War Memorials

I am no longer an artist interested and curious,
I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting.

― Paul Nash

Paintings of wars may be our least favorite genre.

Unless they’re heroic—like The Death of Montcalm or Washington Crossing the Delaware—museums rarely display them, and you almost never see them in homes.

Given the thin market, painters have shunned the genre, unless commissioned.

Two of my favorites who worked on commission—both landscapists—were the British surrealist Paul Nash and the American realist Peter Hurd.

Paul Nash (1889-1946), trained at London’s Slade School of Art and the Bloomsbury Group’s Omega Workshops, worked on commission as an “official war artist” during World War I.

When the war broke out, Nash volunteered for officer training. A broken rib sent him home from the Western Front in June 1917 to recuperate. While hospitalized, he completed drawings of the front that were so well received they were exhibited in two galleries, and as a result Nash won a commission as an artist from the War Propaganda Bureau. He soon returned to the front and, with breakneck speed, produced in six weeks what he called “fifty drawings of muddy places.”

In a letter to his wife, the artist described the desolation he found on the battlefield. “I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country, more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature, unspeakable, utterly indescribable. In the fifteen drawings I have made I may give you some idea of its horror, but only being in it and of it can ever make you sensible of its dreadful nature and of what our men in France have to face. No pen or drawing can convey this country—the normal setting of the battles taking place day and night, month after month. Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere.”

Back in London, Nash turned his new drawings into oil paintings and mounted a one-man show, The Void of War, in May 1918. Critics praised Nash for depicting not men, but nature, as the victim of war. He would live another 22 years to paint pictures of the Battle of Britain, once again under commission; that time from the Royal Air Force.

Peter Hurd (1904-1984), trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and a student of N.C. Wyeth, worked on commission for Life magazine during World War II, attached as a correspondent to the US Air Force.

Hurd had been a WPA artist working in Texas when the war broke out. In 1942, the government chose him, along with 19 other civilian artists, to work in the Army’s new War Art Unit, formed to depict “significant and dramatic phases of the conflict.” Within only months, insisting it was frivolous, conservatives in Congress cancelled appropriations for the War Art Unit, but Life picked Hurd up and sent him to England.

There, Hurd created hundreds of illustrations for the magazine, acquiring in the process an ability to work faster and more loosely than his teachers had counseled.

Of the airmen who served as his subjects, Hurd wrote, “They have the look of veterans, these youngsters in their late teens and early twenties. They have looked death in the face repeatedly and know well the odds for and against their survival. But there is in them a will to endure.”

Pause to remember the dead in all our wars this Memorial Day.

Above: We are Making a New World, Paul Nash, 1918, oil on canvas. You are a Waist-Gunner (English Landscape from a Flying Fortress), Peter Hurd, 1942, egg tempera on board.