Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War Margy Kinmonth (UK; 2022; Doc) with Alan Bennett, Grayson Perry, Ai Weiwei
viewed Tyneside Cinema 7 Aug 2022; ticket: £4.95
Kinmouth’s doc biopic chronicling the life of Eric Ravilious is the usual predictably structured and formulaic type of offering that we have come to expect from such exercises. Kinmonth’s film features a series of talking heads mostly pandering to the film’s line that Ravilious was a great and significant artist. To reinforce the message the film’s music track, like the music in adverts, is designed to engender and exploit an emotional connection to the Ravilious paintings as they are presented throughout the film.
But Kinmonth does pack in a couple of notable sequences, to the extent that these sections to some extent comprise a counter blast to the main thrust of the movie’s panegyric.
Kinwonth’s purpose is explicitly stated at the end of the film: to make the claim for Ravilious to be considered amongst the ranks of major British artists, to be regarded as one of ‘our’ great native water-colourists. The captions at the end of movie over images of his work are unequivocal in their demand for his work to be appraised in the light of this rhetoric. But the strength of her film is that enough material is presented for the viewer to be able to arrive at their own estimation of Ravilious.
What the film actually documents is that Ravilious was not so much a fine artist as a fine graphic artist. The film fails to establish that there was a compelling vision insight or idea driving his painting. What seems to have informed his work was his characteristic talent for abstracting from life, forms of patterned innocence. Perhaps in response to this obvious key feature in Ravilious’ work Grayson Perry points out that Ravilious’ landscapes sometimes feature barbed wire in the foreground, claiming for them the status of a realist element. My feeling looking at these ‘barbed wire’ paintings is that Ravillious’ barbed wire worked for him more as a framing device, a little like fairy lights round a tree in a suburban garden. It doesn’t look like real barbed wire – it’s tidied up to serve Ravilious’ purpose.
This quality of innocent abstraction that characterises his pre-war landscapes, without a pause for thought, is simply carried over into his military work when employed by the war office as an official war artist. Working in a completely different psychic reality, Ravilious doesn’t to change gear, doesn’t alter the way he sees the world. His war planes his ships his military subject matter are subject to the same interpretation, rendered with the quality of innocence. There is that quality in the way they are painted by Ravilious that makes them suitable as wallpaper patterns for the bedroom of a young middle class boy in the 1950’s. This is picked up by Ai Weiwei who when shown a Ravilious water colour of a Royal Navy destroyer, looks and comments somewhat diffidently about the innocence embedded in the image.
The thought arises that it was for this very reason that Ravilious was chosen for his post as war artist. Looking at the works of Nash, Sargeant and Nevinson war artists of the First World War, the sense of the terror of war punches through many of their works, but more than this they depict war as another state of mind another fatal and disturbing world. Ravilious’ works do the opposite. They ingratiate the images of war into an everyday normality. As if he were saying: there is nothing alien in war, its just a continuation of everyday life, these machines of death are simply new images in a familiar landscape. Ravilious reassures and comforts the viewer. His painting fosters a sort of cult of innocence, giving the War Office the images they could use to encourage a wilful ignorance in the population.
The other area that Kinmonth’s film probes is Eric Ravilious’ wife, Tirza. What is clear from the little Kinmonth shows is that Tirza was also a fine graphic artist, and that Ravilious certainly seems to have learnt and taken something from her skills and vision. That Tirza lead a difficult life of pain and fortitude is also evident. To some extent she seems pivotal to Ravilious’ life, but Kinmonth picks this up looks at it and skirts round rather than examines Terza’s contribution.
Ravilious’ paintings and life are certainly worth the probing nature of a forensic documentary. But Kinmonth whilst advancing up to the bounds of the socially forensic draws back and plays safe, sticks to the script and makes claims for his work that are simply not sustained by her own film.