Imperial War Museums hold one of the most significant collections of British art anywhere in the world.

It includes around 16,000 works of fine art, comprising paintings, sculpture, drawings, artist prints, photography, films and installations.

The War Artists Archive – the minutes, correspondence and memos that provide an invaluable source for understanding the government-instigated war artist schemes of both world wars, expands the collection to around 94,000 items.

A number of artists who produced this work are highlighted in IWM's Visions of War: Art of the Imperial War Museums and many feature in IWM London's Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries.

They do not belong to a coherent movement. They are linked by a longer endeavour: to make an artistic record of war; or rather, using whatever media they work in, to reflect their responses to war and conflict as parts of human existence.

Here we explore these ten works over various eras of conflict, by artists as eyewitnesses, commentators, participants and activists who breathe life into discussion of war and conflict, their work offering new ways into ideas and subjects that can, at times, be challenging. 

Interior of a factory - workers stand at their stations. Shells in production are visible.
© IWM Art.IWM ART (4032)
Anna Airy, 'A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London, 1918' (1918).
Anna Airy, 'A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London, 1918' (1918).

Airy’s series of factory paintings demonstrate her mastery of paint; here, the red-hot shells are luminous within the darkened interior – although the workers and the structural elements are equally diligently realised.

A group of French troops resting. The figures are painted in dark shades of grey, black and navy. They are sat on a green mound of earth and light shades of blue and white depict the sea and sky in the background.
© Art.IWM ART (5219)
C R W Nevinson, 'French Troops Resting (1916)'.
C R W Nevinson, 'French Troops Resting' (1916).

In this painting, Nevinson’s troops are rendered with blocky angles and without individuality; they are part of a larger machine but have none of the dynamism and speed celebrated in Futurist doctrine.

Here, instead, is an exhausted, apathetic unit of men.

Here, three disinterested officers survey the chaos of the battlefield; their stillness provides a contrast to the frantic action of gunners. Heavily stylised, angular figures, these scurrying men are caught up in a struggle for survival.
© Art.IWM ART (2747)
Wyndham Lewis, 'A Battery Shelled' (1919).
Wyndham Lewis, 'A Battery Shelled' (1919).

Here, three disinterested officers survey the chaos of the battlefield; their stillness provides a contrast to the frantic
action of gunners. 

Heavily stylised, angular figures, these scurrying men are caught up in a struggle for survival.

An abstract depiction of bomb-clouds and mushroom-shaped parachutes comprising of pastel shades of green, blue and peach and darker orange and grey shades in the distance.
© Art.IWM ART LD (4526)
Paul Nash, 'Battle of Germany' (1944).
Paul Nash, 'Battle of Germany' (1944).

Nash’s Second World War paintings reinvented battle painting for the modern era. Combining his favoured motifs of bomb-clouds and mushroom-shaped parachutes, this painting is an awe inspiring and – more troublingly – visually pleasing vision of war. 

A study in red chalk (sanguine). A young, abstract childlike figure appears to be sat in a pose with their left arm outstretched. The background is deep red and the figure is white.
© Art.IWM ART LD (5747 e)
Mary Kessell, 'Notes from Belsen Camp, 1945' (1945).
Mary Kessell, 'Notes from Belsen Camp, 1945' (1945).

Kessell’s drawings are unusually abstract and ambiguous for WAAC imagery. In their simplicity, they embody humanity’s potential for both hope and desolation.

Black and white image of a human skeleton, replacing the skull is  a nuclear bomb with the wording 'Never again' overlaid in yellow.
Art.IWM PST 9152 © Peter Kennard
Peter Kennard, 'Never Again' (1983).
Peter Kennard, 'Never Again' (1983).

Never Again demonstrates the simple power of Kennard’s imagery, a deliberate strategy during a time when he felt protest images of nuclear war were in danger of becoming hackneyed.

In its title, the artist deliberately invokes the sentiments of 1918 to bring his message home.

A Cibachrome print, displaying a vast landscape comprised of minefields and collections of rubble in Afghanistan, with mountainous terrain in the distance.
Art.IWM ART 16793 © Paul Seawright
Paul Seawright, 'Mounds, from the series Hidden' (2002).
Paul Seawright, 'Mounds, from the series Hidden' (2002).

Like much of Seawright’s photography, Mounds gives a sense of a place filled with hidden significance and foreboding.

Afghanistan’s minefields were vast expanses of sand with no discernible features; here instead, the mounds represent pits of missiles and rockets, carefully collected by the mine-clearers and ready to be blown up safely.

Groups of people relaxing and enjoying an outdoor swimming pool in Sarajevo. Despite the mortar damage visible on the concrete wall beyond them, it is an optimistic scene, showing signs of normal life returning to the city.
Art.IWM ART 16818 3 © Ori Gersht
Ori Gersht, 'Vital Signs' (1999).
Ori Gersht, 'Vital Signs' (1999).

In this strikingly flat yet monumental photograph, Gersht shows people relaxing and enjoying an outdoor swimming pool in Sarajevo.

Despite the mortar damage visible on the concrete wall beyond them, it is an optimistic scene, showing signs of normal life returning to the city.

Visit IWM London's new permanent Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries to witness works by these artists among many more. 

Purchase Visions of War: Art of the Imperial War Museums

'Vision of War' book cover featuring a painting of a house collapsing on two firemen.
IWM

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