Garry’s on the march by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Timber work

I think the subject of work, real work, hard work, physical labour, is often absent from both literature and art, and I welcome its depiction.

Did you know that the Canadian Forestry Corps was established in 1916 to supply wood for the war? Some 22,000 soldiers served in Scotland, France and England, ‘wielding axes and saws instead of rifles and machine guns’. These forestry units produced 70% of the lumber used by the Allied armies on the Western front. They look used to it. These paintings could have been done in Canada, they capture so well the lumberjack spirit. They were, according to Munnings, ‘grand fellows’.

Felling a tree in the Vosges by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Felling a tree in the Vosges by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Equestrian portraits

This is the kind of utterly conventional equestrian portrait which inspired hundreds of aristocrats to commission Munnings to do their portraits in the 1920s and 30s and which made him a rich man. To my eye, it’s an adequate enough depiction of the subject but surprisingly rough and loose. It lacks precision and vim. The commentary several times remarked on the accuracy of Munnings’s portraits but they look like generic posh chaps to me. I kept being reminded of the ineffable tedium of Siegfried Sassoon’s book, Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man.

Captain Prince Antoine of Orleans and Braganza by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Captain Prince Antoine of Orleans and Braganza by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Display cases

There were three or so display cases showing a range of authentic memorabilia from the period and from the cavalry Munnings depicted – bridle, stirrups, brushes and grooming equipment, a rifle and bullets, some medals – each with an interesting, sometimes poignant, story behind it.

Installation view of Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918 at the Army Museum (photo by the author)

Installation view of Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918 at the Army Museum (photo by the author)

Anecdotes not art

When you consider what had been going on in Continental art for several generations before this – the Impressionists, van Gogh, Gauguin, then Matisse and the Fauves, Picasso and Cubism, German Expressionism, Die Brücke, Der Blaue Reiter, Italian Futurism – you realise that Munnings’s whole approach could hardly have been more conservative and old fashioned.

A moment’s reflection on just the English painters who served as war artists – like Stanley Spencer or Paul Nash or the fabulous C.R.W. Nevinson – makes you realise how heroically fuddy-duddy Munnings’ paintings are.

Let alone memories of Tate Britain’s recent Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One exhibition. That tried to capture the incredible explosion of creativity which took place all across the continent, during and immediately after the war. Next to any of it, Munnings is a Sunday afternoon crossword in Country Life.

On the positive side, if you ignored its failings as art and remember that he saw no actual fighting, then it’s possible to that Munnings did a good and responsible job of reporting what he did see, life and work behind the lines.

His paintings have a lot of anecdotal and historical value, and the exhibition is larded with all kinds of interesting information about a) the role of horses b) the role of the Canadians and c) the role of lumber and wood, in the war on the western Front, all of which are rather neglected subjects.

For example, did you know that horse fodder was the single largest commodity shipped to the front by some countries? Did you know that the charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron at the Battle of Moreuil Wood, in 1918, was ‘the last great cavalry charge’ of the British Army?

Did you know that the Canadian lumberjacks were so productive that British imports of lumber fell from 11.6 million tonnes in 1913 to 2 million tonnes in 1918? No, neither did I. Initially much of this lumber had had to be carried on ships crossing the Atlantic. Since German submarines sank a high percentage of these, it was vitally important that the space given to wood declined so drastically, making way for food and munitions. So much so that a contemporary wrote that the Canadian Forestry Corps ‘helped to defeat the submarine… more surely than a fleet of ships.’

There are a number of paintings of working lumbermills which are very atmospheric. They cut tens of thousands of planks a day. One forestry company in the Jura mountains cut more than 156,000 feet of board in a record-breaking ten hours!

Lumbermen among the pines by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Lumbermen among the pines by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

‘Galloping Jack’ Seely and Warrior

There is a little section devoted to one particular fellow, Brigadier-General J.E.B.’Galloping Jack’ Seely, head of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. Seely’s horse, Warrior, became a legend and has had several books devoted to him. After an hour of posing for the artist, the Brigadier-General was called away and replaced, for artistic purposes, by his batman wearing one of his beribboned uniforms. The commentary tells us that Munnings and the batman were most amused that many of the cavalry trooping by at a distance sternly saluted the chortling batman. Munnings thought the Canadians ‘the finest fellows I ever met’. If you like that kind of anecdote, and you like this kind of semi-modern painting of horses – then this exhibition is for you!

Major-General the Right Honourable J.E.B.Seely by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Major-General the Right Honourable J.E.B. Seely by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Summary

From a purely technical, oil painting point of view, it is interesting to study Munnings’s technique, and see up close how he large and roughly applied brushstrokes which are impressionist technique in order to achieve essentially conservative, old fashioned realist effects.

It’s interesting to see what a scion of the Establishment actually looks like, the kind of crusty old buffer which the younger generation at Slade or Bloomsbury were reacting against. Fox-hunting men. It makes you realise the depth and breadth of philistinism which dominated early 20th century Britain.

It reminds me of the Courtauld exhibition, which is still on at the National Gallery, in which we learned of the struggles Samuel Courtauld had to persuade the National Gallery, or any British gallery, to buy works by van Gogh or Gauguin or Monet or Toulouse-Lautrec when they came on the market. Foreign rubbish, said the powers that be. They preferred Munnings.

Which is why American galleries ended up with all the best modern art and both the Tate and National have a very limited collection. Throughout the crucial decades, the philistines were in charge.

All that said, if you like paintings of horses you’ll love these. Personally, I preferred the ones of horses at work in the forests and lumberyards rather than the rather repetitive ones of cavalry trotting along French roads. Working horses of the First World War struck me as being a unique subject which no-one else had painted.

And the exhibition is packed with facts and figures – about horses and about the Canadian war effort – which are genuinely interesting, and shed light on your understanding of the war.

So, for me then, this exhibition – handsomely staged and full of informative wall labels – is more interesting as history and anecdote than as art.


Related links

Other Army Museum reviews

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

%d bloggers like this: