by Catherine Speck. Reaktion Books, dist. by University of Chicago Press, December 2014, 320p. ill. ISBN 9781780233741 (cl.), $45.00.
Reviewed March 2015
Heather Slania, Director of the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center, National Museum of Women in the Arts, firstname.lastname@example.org
Western women's social, political, and economic realities changed significantly in the first half of the twentieth century, in great part due to participation in the World Wars. While women mostly contributed on the home front, women were also behind the frontline as nurses and, later, in some combat roles. Artists both unofficially documented the war and were commissioned by their governments to depict the war on the frontlines and at home.
In Beyond the Battlefield, Catherine Speck, professor of art history at the University of Adelaide, details the women artists of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who rendered the World Wars and their aftermaths. While few women were employed as official war artists in these countries, women artists effectively depicted the impact of the wars.
The book demarcates between those who depicted the home front versus those who were closer to the frontlines for each war. Some of the pieces were commissioned as war propaganda while others were more informal work accomplished between shifts. On the home front, these artists often depict women performing skilled industrial labor, as nurses, or how the war impacted everyday life. The chapters focusing on artists working behind the frontlines illustrate those who are working to support the soldiers and the soldiers themselves. Additionally, there are chapters devoted to the aftermath of each war and the depictions of the scars and losses on the people and their landscapes.
There is little in-depth information on many of these artists, especially about their lives and artistic careers outside of each war. However, many of the artists featured have scant information in the archival record and did not go on to be well-known artists. There are some exceptions, notably Lee Miller and her iconic war photographs produced for Vogue.
While the language is not overly academic, a good familiarity with the history of art in this period, as well as a good working knowledge of the World Wars, would be beneficial for the reader. The book contains over 150 illustrations, nearly all in color, and is printed on heavy stock and well bound. There are significant bibliographical references and an adequate index. Beyond the Battlefield serves as a jumping off point for future research on these women artists who are little discussed by other texts on war artists. It would be a valuable addition to collections about the world wars, war artists, or women artists.