Plenary Abstracts


Prof Brendan Dooley, University College Cork

End of War, End of Art

Art and war were closely bound in early modern cuture, due to the particular characteristics of each.  Many warriors were involved in the art world; many artists operated also on the field of battle.  Modernity in questioning the definition of art also questions the definition of war.  This talk will attempt to illuminate a selection of episodes ranging from Leonardo to Stockhausen.



Dr Paul Fox, University College London

Painting Operation Herrick: Jules George, Special Artist


Respondent: Dr Jonathan Murphy, University College Cork


In February 2010 British artist Jules George spent time in Afghanistan’s Helmand Valley with 2nd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment (2 YORKS). Seventeen months later he exhibited at Bonhams. This paper will examine how George gained access to Helmand; what he did while he was there; and how what he produced subverted expectations. It will explore what it means to be a ‘sponsored military artist’ today by comparing his experience with that of artists who have informed his practice – ‘special artists’ working in the field with the British Army in the late nineteenth century.


The bid

George exploited contacts to gain sponsorship by 2 YORKS and then submitted a proposal to MoD Public Relations resulting in authority to travel and subsist at the taxpayer’s expense. George, who specialises in documentary art, wanted to ‘reconnect with our rich history of military artists…a tradition which…needs to be preserved’. Yet his resulting work reveals ambivalence about the military culture he encountered.


The trip

George produced material for portraits, landscapes, and scenes of combat. In Helmand he ‘enjoyed the ceaseless banter and camaraderie of the troops, the young men and women always helpful…. I have the utmost respect for them and their courage’. He hints that he had less time for officers, who were guarded in their dealings with him.


His work

George was broadly in sympathy with the culture and activities of 2 YORKS. Bearing this in mind, the content of his work is significant in three respects. His decision not to represent corporeal violence demonstrates how his close relationship with soldiers influenced his choice of subject matter. Secondly, images of figures travelling (floating) through roadless landscapes suggest the absence of a strategic trajectory, and are intended as a critique of the Bush/Blair intervention. Finally, George presented his major work for 2 YORKS to the Warrant Officers’ and Sergeants’ Mess – not, as custom dictates, the Officers’ Mess. Meanwhile, his full-length portrait of a soldier in full ceremonial dress conforms to long-established pictorial conventions – but only of officers. By his own account, his work deliberately subverts expectations in subtle yet telling ways. He too was a ‘special artist’, but the social dynamics and risk management regime he negotiated were far removed from the experience of his Victorian predecessors.



Professor Paul Gough, University of the West of England, Bristol UK

 ‘Exactitude is Truth’: the search for authenticity and interpretation in the commissioning of artists


Respondent: Dr Jonathan Black FRSA, Kingston University


 Drawing on the author’s own (rather challenging) experiences as a military artist, this paper looks at the work of a number of British artists who have been commissioned to paint the face of war. Making comparisons with ‘Service artists’ in the USA, Australia and New Zealand, the paper attempts to examine the tensions that face any artists working to commission: the choice of subject-matter, the uneasy tension between illustration and interpretation, the need for factual and technical accuracy, and the overarching need for authenticity and historical verity.

 The paper also touches upon issues of agency and reception, and explores the many stresses that are at the heart of the commissioning process, stresses that often challenge the independence of the artist as interpreter, and raise fundamental issues of historical testimony and creative authority.

The paper will draw on the work of several British painters and illustrators who have worked intermittently for the British Armed Services in the past three decades, but will takes as its principle case-study a number of painters commissioned in the 1990s by the Permanent Joint Headquarters (UK) during the British build-up in the Arabian Gulf. A number of these painters have since been fully employed by units in the British army (and some overseas military units) to paint commemorative works related to active service overseas, largely in Iraq and more recently Afghanistan. Their working practices will be compared with the commissioning processes and expectations of artists from the First World War.

Like many artists from that period, the work of ‘regimental artists’ is often derided for being jingoistic, irrelevant and predicated on anachronistic representational strategies rooted in high-Victorian battle painting. Yet despite their marginal almost invisible status in the contemporary art world, a core of professional painters today work regularly for the British Armed Services to record, and occasionally commemorate, contemporary and past feats of arms, as well as more mundane public service duties such as ceremonial display and ‘Keeping the Army in the Public Eye’ (KAPE) tours. Their work is largely unseen by the non-military public, largely because it is intended for a closed community of serving soldiers, their families, and veterans who are associated with the unit. Yet, as a sizeable contemporary body of art work, it employs a number of artists of national standing and contributes significantly to the commemorative rhetoric of the British military.



Dr. Sabine Kriebel, University College Cork

Prophetic Mourning: John Heartfield’s Antifascist Imaginary

Respondent: Prof James A. van Dyke, University of Missouri-Columbia


Death’s heads resurface repeatedly in the photomontages that German Communist artist John Heartfield’s (pseudonym Helmut Herzfeld) published in the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung between 1930 and 1938, usually in metamorphic, enigmatic, or hallucinatory incarnation. Heartfield’s death-haunted theater of imagery alludes to a culture unable to put the Great War behind it, woven into a range of cultural practices from occult séances to popular cinema. Though the experience of trauma was widespread, it was invisible and impalpable, manifest in feelings of anxiety, paranoia, rage, fragility, and destablization. Heartfield shares with his contemporary Walter Benjamin a preoccupation with the emblem of the Totenkopf, or death’s head, as sign of catastrophe, both past and impending—and thus a mode of referencing both history and an imminent future in a single sign. In Heartfield’s photomontages as in Benjamin’s postwar analysis of the German Trauerspiel, beholding the death’s head awakens in the viewer a mood of both mourning and prophecy, terror and expectation. While engaged in two seemingly independent, unrelated projects—Communist agitprop and a scholarly Habilitation—the photomonteur and the philosopher are invested in representations of history as calamitous failure, using the shared experience of the First World War and the extended temporal structure of allegory in what turned out to be kindred endeavors of profane illumination and secular redemption. As I will show, Heartfield’s photomontages mobilize a culture of fear and its repression, memory and mourning, to suggest the real horror and anomie of capitalist society. My argument begins with Heartfield’s inaugural AIZ photomontage in 1930 and concludes with his final contribution to the magazine in 1938. Using these two photomontages as bookends to my study, as origin and end, proposition and conclusion, I provide a sustained analysis of photomontages that succeed in combining an irrational language of the collective unconscious with the accessibility and historical totality demanded by socialist realism. Their temporal structure interprets the present, invokes the past, and anticipates the future, in turn proposing a brand of socialist sur-realism rooted in the 1930s social imaginary.


Benjamin, Walter (1977). The Origin of German Tragic Drama. London: Verso.

Foster, Hal (1993). Compulsive Beauty. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kaes, Anton (2009). Shellshock Cinema. Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pachnicke, Peter, ed. (1992). John Heartfield. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.



Dr. Laura Brandon, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Canada

Otto Dix and A. Y. Jackson: Dispatches from the Curatorial Front


Respondent: Dr Virginia Teehan, University College Cork


I am trained as an academic art historian. I work in a national military museum, not an art gallery. My job requires me to curate art exhibitions – usually war art – for audiences generally interested in military history. I select exhibition content, interpret it, and write accompanying text whether it is for a wall or a book. I have done this for more than 30 years and the result has been a scary 46 exhibitions.

In the last 21 years – my time at the war museum – I have been driven by a kind of missionary zeal, which by and large has accorded with the institution’s own strategic vision. My first goal has been to share Canada’s national war art collection with Canadians. More recently it has been to let other countries know about it, beginning with Canada’s historic allies. With enormous financial and collegial support this has all gone relatively well to date.

Beginning four years ago, I added the new personal goal of curating an exhibition about war art involving Canada and combatant nations. In part in response to a marketing department challenge, I settled on well-known Canadian artist A. Y. Jackson and German art star Otto Dix, both First World War soldiers. I did not anticipate the challenges I would meet both practical and intellectual in bringing an exhibition about their war art and its impact to fruition. My complacency has been severely disturbed.

 Perhaps because of my generation, gender, and country, my scholarship has invariably been an exercise in rediscovery: first, an unknown Canadian woman artist and, second, a little-known Canadian military art collection. With unknown artists, when the works number thousands and no one else is interested in them, you have your pick for shows. From an intellectual standpoint, this means in an exhibition setting you can develop your thesis and never have any problem illustrating it. I have not experienced curating the already famous and celebrated.

My challenge with this exhibition has therefore been of a new order and has largely centred on Otto Dix’s work. As the exhibition developed, this proved to be increasingly unavailable. Unlike a book, article, or thesis, in an art exhibition visitors expect to see the real thing and the display should not raise uncomfortable questions like “Well, if this is about Otto Dix, why is there so little here?” In this presentation I will discuss the challenges my museum faced and largely overcame when it elected to put on an exhibition starring one of the most famous war artists in the world.

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