tue 23/07/2024

Perspectives: War Art with Eddie Redmayne, ITV | reviews, news & interviews

Perspectives: War Art with Eddie Redmayne, ITV

Perspectives: War Art with Eddie Redmayne, ITV

Oscar-winning actor proves that he did learn something as a Cambridge art history student

Redmayne visits the Tyne Cot Cemetery in Flanders, for Commonwealth casualties of World War One

The country is groaning under the weight of commemorations, exhibitions, publications and programmes all marking significant anniversaries of World War One, but the underlying message – lest we forget – remains as potent as ever, perhaps even more so in these tumultuous times.

Narrating this documentary chiefly concerned with the art of the First World War, Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne told us that the art described the indescribable, conveying what is beyond description. If that sounds unbearably fey it isn’t at all, for the surprise and interest of this programme was in fact two-fold: Redmayne himself and some quite unexpected facts.

Redmayne revealed that he read art history as a Cambridge undergraduate, had an early ambition to be a museum curator, and was further inspired to take a hard look at the period under review by his role in the BBC's dramatisation of Sebastian Faulks’s Great War novel, Birdsong. And as an actor preparing for a part he tried in a way to get under the skin of the quite remarkable men who enlisted in the Artists War Rifles or were official war artists. Thus with rather wonderful improbability Redmayne took us to Angels the costumiers and their racks of uniforms from all periods, to fit himself out for his visits to the Front (Redmayne with trench warfare historian Johan Vanderwalle at the Ypres battlefields, pictured above).

This reviewer could not imagine quite what new material Redmayne was going to show us, but in fact the emphasis was quite different from recent previous biographical films of individual artists. We saw some familiar masterpieces at the Imperial War Museum, from Sargent’s mammoth Gassed to work from the stores including extraordinary imagery from the greats of the period: Stanley Spencer, C  R W Nevinson, and Paul Nash inter alia. But Redmayne had also unearthed tiny models of the ships that were painted with dazzle camouflage to confuse German submarines, linking the designs to the innovative -isms of the period, including cubism and vorticism. We saw surprising imagery of the young women from the Royal Academy Schools, seated at tables as though in a schoolroom, who actually prepared the designs which were then applied in the wartime shipyards (pictured below, Redmayne with the Imperial War Museum's Richard Slocombe, in front of Stanley Spencer's painting Travoys Arriving with Wounded)

Our intrepid narrator visited the Sanctuary Wood Museum at Ypres, interviewed the grandson of the founder and walked the trenches, evidently the only exposed part of a Flanders battlefield still extant. Redmayne picked up some hideously heavy shell fragments, just the kind that brutalised the faces of the soldiers whose heads appeared above the trenches. Three quarters of the Western Front injuries and deaths were from these shells.

We visited the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, which holds a collection of the searing portraits by Henry Tonks (doctor turned artist and exceptionally influential teacher at the Slade) of the soldiers who were so horribly deformed. These were made both as a record and as an adjunct to the pioneering plastic surgery of Sir Harold Gillies; in fact there is a case for saying plastic surgery was invented in response to these Great War traumas.

What held the programme together was the ease and enthusiasm of Redmayne, whose passion to share his sense of discovery, and admiration for the artists, came across as genuinely unforced. He brought the programme up to date by interviewing Peter Howson, an official war artist in Bosnia in the 1990s who fell foul of the authorities by painting a rape scene he had not, for obvious reasons, actually witnessed. We watched Julia Midgeley sketching Andy Reid, a triple amputee from the Afghanistan conflict, still frankly coming to terms not only with his own injuries but the close friends who never returned (Redmayne with contemporary war artist George Butler, pictured below).

Redmayne concluded with a compelling reading of a ferocious letter by Paul Nash, writing of the war’s bitter truth, of the unspeakable, godless and  hopeless things he had witnessed. So yes, there was still much more to see and hear about war art. The specially composed music by Finn Keane worked very well to underline the episodes presented with such understated skill by Redmayne. Women of course were almost entirely absent as war artists, so it is worth noting that the producer and director of this highly informative and very disturbing film was Margy Kinmouth.  

What held the programme together was the ease and enthusiasm of Redmayne, whose passion to share his sense of discovery came across as genuinely unforced


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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I watched War Art and I must say I did get emotional with tears on my face as these paintings come alive and told the truth about what happened in the war. When I saw the medical paintings of men that have been effected by the war I looked into their eyes of those men and it tells you the story, some paintings were censored but I liked them because of the reality of them, but they were censored because if I'm right by saying incriminating as in to the public eye as it looked bad for those at war if that makes sense. Great ER you should do more documentaries like this!

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