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War Artist in Afghanistan
The first article of our December issue that I read this morning was that by David Hamilton on Contemporary Art.
I agree with him completely on the always uplifting effect entering the National Gallery has. We were in there only two weekends ago. I submit that the work of the National Portrait Gallery in nearby St Martin's Place would demonstrate that all is not lost among contemporary artists. The portrait that I remember from my visit in September, because of the subject matter of the article I was planning at the time was that of Lcp Johnson Beharry VC by Emma Wesley.
The first news website I turn to each morning is The Times and mindful of what I had just read the first article I opened was this, about Arabella Dorman the Official War Artist recently returned from Afghanistan.
Arabella Dorman, who spent a month as an official war artist this autumn embedded with the 2 Rifles Battle Group in the town of Sangin, north Helmand, returned with sketchbooks of images that capture the end of the bloodiest six months suffered by any British unit in Afghanistan.
The first picture she completed on her return a month ago was of Rifleman Daniel Wilde, 19, who died on August 13. He was helping to carry a comrade wounded in an initial bomb blast when both were killed by a second bomb planted in anticipation of such a rescue attempt.
The portrait in charcoal and chalk was commissioned by his fellow soldiers and presented to his family. They wept when they saw it.
She contrasts the work of war artists with that of war photographers and reporters. “Understandably, journalists and photographers tend to focus on the drama and the action that they witness rather than the quieter moments in between,” she says.
“As a portrait painter I am drawn to the human drama, the psychology and bravery. In the theatre of war, experience is condensed, there is an intensification of life.”
The biggest painting that she plans will depict the vastness of the Afghan landscape and a line of British soldiers tranversing it. “I want to try to get across the vulnerability of these foot patrols. They have no protection except their body armour and the man with the Valon mine detector at the front.
“The soldiers fight for each other much more than they fight for Queen and country. They fight for Rifleman Wilde,”
Forbidden by the Ministry of Defence from accompanying the soldiers on patrol, Dorman sketched their leaving — weighed down with up to 9st of equipment in 45C (113F) heat — and their return.
“Before an operation you would see the tension in their body language. The swearing goes up incrementally, the laughter becomes more and more high pitched,” she says. “They’d all come to me and say how fast can you do a portrait? And you’d know why they wanted it done".
I don't know if the drawing left is the one of Rifleman Wilde or another serviceman but her capture of his eyes suggests to me that there are artists working today who are capable of the same virtues as their ancestors.
The slideshow of her work is here.