Claire Brenard
Friday 15 June 2018

Long before it was ever possible, people have dreamed of flying. At the start of the twentieth century there was much anticipation around the potential of new flying machines. By the end of the First World War, it was widely understood that a new dimension in war had opened and air warfare was a necessary element of modern conflict.

The Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917, and today our collections cover a century of war in the air. A range of personal and thought-provoking responses to this subject can be found in our art collection. Artists have explored the subject by showing the awe and spectacle of flight, by revealing surreal aspects of aerial threat or by using abstract forms to convey complex ideas. Many artists are interested too in the dynamics of power between those above and those below.

The following selection therefore extends the theme to include different perspectives of war including surveillance, submarines and tunnelling. This theme of war above and below allows us to explore a diverse range of art from across IWM’s collection.

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1. Damascus and the Lebanon Mountains from 10,000 Feet, Richard Carline

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1. Damascus and the Lebanon Mountains from 10,000 Feet, Richard Carline

Richard Carline, along with his brother Sydney, was among the first artists to fly and draw their experiences. The brothers, both in the newly-formed Royal Air Force (RAF), were commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to travel to the Middle East in 1919 to record RAF activity there. 

An aerial view of Damascus and the surrounding landscape. A beige-coloured expanse of the town lies in the foreground. This is surrounded by dark green patches of land. Beyond the town and surround the land changes to steep hills, leading to the snow-tipped peaks of the mountains of Lebanon in the distance. There are several small clouds in the foreground.
Damascus and the Lebanon Mountains from 10,000 Feet, 1920, by Richard Carline.

This extraordinary opportunity allowed Richard to apply techniques learnt during his studies in Paris before the war where he had discovered the work of the Cubists and Wassily Kandinsky, experimenting with colour and unconventional perspectives. From the aircraft he could see first-hand an 'abstracted' view of the world below, where objects at ground-level appeared two-dimensional. At this height, Damascus below looks like a map. Beyond human-scale, the mountains fill the top half of the canvas with their presence. Carline's ground-breaking paintings, derived from sketches drawn in the open-air cockpit, conjure the vertiginous thrill and sensation of flight.

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2. Chislehurst Caves, Henry Carr

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2. Chislehurst Caves, Henry Carr

Air warfare, and in particular air raids on civilian populations, was a defining feature of the Second World War. At the beginning of the war, memories of the First World War and the Spanish Civil War had naturally increased the public's fear of air raids. 

a view of civilians sheltering in the caves. On the right a family sit around a table with a thermos of tea. Next to them are two figures making up a camp bed. Further into the caves is a figure sitting on an iron bedstead. Men and women sit chatting in deck chairs along the left wall.
Chislehurst Caves, 1941, by Henry Carr.

Between September 1940 and May 1941, the Blitz on British towns and cities caused the deaths of more than 43,500 civilians. During this time Henry Carr went to the Chislehurst Caves near Bromley in Kent to draw people's makeshift homes inside the natural shelter of the caves. He took these drawings to the War Artists Advisory Committee, part of the government's Ministry of Information. Many artists, including famously Henry Moore, were drawn to the subject of the communal air raid shelters. Their images of shelterers were encouraged by the Ministry of Information and very popular with the public. Carr had captured the stoicism and good humour of the people he saw in his images, and the Committee agreed to purchase his drawings. Such scenes helped to foster a perception of unity and national identity associated with the Blitz that endures to this day.

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3. Blue Baby, Blitz Over Britain, Edward Burra

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3. Blue Baby, Blitz Over Britain, Edward Burra

Edward Burra's Blue Baby, Blitz Over Britain demonstrates a very different response to the events of the Blitz. As an artist, he was intrigued with the ugly and macabre in everyday life, so he was well placed to respond to the new frightening reality of regular aerial bombardment. The 'Blue Baby' embodies the fear and trauma of the air raid, dwarfing the cowering figures below. 

a monstrous blue bird-like figure hovers over a desolate landscape. Clouds of smoke rise from rocky shapes on the ground. A group of figures cower in terror among the ruins of their homes.
Blue Baby, Blitz Over Britain, 1941, by Edward Burra. © The artist's estate

Burra often used bird-like beings in his work during the 1930s, and was influenced by Surrealist art as well as earlier painters such as Hieronymus Bosch, whose depictions of the afterlife featured demonic human-animal hybrids. This work plays on primitive concepts of terror by using a grotesque female beast to symbolise danger and dark forces.

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4. Follow the Führer Above the Clouds, Paul Nash

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4. Follow the Führer Above the Clouds, Paul Nash

Paul Nash too had an interest in Surrealist art, which had emerged in Europe during the 1920s. His use of collage in this work reveals the influence of the techniques of German-born surrealist Max Ernst

a surreal depiction of a squadron of German aircraft flying over a sunlit cloudscape, accompanied by a huge flying shark.
Follow the Führer Above the Clouds, 1942 by Paul Nash.

Nash, repulsed by the actions and the ideology of the Nazi regime, tried to create a new powerful, surrealist form of propaganda. He made a series of Follow the Führer artworks, offering them to the Ministry of Information for use in its campaigns. However, Britain's wartime propaganda bureau could not envisage them being widely understood by the public and turned them down. Today it is perhaps easier to appreciate the powerful message of enemy aerial threat conveyed by this striking image.

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5. War Series VI, 1988, Walid Siti

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5. War Series VI, 1988, Walid Siti

There are echoes of Nash’s Follow the Führer Above the Clouds in this work by Iraqi-Kurdish artist Walid Siti. It is part of a series he made as a response to the Iran-Iraq war (1980 – 1988). Living in London, he felt powerless towards the distant events in his homeland. He made the War Series as a kind of catharsis, to work through his personal reaction to news of the atrocities. Set in an imaginary burning landscape above the clouds, this apocalyptic vision of war uses the forms of birds and beasts to suggest threat and horror.

to the right of the composition is a mound resembling a human skull that pierces through a layer of cloud, upon which a dog-like beast stands along with a flag. Thick black smoke emerges from the mound and twists up across the sky, another dog-like creature brandishing a hoop shape falling down from the smoke. A bird-like creature is in flight above the clouds and a dark mountain top also pokes through the layer of cloud in the background.
War Series VI, 1988 by Walid Siti. © The artist.
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6. Drone 9, Alison Wilding

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6. Drone 9, Alison Wilding

The latest form of air weapon, the unmanned drone, is the subject of much current debate. Many artists have found US Reaper and Predator drones to be intriguing sources of subject matter. While Alison Wilding's drawings of drones do not have a direct political message, they show the aircraft as sinister and bird-like, hovering ominously in the sky. For Wilding, drawing is a key part of her practice as a sculptor, allowing her to explore shifting concepts of form and physicality. The multiple layering in Drone 9 suggests movement, as well as contradictory states of presence and absence.

Although she is best known as a sculptor, Alison Wilding's drawings have become an increasingly significant part of her practice. Her visual language is predominantly abstract, but many of her recent drawings make reference to recognisable forms of aerial vehicles, stealth bombers, missiles and, in this case, drones. Here Wilding does not make an overt political statement about the unmanned aircraft, which have become synonymous with contemporary conflict.
Drone 9, 2012, by Alison Wilding. © Alison Wilding
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7. Stealth, Peter Kalhkof

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7. Stealth, Peter Kalhkof

Like Alison Wilding, Peter Kalkof was interested in the strange and sinister form of new aircraft technology, in this case the US F-117 Nighthawk, the first 'stealth' aircraft. Kalkhof usually made purely abstract artworks, using colour and space to create a powerful impact on the senses. Here he explores his interest in philosophical questions of presence and absence by using a fragmented outline to show the menacing form of the craft. The 'foil-scatter' represents the radar that is absorbed by the plane rather than reflected back. Advancing undetected, the aircraft's all-powerful form creates a grid of control in its wake. Kalkhof also found the stealth aircraft's insect-like form compelling, exemplifying the paradox of humanity's creativity in devising the means of its own destruction.

a stealth bomber flies over a desert landscape. Behind the bomber the landscape is covered by a grid, ahead of the bomber the space is full of small shining particles. The body of the bomber is semi-transparent; small broken up black and grey shapes are visible within its outline, but otherwise the desert below can be seen through it.
Stealth, 1995, by Peter Kalhkof. © The artist's estate.
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8. The Control Room Looking Aft, HM Submarine, Francis Dodd

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8. The Control Room Looking Aft, HM Submarine, Francis Dodd

Francis Dodd made drawings of crews working within what was the latest submarine technology at Harwich in 1918. Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, he found himself surprisingly at home within the cramped conditions of the submarines. Rather than portraying underwater life as grim or disagreeable, Dodd reveals the calm and symbiotic relationship between the men and their confined surroundings. These carefully-observed drawings are a unique record of working life on board early submarines.

a view of an enclosed interior, dominated by a ladder on the left and banks of equipment and fittings. Four figues are depicted, two at hydroplane controls and one at the periscope.
The Control Room Looking Aft, HM Submarine, 1918, by Francis Dodd.
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9. Sappers at Work: Canadian Tunnelling Company, R14, St Eloi, David Bomberg

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9. Sappers at Work: Canadian Tunnelling Company, R14, St Eloi, David Bomberg

Created at the same time as Francis Dodd's work, David Bomberg's drawing is an example of the radical new kind of art that was being cautiously supported by commissioning bodies during the First World War. The Canadian War Memorials Fund asked Bomberg to paint a memorial to the men who tunnelled under St Eloi on the Western Front in 1916. They requested that he avoid abstraction in the final work and this study shows his innovative answer. Taking us inside the confined space, we look up at the men within their environment. The artist's use of flattened and stylised forms serves to both distance and entice the viewer. The strain of the men, anonymous and entwined with their environment, also symbolises the wider war effort.

An intense scene of sappers from a Canadian Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers constructing a tunnel. The men are digging, moving earth and using pulleys and levers to erect support timbers within the interior.
Sappers at Work: Canadian Tunnelling Company, R14, St Eloi, 1918-1919, by David Bomberg. Gift of Sir Muirhead Bone, 1919.
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10. The Angels of Destruction, Norman Adams

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10. The Angels of Destruction, Norman Adams

Using powerful angular forms, Norman Adams's painting is a blazing depiction of aerial attack and a direct response to the US tactic of 'Shock and Awe' at the beginning of the Iraq War

Above a limbless figure sitting in an abstracted cityscape, blue cruciform shapes marked with RAF roundels fly in a sky crossed with pink and yellow searchlights.
The Angels of Destruction, 2002-2003, by Norman Adams. Gift of Anna Adams, 2007. © Norman Adams estate.

By reducing the shape of the aeroplanes to cross forms, he references the war's controversial portrayal as a 'crusade'. These forms are echoed in the grid of the city below, where a group of people are gathered around an armless figure, representing Ali Ismail Abbas. The plight of this Iraqi boy drew international news coverage when he was orphaned and severely injured after an air raid struck his home in 2003.

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