When war did break out in Europe, Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery in London, appointed artists to respond to the conflict and to create a permanent record of war from an eye-witness point of view. More than 300 artists were commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee, the Clark devised scheme, including Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore, Bawden, Paul and John Nash. Ravilious got his commission on Christmas Eve, 1939.
Assigned to the Admiralty, Ravilious set to work, painting ships and submarines at the Royal Navy Barracks at Chatham and coastal defenses at Newhaven. Posted abroad, he painted fjjords in Norway and aircrafts over Iceland, always working in his distinctive style. Ravilious created around 100 art works while on commission as a war artist. He seems to have loved his war-artist duty; “I enjoyed it a lot, even the bombing which is wonderful fireworks,” he reported in 1940, in the midst of a grim sea battle off Norway. The following year, by this time with the RAF, he wrote home: “It was more lovely than words can say, flying over the moors and the coast today in an open plane, just floating on great curly clouds and perfectly still and cool. “
His war art drew criticism from some of the military hierarchy for not tackling panoramic views or varying his work’s shape and size, or for its detached or innocent stance. However, Alan Ross, in his book Colors of War, praised the detached stance of Ravilious’s art: “The battle area may be a long way off but this, tenuously, is where it all begins. In most of Ravilious’s war pictures, ships and sea, aircraft and landscape blend together, camouflage having transformed machinery and nature into a single abstract. “
Art of war and peace
However, Ai Weiwei believes staying true to his style was one of Ravilious’s greatest strengths: “From his paintings I can see his firm control of the watercolor, [his] calm expression, attention to detail and meticulous care, showing his extraordinary insight and expression. “He adds:” He did not focus on style, but rather on his attitude and way of expression. He added a strong personal touch to the themes that he depicted. That’s why he’s great. “