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Art, Men, and Masculinity in the Great War

Written by Laura Waters

People have been drawing people for millennia. Art is crucial to how we perceive ourselves, it both forms us and we form it. So when we think about identity during wartime, especially masculine identity as it relates to the male body, art is a vital source, often giving us as much information as written primary documents. Going into the Great War, we know that masculinity and gender expression were sometimes hotly contested in British society. The rise of eugenics, the classical body aesthetic, and the numerous debates over sports and exercise in schools all pushed and pulled at an ideal image of the male body, cementing its importance to one’s masculinity. As an added concern, men were expected to fulfil the role of heterosexual patriarch, to be domestic, to emote (but only within specific parameters).

We also know that, as men went off to war, their internal conflicts over masculinity, as well as social conflicts over its expression, reached a flashpoint. Joanna Bourke, Jessica Meyer, and Michael Roper, among many others, have written about the ways in which masculinity shifted between 1914 and 1918. But looking at art, we can see such shifts occurring—or not occurring—in real time, through the complex mental processes of composition and creation.

To begin with, if we look at art created by soldiers, both during their active service and after, we can see patterns begin to emerge. An excellent example can be found in the work of Henry Russell, who, like many other soldier artists, obscured whatever wounds he drew, and frequently portrayed men in more domestic situations. Russell, like others, made sure that wounds were made separate from the body, less disruptive to one’s masculinity. Though a man was wounded, he was still in control, and could still perform as the patriarchal and domestic figure. This can be seen as an act of working through, especially in the context of Russell’s own severe wounds, received during the Battle of the Somme, which left him emasculated.

Unlike Russell, however, is the art of Harry Bateman, which portrays the grim reality of bodily mutilation, fear, and death on the battlefield—as well as domesticity. But at its core, this art can be seen as another measure of gaining control. By stepping back and portraying the calamity and chaos of combat, the artist may remove himself from the scene, becoming an observer rather than a participant.

Slightly more complex in its figuration and conceptualization is the work of those individuals working as support staff, with relative closeness to the frontlines of combat, but an ability to leave its immediate sphere. Artists like VAD Olive Mudie-Cooke, through their positions as medical workers, saw no shortage of wounded men, though they themselves did not fight in the war. Particularly interesting are the ways in which Mudie-Cooke grapples with masculinity, as she emphasizes the containment of the wounded body and the domestic quality to masculinity.

Into this same category fall the likes of ambulance driver C.R.W. Nevinson, one of the far more famous examples of Great War artists involved with the official war artists scheme. Nevinson tends towards the avant-garde, the graphic, and the stylized, but, similarly to other artists of his ilk and education, his main emphasis is on the breakdown of traditional masculinity. Despite the variations between Mudie-Cooke and Nevinson, we can see a fairly concrete working through of masculinity in the face of wounds, a more complete project than is seen in the art of active soldiers.

Then there are those artists at home, men like James Clark, creator of the famous and widely reproduced ‘The Great Sacrifice.’ It is among their work that we see traditional ‘muscular Christianity’ take the greatest hold. Loss is turned into sacrifice, though this is more in the sense of the dead than the wounded. The wounded sit in a strange limbo, where they have given their masculinity as a sacrifice in the course of their duty, but still exist as man, and such complexities are seldom dealt with in home-front art.

Art can tell us a great deal about how different social groups conceived of masculinity as it related to the body during wartime. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the overview of art here shows us that there seem to be differences in such conceptions which are directly related to one’s distance from combat. While soldiers had the closest view of the war, they, like other creators of wartime art throughout the past, needed to consider survival rather than philosophical questions of identity. This is not to say there were not soldiers who philosophized in the trenches, but that their artwork shows a greater therapeutic emphasis on the ‘working through’ of masculine demands on their persons, bodies, and identities, often in situations where those demands (for agency, for heroism, for individual acts of derring-do) could not be met.

On the other end of the spectrum, those living at home, the most removed from combat, attempted to understand shifts through pre-established forms of iconography and conception. Religion was especially common, as well as more traditional and conservative art styles. Their distance from combat shielded them from some of its harder truths, and they might be left thinking about what they had lost rather than what the men fighting had experienced.

We are left, then, with support staff, who rest in the middle of this venn-diagram: they fall within the required proximity to combat to have personally formed experiences of it, but far enough that they can remove themselves from the constant strain of survival. This group has some of the widest variation in the art it produces, and perhaps should not even be called a ‘group,’ given just how widely its members differ. But it does prove to us that, sometimes, both experiential knowledge and the space for reflection are necessary to understand and unpack the requirements of gender and its performance. Being too close to combat, or too far from it, obscures the brand of masculinity needed to survive.

Laura Waters is a PhD candidate at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she is working on Great War depictions of masculinity in art. She holds an MA in War, Media and Society from the University of Kent.

Image Credit: ‘In an Ambulance: A VAD Lighting a Cigarette for a Patient‘, ©IWMArt.IWM ART 3051, Licence: IWM Non-Commercial Licence

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