Shades of War

Many artists advocate a direct response approach, but landscape painter Rob Perry has turned it into an extreme sport. Nick Carson meets a man willing to risk frostbite and being crushed deep underground, whose powerful war paintings resonate from the front lines of the past and carry the chilling echoes of trench warfare firmly into the present.

Suffering from chilblains in a freezing trench would put most people off their cornflakes, but plunging into the gloom of characterless, endlessly winding underground bunkers is downright dangerous and pretty foolish, especially alone and with no record of where you are. But Rob Perry remains determined to capture these scenes en situ, and his haunting charcoal-and-gouache drawings hail from the depths of another world.

“The tunnels at Vauquois are very eerie,” he admits. “It’s an absolute labyrinth. You come to a fork and there are two absolutely characterless tunnels, you go down one and come to another junction. It starts to get quite frightening, but you have to shrug off the claustrophobia and get on with your drawing. Eventually you get so focussed on what you’re doing that you stop worrying about the possible roof falls.”

Although having no direct experience of war himself, Rob is overtly political and frequently emphasises his support of Amnesty International and his disgust with war in general, which he says fuels his fascination with the subject. From an early age family members involved with both the First and Second World War had shared their reminiscences. “I was always aware of the nature of war, and appalled by it.”

Going Nocturnal

Rob had already developed a flair for working in low-light conditions, which transferred well into the pitch-black chasms of war-torn France. “It’s amazing how your eye will acclimatise,” he points out. “To work down in the tunnels I take a paraffin lamp which illuminates the object and a small strip lamp which fits on the front of my helmet, which gives a spread of light rather than a focussed beam.”

Choosing to work through the night rather than add to his hectic daily commitments, he began with dimly-lit street scenes around his neighbourhood in Stourbridge. “As a single parent I had a full-time job with three children, and did night-school as well,” Rob recalls. “I had no time to work, but had to find a way of producing paintings. So I put a light in the back of my van and started to work at night.”

Dubbed his ‘mobile studio’, his trusty van also has a huge easel structure mounted on its side, and a roof-mounted rig that extends up to twenty feet in the air, engineered in his garage. It also doubles as a somewhat un-luxurious, unheated residence for months on end out in the field.

Let There be Light

The major time constraint on landscape painting has always been the inherent inconstancy of natural light. So presumably creating a perfectly controlled, consistently lamp-lit environment in otherwise pitch blackness allow for a different style of work?

“Well, yes, until you fall asleep, fall off your stool or become unconscious with the cold,” laughs Rob. “It is a slightly more stable situation, but of course at night it is colder.” He should know: In winter 2000 he spent two months living in his van amongst the Somme battlefields, working deep into the night.

Unsurprisingly, this dedication to his ‘direct experience’ philosophy is not without consequences. Unable to paint wearing gloves, his hands eventually became shrivelled into paws by advanced chilblains, which left his knuckles cracked and bleeding. The solution: Grit your teeth, and carry on.

Ripples through History

“I call nearly all my exhibitions Echoes of War; echoes through time rather than through the atmosphere,” Rob reveals. “As wars go further and further into the past, their echoes gradually become fainter and fainter. The trenches slowly erode, the ivy grows over the blockhouses, and Nature takes over the battlefield.”

 Working alone at night in environments soaked with death and suffering, these time echoes combine with the bitter cold to promise an all-round chilling experience. “It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” he confesses. “Auschwitz was sobering and grim, as are a lot of the First World War battlefields; particularly Verdun. Remains all over the place.”

Organic Monstrosities

Some of Rob’s war paintings resemble hideous growths sprouting from an otherwise serene landscape; a gnarled and twisted memento of a war long-past. But while his technique sometimes borders on the abstract, it’s invariably grounded to some extent in the scene in front of him.

Broad illustrations of the nature of war are not his speciality; rather he depicts the ways in which conflict tears and craters the natural landscape for years to come. “When I look at a landscape, half of me wants to record it just as it is, in which case you might as well take a photograph,” Rob admits. “The other half wants to reinterpret it, because I physically enjoy manipulating paint.”

The Joy of Paint

“Big and small strokes, coarse and fine brushes, using a very thick consistency, putting it on with a palette knife or thinning it down with turps, you know, and spattering it on, and seeing how the paint can dribble; there’s wonderful effects you can get,” he enthuses. “It’s magical just to mess about with paint. So that’s what I do; go out and look at a landscape, and that becomes the vehicle through which I mess about with paint.”

“I think to myself, ‘I’ve got four hours to do this,’ and I have to simplify everything. Analyse the colours and basic composition, block out the light and dark areas, and express the texture of distant woodland in a few brush strokes, or smears, or spatters.”

“You have to develop a kind of visual shorthand; and all artists go through this,” he goes on. “If you look at an early Rembrandt, he works in the most immaculate detail on long, time-consuming pieces. But as an old man he’s such an expert in using paint that he can say in ten brush strokes what would have taken a hundred before.”

Music to your Brush
Rob’s distinctive style combines broad, coarse brush strokes sweeping over knolls and stumps with areas of tiny, airbrushed detail, a technique he likens to composing classical music. “You get quiet bits and slow bits with just woodwind and a little bit of strings; then it builds up to a crescendo, the tempo increases and suddenly you’ve got brass and percussion.”

“It’s got different textures, and a visual composition is the same: You’ve got large, broad, open areas and then very, very complex bits; the focal points,” he explains. “I used to say to my students that a piece of music with exactly the same tempo and mix of instruments throughout would be totally repetitive and boring.”

“But many people like club music; in the same way you can have totally unfocused visual compositions, like Jackson Pollock’s work. It’s a total scramble of shapes, colours, dots, spatters; there’s no focal point, and it’s very even. But it can be very, very beautiful, like woven cloth.”

A Visual Narrative

An active member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA), Rob often hires out entire exhibitions of his work, and gives historical lectures to schools and colleges. As such he is often very reluctant to sell individual works that form part of a series.

“I relate it to being a novelist: It’s like someone saying, ‘I really like chapter three, can I buy that?’ or, ‘Page ninety-seven is incredible, what about that?’ You know; it’s part of a novel. In a way, my art is a bit like that. Mind you, if someone wanted to buy the whole package of the Maginot Line, I’d probably sell it – if they offered me enough,” he smiles.

© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

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