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To the Stars: Illuminating the Art Collection in 50 Works
Date: 15 October 2022 – 7 January 2024
Cost: Free entry
Marking 50 years since Queen Elizabeth II opened the RAF Museum in London on 15 November 1972, our new art exhibition celebrates the occasion with 50 key works from the collection by important 20th century British and European artists.
‘To the Stars’ takes its name from the RAF motto, ‘Per Ardua Ad Astra’, a translation of which is ‘Through Adversity to the Stars’.
Ranging from representations that chart early civil aviation at Hendon and the Royal Flying Corps, to the Second World War and the jet and space age of the Cold War, the exhibition explores artists’ perspectives on the operations and cultures of the RAF as well as on the broader themes of flight, ambition, myth, conflict, and technology.
As in the vertiginous compositions of C.R.W. Nevinson, Enrico Castello and Cyril Power, the abstract styles of Vorticist and Futurist art celebrated the dynamism of early aviation and conveyed radically new aerial visions of the machine age. Sybil Andrews also used bright colours and hard-edged designs in her later depictions of boatbuilding of RAF Air Sea Rescue vessels, supplanting what she described as ‘wishy-washy’ reportage with a striking, modern visual language.
Combining tradition with modernity, the paintings and watercolours of Paul Nash, John Armstrong, Eric Ravilious and John Minton reflected on war and flight with imaginative and illustrative approaches, drawing on the influences of English Romanticism and Surrealism. Official War Artists of the Second World War, including Nash, Ravilious, Thomas Hennell, Anthony Gross, and R.V. Pitchforth, adopted watercolour as both an expedient and expressive medium, heralding a revival of the historically celebrated, and quintessentially British, art form.
Figurative compositions representing the people, roles and social life of the RAF – such as by Laura Knight, Evelyn Dunbar, Alfred Thomson, Patrick Procktor, Ethel Gabain, and Boyd & Evans – reveal not only the diversity of artistic styles over time but raise questions of institutional diversity within the RAF and in approaches to artistic commissioning. Colonial recruitment, male relationships, and women’s promotion into formerly male roles and ranks, are subjects that invite contemporary reconsideration. Furthermore, the exhibition reveals how women artists of the Second World War – including Sybil Andrews, Anne Newland, and Rosamond Elgar – attempted to sell their works and propose commissions to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, when in most cases these were declined. The exhibition aims to reappraise such works beyond the patriarchal lens of the period.
Lesser-known Official War Artists are also celebrated in this exhibition – among them Leslie Cole, Charles Cundall, and David Bomberg. Better known for his pre-First World War Vorticist works, Bomberg’s Second World War commission to depict an underground bomb store in the Midlands was at the time deemed a failure by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, which considered the pictures’ expressionistic style at odds with the public’s conservative taste for representational clarity. However, today Bomberg’s body of war work – which includes the Museum’s large charcoal drawing, ‘Bomb Store’ (1942) – is celebrated as an important touchstone of his artistic career.
Post-war art in the exhibition includes prints by Eduardo Paolozzi which represent Second World War and early Cold War subjects from the perspective of American mass culture. In collaging magazines and science fiction comics Paolozzi reflected on the popular imagination around the emerging jet and space age. The RAF’s jet aircraft are represented in later Cold War works by figurative painters Bryan Organ and Humphrey Ocean, whose ‘portraits’ of the Hawker Harrier and Electric Lightning were commissioned by the Museum in the 1970s and 1980s.
Some post-war artists, however, looked back uneasily on reputations made and lives lost in the Second World War, while dwelling on contemporary space shuttle missions and the nuclear arms race. In the early 1960s, ethical tensions between ambition and heroism, on the one hand, and hubris and disaster on the other, came into sharp focus for artists such as John Armstrong, Michael Ayrton and Elisabeth Frink, who meditated on the symbolism of Icarus and the fallible winged man as personifications of seemingly heedless times.
The exhibition features works acquired since the Museum’s early days of art collecting. The Museum’s Founding Director Dr John Tanner, who, earlier in his career, had lectured in ‘Extra Mural’ (or lifelong learning) Art History at Nottingham University, began to develop the art collection through his relationships with London art dealers and artists and their estates. In the early days of collecting, he and the curatorial team affordably purchased uniquely important works, some of which would now pose a challenge to acquire without fundraising assistance. Highlights include C.R.W. Nevinson’s seminal ‘Taube Pursued by Commander Samson’ (1915), a body of Richard Carline’s Official War Artist works from the First World War, including ‘Baghdad and River Tigris from 10000 ft’ (1919), Cyril Power’s Grosvenor School linocut ‘Air Raid’ (c.1935), and Laura Knight’s large drawings for her Official War Artist painting ‘Take Off’ (1943).
Complementing our own works on display are those from the nationally important collection of Official War Art of the Second World War, on long-term loan to the Museum from the RAF Air Historical Branch (Ministry of Defence). Originally belonging to the Air Ministry, the collection comprises 400 works that were commissioned and purchased for the nation by the Government-led Official War Artists scheme under art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, Chairman of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee.
Please note: The Museum regularly undertakes a programme of maintenance and conservation, so some exhibits or Hangars may be temporarily inaccessible. If you are visiting us to see something specific, please contact us in advance to ensure it that it is on display and available for public viewing.