(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 12. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1997)





Reading to Order: The Sun and Mickey Mouse

Claire Bowen (
Université de Tours)

In March 1991 John Keane returned to Britain after a five-week visit to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait where, as the Imperial War Museum-sponsored Official War Artist, he had gathered photographs and sketches to work up into an exhibition on Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The thirty-five paintings made by Keane were shown under the title Gulf at the Imperial War Museum from 26th March to 31st May 1992, the exhibition achieving a certain "succès de scandale", less for its contents than for the trial by press of one of the pictures, Mickey Mouse at the Front. This painting, which was bought by the Imperial War Museum's Artistic Records Committee for the permanent collection as being the most representative of Keane's collection of "powerful and emotional" works, [1] was the focus of an energetic campaign of denigration, initiated and orchestrated by The Sun and pursued by the other tabloids.

The Sun's unsigned article of January 15th 1992 was a pre-emptive attack on a representation of the Gulf War which was at odds with its own representation of the event. It seems hardly necessary to add that the paper's coverage of the war had been entirely consistent with the "Gotcha" style of journalism for which it became notorious during the Falklands Campaign! The criticism of Mickey Mouse at the Front was pre-emptive inasmuch as the picture was planned to go on show more than two months after the publication of the article and had, therefore, no existence as a public artefact at this stage. In fact, The Sun was offering an attack on what was, to all intents and purposes, a virtual picture, which it had presumably made available to its interviewees as a photograph (although there is no evidence of this). The picture was certainly given to the readers of the paper as a poor black-and-white reproduction of the original 172.8 x 198 cm oil painting with over a quarter of the original cropped in the


1. BORG, Alan, Introduction to WEIGHT, Angela, John Keane, "Gulf" (Exhibition Catalogue). London: Imperial War Museum, 1992.




printed photograph. The Sun's first critical operation, therefore, was one of demolition rather than deconstruction, with the removal of the top and bottom of the original and of virtually all the shattered palm tree to the right of the painting. The cropping of the tree is particularly serious as it provides both the dominant metaphor of the painting and the fundamental element in its structure. The tree is also a direct reference to Paul Nash's emblematic First World War picture, The Menin Road, and its removal alone indicates The Sun's indifference to Mickey Mouse at the Front as a painting and to the context of Keane's work which is in the tradition of "new" war art begun in 1916.

The article itself has very little to do with the picture which is reduced to three selected icons (Mickey on his misinterpreted "toilet", the oil wells, the shopping trolley). No connections between them are made or sought after and the cropped black-and-white photograph allows no comment on colour or on the structure of the painting or on the influences on the picture of Keane's other preferred medium, collage. In any case, the painting is most certainly not the thing here. What is at issue is the failure to produce The Sun's definition of a representation of the Gulf War. Keane's version simply cannot be right, not because Mickey Mouse at the Front contains things that one could not reasonably expect to see at the front, but because these things are not part of The Sun's vocabulary of Official War Art and are therefore necessarily inappropriate, if not offensive!

This brings us to the heart of the problem. The Sun expects, and expects its readers to expect, the classic language of war art, especially in the work of an artist subsidised with public money. Keane, albeit an eyewitness, is manifestly unreliable in his choice of iconography and is suggested to be doubly unreliable for reasons that have nothing to do with the picture - the implication of the article is that he has fiddled the Imperial War Museum out of £10,000 and has sought to fiddle the Disney Corporation out of its copyright! In short, Mickey Mouse at the Front is the wrong allegory with the wrong figures painted by a clever crook and is, therefore, "sick" and "depraved". All this suggests, of course, that there is a "right" allegory in war painting that will meet the expectations of the "right" observers who are not, unlike Keane, direct witnesses of the war, but who are validated as experts by their social proximity to the event. The grieving families of the article and the Armed Forces Minister are not only the "right observers" of any representation of the Gulf War by virtue of 60 their position as organizer and victims, but are also essential players in The Sun's patriotic '` `' metanarrative about war in general. War painting's contribution to this metanarrative should be an encoding for an informed and approving audience of assumptions about social organizations and the behaviour that is acceptable within them. In short, The Sun's attitudes and expectations on looking at Mickey Mouse at the Front are no different from those of the Medici on commissioning The Battle of San Romano!





It is true that, until the First World War, the role of official war painting of all kinds (whether commissioned by state agencies, individuals, organizations or, in the days before reliable and sufficient photography, by the illustrated papers) was to provide sustained iconographic support for a metanarrative constructed, in part, by collective imagination and memory, in part by the interests of the dominant group in a given society. War painting is situated in a "meeting needs" environment and there is a concomitant notion of the importance of "value for money". The first element in the pact between the hired war artist and the observer of the picture here is the exchange of an illustration of both a literal event or hero and a metaphorical text for the money of the individual, state, regiment, school, business or charitable institution. "Value for money" is obtained when the picture provided respects the iconographic codes that are conventional for the treatment of war. What matters, therefore, is essentially not so much the battle itself (what has been seen) as its treatment on canvas which is simply a coded confirmation of what is said to be known by the members of a particular group about War. Official War Painting is not fundamentally concerned with denotation, therefore, but with designation. The person or event of the painting is less important than the extrapolations made by the observers to enrich and confirm a wider, shared narrative. The second element in the pact between the traditional war artist and the client, therefore, is that the former should furnish the latter with a double contribution to the preservation of collective memory - a representation of the event and, more important, a representation of its value. The several First World War Official Artists who got into trouble with the public or with their various masters during the hostilities did so because they broke the pact and either failed to represent the event in a recognizable form (Wyndham Lewis) or produced representations which limited the uplifting potential of the recorded incident (Nevinson's Tommies were said to be too ugly, his corpses too decomposed). It should be added that expectations of the great post-war pictures were rather less rigid.

Curiously, one of the consequences of the pact is that a genre which boasts of the truth of its account of events is, in fact, thoroughly divorced from reality. This is because traditional war painting, like official painting in general, is nothing but an illustration of a virtual reality that forms the basis of a metanarrative. Consider, for example, the British tabloid complaints about the most recent portrait of the Queen which showed hands drawn with arthritic fingers and a gravemarked skin. The objections were entirely to do with the artist's failure to paint the attributes of "Queenliness" and to provide a, by definition unrealistic, portrait of Elizabeth Windsor as an artist's impression of a virtual Queen. An official portrait of a Queen is not a portrait of an ageing woman, just as an official painting of a battlefield is not simply a depiction of undistinguished soldiers fighting. The classic




official battle picture (almost any pre-1916 painting will provide a basis for verification) has absolutely nothing to do with reality. At best, it is worked up from sketches taken behind the lines, at worst (as in the case of much of the work of Lady Butler, one of the "stars" of nineteenth century military art) from impressions of manoeuvres made in the safety of Salisbury Plain. It will always depict a clear subject frozen in time, will insist on human presence rather than environment (landscape provides only a backdrop), will use perspective to suggest the priorities to be read first, will rely on interpretative information and experience brought by the observer who will look at the painting as one of a set of similar pictures he has seen in illustrated magazines, museums, college chapels, boardrooms and messes or on any number of postcards, posters, children's puzzles and biscuit tins. Finally, written information on the frame or on a card beside it will be added to extend the anecdote, confirm the event and give the observer further information to bring to the picture. This sort of painting, therefore, requires no imagination at all on the part of the artist or the observer. Looking at the canvas is essentially a complicated social process rather than an aesthetic one and it requires skills of identification and recognition that make extrapolation from the denotated event into a wider designated metanarrative about War (and, by extension, the values of the observer's environment) possible.

This is a Gradgrind view of art, certainly. It holds that painting should be commemorative, improving, a bridge between past and future, necessarily a description of a virtual reality expressed in a language of limited codes of colour, subject and composition. The Sun's problem is that it subscribes to this view and is locked in a time warp that keeps it firmly in the representational Victorian aesthetic mode and in the conventional Victorian metanarrative about War. Keane, on the other hand, in the tradition of the great First World War Official Artists, is interested in an entirely different metanarrative, in landscape and place rather than event, and in abstract time rather than the moment of an incident.

The main preoccupation of progressive twentieth century British war painting is with space. Action, the precise moment in time, are interesting only in terms of their effect, of their aftermath. Keane, like his predecessor Paul Nash, is essentially in the business of painting landscapes and landscapes of war, like all landscapes in the English tradition at least, have an allegorical potential. But by definition, war landscapes have nothing to do with the traditional preoccupations of war art and cannot, therefore, be the basis of allegories which will contribute to supporting a narrative about the virtues of certain types of human action. The First World War was to suggest another narrative for artists to illustrate, an account of what should be avoided rather than recommended. It was the first war that led to such transformations of the environment that its space became impossible to map either literally (the battlefield would change from day to day) or emotionally, and it was




the first in which individuals were utterly insignificant. There were no heroic moments or turning points, nothing to make sense of, no clear extension of seeing into knowing, denotation into designation. There is an argument that the Gulf War, the first virtual war which was in a sense more "real" for MTV watchers than for many of the Allied protagonists on the ground, created the same sort of confusions. Certainly, the landscape did: "The desert was a flat empty plain with no geographical features by which you could get your bearings; in fact the only features were the army encampments and of course they all looked alike. The place you got to looked just like the place you had left, except it was about ten or twenty kilometres away" [2] . The Gulf Internet site has exhibitions of photographs taken by veterans which are mostly of the desert landscape littered with equipment after action. The common denominator between accounts of the Gulf and the Somme seems to be a fascination with a hostile place marked by human actions but containing no signs of life. Experience on the ground is in contradiction with the conventional metanarrative and has no echo in traditional accounts of War. Paintings like The Menin Road and Mickey Mouse at the Front are part of a new discourse. They are contemplative, set outside the time of the action, in a sort of no man's land. The picture acquires a degree of independence from its subject and what is represented is both a state of mind and a place. [3]

What state of mind? What place? In the case of Mickey Mouse at the Front, the state of mind is anti-war, the place a cityscape/landscape of Kuwait City and the Gulf represented in a painted "collage" of objects that acquire allegorical value both individually and in relation to each other. Things seen by Keane, but neither seen nor reproduced by The Sun, are thrown together - the burning buildings, the oil slicks, the beach defences, the Mickey Mouse amusement arcade ride, the rockets, the broken shopping trolley, the Kuwaiti flag, the blasted trees. The selection of objects put together to make sense of the landscape and the war is heavily ironic, even crass perhaps, visibly critical of the commodification of the war and the world in general. But irony was introduced into war art by Goya and Callot and is almost universal among the first British Official War Artists. Paul Nash's We Are Making A New World shows a brilliant sun rising on blood-red hills and the black stumps of shelled trees, John Nash's Oppy Wood contains not a single living plant, while William Orpen paints the shattered towns of the Somme in the freshest of pastels.

Keane's irony, like his antiwar agenda, is inherited directly from his First World War predecessors. It is a debt which he acknowledges in the Gulf exhibition - one painting is entitled We Are Making A New World Order, another, An Ecstasy of Fumbling, takes its title


2. KEANE, John, ibid., p. 16.
3. For a detailed analysis of this idea, see NEVE, Christopher, Unquiet Landscape: Places and Ideas in Twentieth Century English Painting. London: Reaktion Books, 1994.



from a line in Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est' and a postcard of John Singer Sargent's Gassed "is stuck like a label in the bottom right-hand corner" of this picture. [4] The affinities are not illogical - Keane, Nash et al. are dealing with essentially the same type of war. It is a war which eliminates the individual and, by extension, renders individual decisions and actions insignificant. It is a war in which technology both keeps the death of the enemy distant, almost virtual, while causing environmental destruction on an extraordinary scale. Sentiments of alienation are engendered in the protagonists, sentiments that cannot be fitted into the traditional western metanarrative about war which is constructed on principles of shared interests, clarity of purpose, visible sequences of cause and effect. New situations engender new reactions, in painting like everywhere else. The Sun, in looking for illustrations of "Desert Rats" and "important events" is not only misreading Mickey Mouse at the Front but also misreading the war!

4. WEIGHT, Angela, John Keane, "Gulf', op. cit., p. 30.







(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 12. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1997)