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REX WHISTLER: AN ARTIST’S DUTY TO CONSCIENCE & COUNTRY

October 1, 2012

It was 1938, the night after the ignoble Munich Agreement, the artist Rex Whistler dined with his friend, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Duff Cooper. The First Lord had, however, just that day, resigned his post, disgusted by the cowardly deal made with Hitler; a pact pusillanimously ceding the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland to Nazi Germany in an, albeit futile, attempt to prevaricate upon a likely European war. ‘War with honour or peace with dishonour’ was Cooper’s resigning flourish to this reprehensible surrender to fascism. Also in attendance at this somewhat forlorn dinner was the brooding Member of Parliament for Epping, Winston Churchill. The late-night conversation was, and could only ever be, about Munich. When some person doubted whether Britain was actually capable of fighting a European war, Rex Whistler forcibly interjected: ‘Surely that’s nothing to do with it! We should go to war if we think it the right thing to do so – not because we’re sure we’re going to win.’ His views were very much the same as his anti-appeasement friend Duff Cooper and, indeed, Churchill. However, at one moment, daring to play, almost quite literally, devil’s advocate, Rex put forward Hitler’s, and indeed many of the British public’s view, that the Sudeten-Deutsch, of German heritage and culture after all, might actually want, and perhaps were always going to be granted, self-determination. For this, Churchill heavily reprimanded the egregious Rex: ‘It is youyou who are to blame! – you who have brought us to this pass!’ Rex sank low into his seat.

But there were many in Britain who naïvelyrejoiced at the news from Munich. The pacifist and modernist artist Kenneth Rowntree, a Quaker, upon hearing the joyous tidings, created a collage to celebrate the guaranteed-peace – the so-called ‘peace in our time’ – depicting a white dove distributing olive branches to the various tabloids of multiple European nations, including Germany, Italy and France. Czechoslovakia was, however, conspicuously absent in this particularly pacifistic, wet and generally gutless work. Certainly, despite Churchill’s rallying, but largely ignored, warning about the rise of Nazi Germany as a fascistic force in Europe, the appeasers – those who really were to blame – had, for almost the entire duration of the 1930s, won out – some even believing that Hitler was merely bargaining, and justifiably, for the rights of his own people. Another war had to be avoided at all costs. So, too, was it the case that the British electorate, still emerging from a time of economic austerity, had shown no desire for a combative stance towards the build-up of Germany’s air and land forces. And throughout the inter-war period, Rex Whistler had, like many, lived his life and pursued his career whilst remaining almost entirely oblivious to the emerging monster on his country’s doorstep. Born in 1905, Rex was of a generation that was born just late enough to avoid the mechanical-butcheries of the Western Front, 1914-1918. As his mother remarked at the time of the Great War, of Rex and his elder brother Denny, she ‘thanked God that they were both so young’. Rather, Rex was destined to grow up as one of the Bright Young Things of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, but only on the periphery of this, his generation. As his younger brother Laurence later commented, Rex was ‘too poor, too industrious, and perhaps too contemptuous to spend time in a paperchase across the counters of Selfridge’s’.

Rex Whistler

Trained at the Slade, under the sensible traditions and teachings of Professor Henry Tonks, upon graduating Rex burst upon the societal scene in the early-1920s; one of his first major commissions being to paint the whimsical mural that can still be seen in the café of Tate Britain – this was not one of the iconoclastic whitewashes made by the likes of Ben Nicholson, far from it, but rather part of a revival movement for murals and paintings of whimsy, one which would only be half successful in this time of emerging high-modernism. But Rex was indifferent to the forces of modernism. As Rex’s brother noted, he was ‘an impenitent romantic in a generation which had broadly rejected this attitude.’ He was not  ‘contemporary’. Rex’s current world, his only one, was set amid the seas of history and, more particularly, genuflecting to the old rhymes of antiquity, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the present; thus his refusal to be uxorious towards the religious tenets of modernism and its high-priest, Roger Fry. Even his brother later admitted that Rex was ‘no rebel…  he did not want one value (art) to be destructive of another (loyalty) – or vice versa, of course. He wished all things to work together for good, and this involved some measure of renunciation.’ In the world of today, when aesthetes and critics erroneously believe that radicalism is the only courageous path for the artist to take, Rex’s attitude might seem backward, outside the so-called narrative of the age. But there was a tenacious heart beating within in Rex’s soul, one which could bring itself to reject the current trend – therefore, in this sense, he was the rebel, rebelling against the original insurgents. Which was the more radical position? It was also, importantly, his sense of history and old-fashioned sense of aristocratic values which had led him to the conclusion, in 1938, that yet another concession to fascism was not only cowardice in the extreme, but also, as Churchill believed, a shocking betrayal of loyalty to other nations, but also to the past.

Yet, in 1939, Europe was once again upon the edge of the precipice – Hitler having made a grab for Poland, despite the agreement at Munich when he had promised he wished nothing else, and would take no more, for Germany – and perhaps Rex did hear Churchill’s cutting words from the year before: ‘It is youyou who are to blame!’ Churchill was, and Rex knew it all too well, largely correct in this seemingly wide-sweeping attack, even if it was unfairly and so acerbically channelled at himslef that night at dinner with Duff Cooper. Rex’s generation (he was now aged 34) had failed to act against Hitler; and Rex was soon very soon conceding that: ‘I have a strong feeling that if anyone has to go and fight it is precisely people of my age, and not the young boys.’ His generation really had failed to live up to the task, more so the country’s artists – what had they done to prevent this? But if there was now to be a stand, it was his duty to his country and to his conscience that he should throw down his paint brushes and pick up the common British soldier’s rifle. And it was looking ever more likely that he and many others would have to fight, as Hitler’s tanks swept through Poland, then some months later into Belgium and down through France. ‘The Blitziness of this Kreig really is pretty grim now, isn’t it?’ wrote Rex in mid-1940. Yet the gallant whimsy – that typical English talent for self-parody, particularly and also more importantly, when one’s back really was against the wall – shone through at the darkest hour: ‘Then comes that glorious thrilling realization that we shall go down fighting harder and longer than any race have ever before – that we should go out in such a blaze of glory that the Finnish resistance – perhaps even Leonidas and his boys at Thermopylae – will be but tiny candles in comparison for ever after.’ All this appealed profoundly to his sense of history. But in such sheer adversity it was also impossible for Rex to entirely define himself as the artist. As Churchill so vividly and successfully illustrated, and even if it might seem absurd for an artist, for Rex, to attempt the same for himself, what was now needed, really, was the traditional phlegm and pluck of the tenacious soldier – and not to sit about making pretty collages.

Self-portrait in Uniform (1940)

So Rex signed up, into the Welsh Guards in May 1940. The day he got his uniform he painted his self-portrait in his rooms overlooking Regent’s Park. The painting (seen above) marked Rex’s transformation into the British, albeit somewhat awkward, army officer – his hat, marked with its regimental badge of leaks, and army belt placed upon the chair, yet paint brushes, rather out of place, redolently remaining in the foreground of the picture. Indeed, it was also at this time that many artists were being subsumed into Kenneth Clark’s War Artists Scheme; designed to create a visual chronicle of the war, but also to protect Britain’s most talented artists from being killed on active service with the armed forces. But as Rex’s brother later remarked: ‘[Rex] could not make up his mind if Kenneth Clark was right or wrong that artists were there to make art so that civilization be worth fighting for, a notion at once rational, alluring and distasteful; a notion that preserved Monet and Cezanne in 1870 when they went into hiding.’ Of course, the artist Frédéric Bazille, Monet’s great friend, had been killed in 1870, a result of his own conscience and need to sign up and serve in the Franco-Prussian War. The dangers of signing up were clear and stark, but, in 1940, ‘any new work Rex could do seemed pathetically trivial’. However, as it later turned out, Rex only ever made it onto a reserve list of the War Artists Scheme, and was never employed, being ‘not of his age’. But it seems very unlikely that Rex would have accepted a job with Kenneth Clark’s brigade of artists. Though he admitted that he wasn’t soldierly material, he nonetheless refused ‘safe’ roles on the Staff; determined to serve as a frontline officer. Indeed, he turned down a position as an instructor at a camouflage school and at another time came close to mutiny when he was almost posted to Divisional Headquarters. Rex, as ever, was still the same stubborn man, refusing to be told what he should do.

Rex’s painting (Lady Imogen Gage) “H R H the Prince Regent Awakening the Spirit of Brighton”

Most of Rex’s time with the army in England was spent preparing for the expected invasion of Hitler’s Nazi Europe. Serving in a battalion of tanks, he was responsible for a troop of around fifteen men, including three tanks named Olympus, Orion and Orpheus, which must, no doubt, have appealed to his sense of antiquity. But Rex was eager for the off, as he complained to his friend, the poet Siegfried Sassoon: ‘There is no need to tell you how appalling the boredom is, and I am almost impatient for the horror and misery of battle to begin, though you better than most, will know the full idiocy of such a wish.’ But Rex still found time to paint, decorating his officer’s mess, designing tank emblems and even finding the time to make portraits of his fellow soldiers. When billeted in Brighton, awaiting the invasion, he made a mural of a nude nymph. Whilst in the area, too, on leave, Rex had spent some time with his friend Lady Imogen Gage at Firle Place (near Lewes). Later, when Imogen visited Brighton alone to view the mural for herself, she was shocked to find that the reclining nude displayed features strikingly similar to herself. Then D-Day came. However, the Welsh Guards had to wait and were only posted to Normandy a few weeks into the invasion. Their first action was to be Operation Goodwood, designed to break through German positions to the east of Caen. Rex, being a notable senior officer within his regiment (at least proving that he was himself carrying out his strong conviction that is was the old men who should be fighting in the war) was made burial officer; his tank, Olympus, carrying twenty wooden crosses on its side. As well as this, Rex had had a special metal box fixed to the back of his tank by a blacksmith, back in England, designed to carry paintbrushes, paint and small canvasses; his intent was clear. A few days before the battle, Rex made his final artwork. Coming across a bombed chapel, he walked inside and with some pieces of charcoal and red and blue pencils drew a brief impression of the Madonna and Child upon a white wall. Rex Whistler was killed a few days later east of Caen.   

Rex (standing directly beneath the tank’s gun) and his men

Coda:

In late 1944, as the war in Europe was reaching its climax, but with Rex now buried deep in the earth of Normandy, a battling triumvirate of notable English critics – Sir Osbert Sitwell, the commentator James Agate and the essayist George Orwell – debated the supposed duty of the artist in wartime. The discussion, continued in column inches between Agate and Orwell, had originally been prompted by Sitwell’s pamphlet A Letter to my Son. Written in the fall of 1944, Sitwell had been Rex’s friend and earlier that year, in London, he had suggested to Whistler that he should think up some set designs for a future film adaption of his novel A Place of One’s Own.  Though not mentioning the death of his friend, not by name at least, the event of Rex’s death must have been in his mind, clearly, when Sitwell lamented that under total war, ‘“healthy citizenship,” as it is called’ – a term which would no doubt have appealed to Rex’s sense of duty – ‘under which every man is obliged to take a hand to repel attacks from land, sea and air brought upon him by his incompetence as a voter, sterilises all talent’. This was a précis that almost exactly summed up his friend’s demise a few weeks into Normandy. This healthy citizenship had, after all, resulted in Rex’s death at the age of thirty-nine, before he had truly reached his artistic potential. It had also killed other artists and writers; the promising talents of the artist Eric Ravilious and the young poet Keith Douglas (also killed in Normandy) had both been snuffed out by the war. How many more would it be? Sitwell argued that the nation’s intellect should be protected from the savages of the conflict, what he simply termed ‘the Great Interruption’. Asserting a premise that could not be proved nor disproved, he argued that England might lose a great genius of its future to the barbarity of the present. He contended that:

Had Mozart been a modern Englishman – or, for that, a modern Austrian – he would have [if not being killed outright] spent the last four years training to fight, fighting, or engaged in forced labour; and since he died at thirty-six, this would have constituted a large slice of his art-life. Conceive the loss to the world had conscription been in force!

Though Rex had volunteered at the earliest opportunity, rather than being conscripted later, Sitwell believed that the artist was a special case and that his career ‘must continue’, even in a time of war. Contributing to the war effort was not the aesthete’s duty. James Agate, quite rightly, found this to be a contemptible statement; rebuking in a reposting pamphlet, Noblesse Oblige: Another Letter to Another Son (1944), that, on the contrary, ‘in time of war a man’s duty to his country comes before his duty to himself or his art. I say that in total war the individual ceases to exist except in cases where his continuing in his individualism helps the war effort.’ The intellectual – the artist – was not to be exempted. Anyone not supporting the war, the fight against Nazi Germany, materially or intellectually, was simply rendering himself a burden. Agate, too, couldn’t resist a stinging re-write of a piece of Shakespearian rhetoric, spoken on another French battlefield, not too far from Normandy, by Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day:   

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers/ For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,/ This day shall gentle his condition:/ And highbrows still in England how a-bed/ Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,/ And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/ That fought with us upon Invasion Day.

George Orwell, reviewing Agate’s reply in the Manchester Evening News – and while suspecting an anti-intellectual tone in Noblesse Oblige – at least agreed with Agate’s central point that the artist, the ‘highbrow’, was not exceptional and, thus, should not be exempted from conscription. An artist was ‘not to be treated as a special kind of being’, wrote Orwell, but rather as a citizen with a stake in the defence of his or her own country: ‘It is quite true that the artist cannot exist in a vacuum and that he has an interest in defending our own relatively free society against conquest from without.’ Indeed, the artist was fighting for his own democratic right to autonomous self-expression – this also meant his own artistic endeavours too. To expect other men to fight on his behalf for this right to wield a paintbrush so he, the artist, could stay at home daubing a canvas, was the immoral position. Indeed, Rex would have almost certainly endorsed Agate’s and Orwell’s position on the duty of the artist at a time of war – more so a war such as this. Sitwell’s personal perception was also one touched with more than just a hint of the unrepentant pacifist. And as Orwell had quite correctly indentified earlier, such people who refuse to condone warfare ‘can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf’. Indeed, this had been one of the great misfortunes of the interwar years, when a pacifist opposition to a war with Germany had led to a policy of appeasement – thus ensuring a war, far worse in scale and devastation, later on. Orwell was, however, one of the rare men of the Left who had realised the profoundly immoral concept behind pacifism, that what it really meant was surrender to evil. Furthermore, pacifism was in fact the supreme ally of totalitarian despots, as it made a virtue out of non-resistance. Behind this realisation was Orwell’s admiration for the value and the valour of the soldier: why he himself travelled to Catalonia to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War; and his attraction to the poet Rudyard Kipling who had written that great word of caution – that one should not so easily fall to ‘making mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep’.

What is more, and importantly, Rex Whistler had chosen to fight. As an artist he firmly believed he had no right to exempt himself from what might be a premature oblivion. He had his part to play. Indeed, the poet Keith Douglas, killed on 9 June 1944, wrote:

Actors waiting in the wings of Europe/ We already watch the lights on the stage/ And listen to the colossal overture begin./ For us entering at the height of the din/ It will be hard to hear out our thoughts, hard to gauge/ How much our conduct owes to fear or fury.

This is the first stanza of Actors Waiting in the Wings of Europe, one of Keith Douglas’s greatest poems, written upon the eve of D-Day – left unfinished. He never had the opportunity to write the final stanza. Yet perhaps it was the most complete poem he ever wrote – a poignant piece of verse cut off before running its entire course, just as Douglas’s life – aged just 24 at its terminus – was, much like Rex, prematurely snuffed out by a German mortar shell, outside the Normandy town of Tilly-sur-Seulles. He may very well have gone on to become one of Britain’s greatest post-war poets – one of Sir Osbert Sitwell’s much lamented artists, cut down, lost and wasted to war. But in 1944 Douglas believed he was devoting himself, and possibly sacrificing his potential talent, to a far greater cause than his own conceited concept as an artist. Indeed, he believed himself to be one of many players, as did Rex; not exceptional and therefore exempted, but ordinary and one of many. And indeed, as Shakespeare and then Agate noted, they were brothers of a sort, transported across the channel to liberate Europe from the greatest tyranny the world had ever seen, free men in a great invasion armada of 5,000 ships – the conquest of 1066 in reverse. And as the Bayeux Memorial’s inscription, in a manner in which both Rex Whistler and Keith Douglas would not think incongruous, reads: ‘We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.’

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