Stephen McGinty: The art of capturing war

Michael St Maur Sheil, holds the 'Loos Football' in front of his painting of the battle Picture: Scott Louden
Michael St Maur Sheil, holds the 'Loos Football' in front of his painting of the battle Picture: Scott Louden
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IT WAS around two o’clock on a Sunday morning in the summer of 1984 that I became personally aware of the “horrors of war”.

I was 12, our family had recently rented a video recorder and my Saturday nights now consisted of watching movies, usually into the small hours. The double bill that evening was The Verdict starring Paul Newman and Gallipoli starring a young Mel Gibson. As a 12-year old I was not aware of the First World War, nor the disastrous Allied campaign to take out the Ottoman Empire, but I had heard of the place through listening to And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

The song, written by the Scots folk singer Eric Bogle, was the reflections of an old man looking back to his enlistment with the Australian New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and contained the haunting line: “For ten weary weeks I kept myself alive while around me the corpses piled higher”.

I wasn’t aware until many years later that Peter Weir’s film, made in 1980, was one of the first movies funded by Rupert Murdoch, who would go on to own 20th Century Fox and that his investment was personal. His father Keith Murdoch had been a war correspondent at Gallipoli and was among the first to highlight the incompetence and waste of human life in that flawed military campaign.

However, on that distant summer night I only cared about the characters, two young runners, competitors on the dusty tracks of their native Australia who find themselves dodging bullets amid the dust, heat and flies of the trenches in what is now modern-day Turkey. The end of the film sees Mel Gibson’s character despatched to run through the trench lines to find out if a third futile attack is to go ahead after the huge casualties of the first two earlier assaults.

He discovers it is to be cancelled and races back – but is seconds too late. The troops go over the top and his friend runs to his death.

The film was inspired by a single line in the Official History of Australia in the War 1914-1918, which refers to Private Wilfred Harper: “Wilfred … was last seen running forward like a school boy in a foot-race, with all the speed he could compass.”

The end of the film is accompanied by Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor and the combination of music and pictures affected me to the extent that such were my broken-hearted sobs that my father came downstairs to see what had happened.

Memories of that night were revisited, when I picked up a brochure for the Edinburgh International Festival, which begins next week, and which has scheduled a season of talks and performances around the title: War – what is it good for? Exploring the impacts of war and conflict on societies, cultures and creativity.

The plot of Gallipoli – runners despatched to war – is also echoed in Monday’s ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into the First World War. The youth and athleticism of the past ten days will pass away to be enfolded in a shroud of flags as representatives of the countries of the Commonwealth gather with the Queen at Glasgow Cathedral to commemorate their war dead.

As part of the Edinburgh International Festival’s strand on war and culture there will be a series of lectures including one on Gallipoli by Dr Robin Prior from the University of Adelaide, as well as a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time composed in a Second War German PoW camp. The same year, 1941, that Messiaen wrote his Quartet, Shostakovitch began writing his Leningrad Symphony from inside the besieged city of what was previously St Petersburg.

After writing the first movement amid the detonation of German shells he played it to his secretary then said to her: “I don’t know what the fate of this piece will be… I suppose that critics with nothing better to do will damn me for copying Ravel’s Bolero. Well let them. That’s how I hear war.”

How Shostakovich heard war had its London premiere on the BBC exactly one year after Hitler launched his invasion of Russia and in America the composer appeared on the cover of Time magazine, wearing the old fireman’s helmet he wore during the early weeks of the siege, with the strapline: “Amid bombs bursting in Leningrad, he heard the chords of victory.” Shostakovich was too valuable a propaganda asset to leave in Leningrad, so he was airlifted out to finish the work in the Volgan town of Kuibyshev. The microfilm of the score was later smuggled back into Leningrad where 16 starving musicians wrote each of their parts out by hand and played it while loudspeakers defiantly broadcast it to the enemy.

Given the background to both Messiaen’s and Shostakovich’s work, one would imagine that they would become the standard scores for film-makers wishing to illustrate the horror of wars and yet Oliver Stone reached for Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings in Platoon and Peter Weir used Albinoni as re-imagined by Remo Giazotto.

The ability of art, music, literature, poetry and paintings, to inspire people to endure the worst deprivations of war is an established and accepted fact. The finest culture elevates us even if only for a few seconds from our current circumstance which is why during the siege of Sarajevo people still risked their lives from sniper fire to listen to Vedran Smailovic play his cello. Or why the starving of Leningrad flocked to hear the orchestra for it opened a window to a normal world, a world that was now crumbling around them.

What I doubt is the ability of art to open the window for those of us in a world at peace and give us a genuine insight into a world at war. I know people will cite Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, his painting of the German bombing of the Spanish town, but for all its admirable qualities, do we feel terror, smell sweat, fear for our lives for even a split second? I don’t think so. What piece of art can? I’m a huge admirer of Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate about Russia and the Second World War. And yet for all the authenticity it can only be but a distant shadow of how it must have been.

Certain books such as Life and Fate, certain pieces of music like Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No 3 or The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, certain films like Gallipoli can engender a form of grief. I first heard Górecki’s piece three years ago when the RSNO played it at their annual curtain raiser at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. I knew nothing of the background, of how the composer was inspired by women who had lost their sons during the Second World War and words written on a Gestapo cell, but the emotions triggered were bleak but beautiful.

A sculpture in Berlin dedicated to the dead in all wars has a similar effect on me. It sits enclosed but under an open skylight and it is of a mother cradling her adult son. When the sun shines, she is bathed in celestial rays, when it snows she wears a shawl of white and when it rains, tears streak down her face.

Like all great pieces of art it has the ability to trigger an emotional response, but the reason why I think we do a disservice to those who know the reality of war by believing this can somehow provide us with an accurate portal on to a battlefield, is that the emotion is so fleeting and safe.

We close the book, we switch off the recording, we walk away from the sculpture and a 12-year-old eventually wipes away the tears, switches off the television and goes safely up to bed.