Click below to listen to Margy Kinmonth’s interview in The Economist about Foxtrot’s latest production WAR ART with Eddie Redmayne.
The Economist Interview with Margy Kinmonth
AM: Hello you are listening to the Economist Asks, a new podcast from the Economist, with me Anne McElvoy, Senior Editor. This week I’m talking to Margy Kinmonth, a British-based film-maker. The centenary of the First World War has brought forth a spate of exhibitions and commemorations and it’s also sparked renewed interest in the art of the Great War, from John Nash, to John Singer Sargent, Percy Wyndham-Lewis, and David Bomberg, to name but a few of them.
Margy Kinmonth has explored art-based themes in her previous films, from the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg, to the history of Britain’s royals and their relationship with painting. In her latest film, Margy’s turned her attention to the art of the trenches with Eddie Redmayne, the Oscarwinning actor, as guide and narrator. So, when she came into The Economist studio, I wanted to know what had focused her attention on the art of 100 years ago and how it affects the War Art that we look at today.
AM: Margy, you’re well known for making access based films with access that’s often difficult to arrange. I suppose this is a very different film for you – it’s access to the past, but through the prism of War Art, and I wondered what had led you that way.
MK: Well I’d always wanted to make a film about War Art, and in fact, I was much more interested originally in the Second World War. War Art just interested me so much, because we’d heard so much from the poets, and the historians and the wordsmiths.
AM: It’s First World War Art.
MK: This is First World War Art, so I was really interested in the First World War when there was less photography and so on, how the eyewitness accounts, what they left us, in the way of the imagery and the experience and so on of being in that war.
Read full transcript:
AM: But your own family is better known from the Second World War, which you might just tell us about briefly.
MK: My grandfather was an admiral, and he was Director of Naval Intelligence in the Second World War. In fact, he was the model for M in the James Bond films, because he set up Naval Intelligence and he hired an assistant called Ian Fleming, so we’ve had this kind of legend in our family, it’s fascinating, and how all the events between the two of them formed the great fiction of James Bond.
AM: But you rewound from there, and you went back to the First World War, partly because we’ve had these big anniversaries, and partly because the war art is so powerful, but perhaps less well known than the war poetry.
MK: Yes, well, I’m an image person, I’m an artist, I’ve come from that background of painting and drawing, and so I’m always tuned into imagery, and I felt that the war imagery from the First World War was incredibly powerful, and all the artists were very different to one another, they were very individualistic and they all painted in their own different way, and I just found this group of very young artists very, very interesting, and I wondered why there hadn’t been a film, because we know all about the poets.
AM: Tell us about the selection of the artists, I noticed that you focused quite a lot on Nash, Nevenson, on the reasonably familiar artists, but you also wanted to draw out the role of art in the conflict in general, so we often see less familiar works as well.
MK: Well I’m very keen on that in my films, I don’t just want to promote the official British War Artists, and I was very clear about that. I like finding things in archives that nobody’s ever used before, and I love to find pages from notebooks, and to find out the process of how artists work, so I was very, very interested in the inventiveness of the War Artists an the part they played actually in the war effort, helping to win the war. So we discovered this guy called Leon Underwood who was a sculptor, and he sculpted these wonderful camouflage trees, which were all put up at night for sniper hides. So that was one guy, and the other thing of course was the dazzle paint and Dazzle Command which was this amazing thing that took place in the Royal Academy basement. Actually it was the women who were left behind, and they were situated down in the Royal Academy School painting these battleships and designing this black and white dazzle paint which would confuse the enemy torpedoes.
AM: When you move on from the First World War, you make a sort of loop in the last part of the film to contemporary conflicts, and War Artists who are very influenced by that tradition of anatomical paintings, paintings or drawings of amputees. It came out of the First World War, but highly relevant now, you have a multiple amputee from Helmand, you’ve got the Syrian conflict in there, tell me about your thinking on that.
MK: Well I felt very much that the whole film had a story arc that was very emotional. You had the beginning where the optimism of going to war, then the sort of part two which was more or less in the battlefield, and then I felt there was so much about coming home, which was so, and always is, absolutely relevant. And, you look at today’s amputees from Afghanistan and then we matched those up with, at the time, shell damage was unbelievable and it coincided with the very early surgery of Sir Harold Gillies, and Henry Tonks was the artist who did these amazing pastel portraits of these very, very young men, survivors from the Somme, whose faces were just blown to bits. But he portrayed the beautiful eyes, beautiful hair and the skin of these 18, 19 year old lads who had come back. You can’t bear to look at them, it’s just so, so sad. They were all rejected, and they had to work in the dark as cinema projectionists, because people couldn’t bear to look at them after the First World War.
AM: So they worked in cinemas, dark cinemas?
MK: Yeah they worked in dark cinemas and then often they then often married their nurses or something. But you can see, these men, they’d been so gorgeous and handsome and they’re just blown to bits by the shells. So those are unbelievable to look at, and they’re kept out of sight, actually, at the Royal College of Surgeons. The artist called them his Chamber of Horrors and so you have to really go, you have to get special access to see these portraits, and you don’t forget them in a hurry.
AM: What was your thinking about how you brought this to a wider audience, not only thinking about Britain and Germany’s role?
MK: Well sadly war is universal, it’s happening everywhere. We covered the Syrian conflict a bit in that the War Artist I featured there, George Butler, is a very brave man, and he walked into Syria, and he creates a kind of eyewitness. His drawings are done by just literally standing there in the ruins with a pen and ink. And it’s very traditional, so I think in a way, the internationalism of that, it’s an international language, it’s a human language. There’s a painting by a modern War Artist named Peter Howson, who covered the Bosnian war and he did a painting of rape, and when he delivered it to his commissioners, they refused to hang it in the War Museum and David Bowie bought it in the end, so, in a strange way, this image that’s very shocking, and it’s in the film, and it really is very, very alarming, is now in an art gallery, well it’s in David Bowie’s art collection. So I think that’s really interesting, how art can kind of travel through these borders. And I think it’s really important that we show these things, and, I’m very glad it’s in the film and I wasn’t told to take it out.
AM: I must mention Eddie Redmayne, because he’s one of the main draws to this film. One wouldn’t necessarily put him together with the kind of film that gets made about War Art.
MK: Yeah, well Eddie’s a very special actor, and I spotted him at the Donmar Warehouse. I went to see this play called Red which is all about Mark Rothko, and he was playing the assistant. But I thought he was just amazing, and then I’d seen him in other things, obviously I’d seen him in Birdsong and Les Mis and so on – this was about two years ago – so I thought I’d really like to work with him, and I researched him a bit, and then I discovered he had a degree at Cambridge for History of Art, so I thought, well this is absolutely fantastic. He’d never ever made a factual film before, he’d never made a documentary, and I think he’d looked at my previous films, and when we met up, I discovered that he was actually completely obsessed with that period.
AM: And how much do you think it changed Eddie Redmayne’s view? I mean we see him, you know, he looks quite moved, I think particularly, obviously he’s a very professional actor, but I think he does look genuinely moved. I think particularly when he’s sort of underground in the trench museum when you realise how much of this terrible action took place in incredibly claustrophobic circumstances. What did you notice that he responded to?
MK: Well, it was really the spoon and fork. We were in this museum, absolutely ancient, rusty old museum where the earliest trenches are still there, and it’s very neglected this place, there’s no labels or anything, everything’s rusty. So they’ve lined up all the bayonets, the bits of the shells, just metal fragments everywhere, and so you walk around the museum and you find things. And one of the things Eddie was particularly interested in, and we all thought was the most potent symbol of survival, was the spoon and fork, which the soldiers tucked into their putties, as they were known, which are these sort of trouser things, and this spoon and fork was just vital, and these things were lying around in the dust and rust and I think Eddie was very moved by that.
AM: Margy Kinmonth, thank you very much. That’s all for me for this time. Do join us again. In London, this is the Economist.[/weaver_showhide]