Bombed Women and Searchlights was painted in response to the London Blitz which began in September 1940. Branson was then living in Battersea where he would have witnessed at first hand the devastating air raids. In this painting he employs surrealistic juxtapositions and unusual perspectives to imbue the painting with a startling visual intensity, while at the same time giving an overt critique of the war. The determined face of the woman on the left, (possibly a portrait of the artist’s wife, Noreen Branson, interview with Rosa Branson, 5 November 2004) rescuing some of her possessions from the scene of the recent attack confronts the viewer whose attention is also drawn towards the dramatically foreshortened chair, empty cigarette packet and striped barrier. The sky, filled with barrage balloons to prevent bombing by the Luftwaffe, is lit up by two searchlights which make an aggressive pattern over a factory. The ‘Dig for Victory’ poster on the right hand side, which shows a man working a spade into the earth, refers to a Government campaign which encouraged people to cultivate their gardens and allotments due to the difficulty of importing foodstuffs. The graffiti immediately beneath it with the slogan, ‘Vote Joyce, Say Peace’, alludes to the British Nazi propagandist, William Joyce, who broadcast appeals to the British to surrender. The poster on a shop window which reads ‘Smile and say Victory’, hardly seems reassuring amid the general devastation. The conflicting sentiments draw attention to the tensions in British Society during the war.
The unexpected juxtapositions in Bombed Women and Searchlights indicate Branson’s awareness of Surrealist painters who were represented in an exhibition organised by the Artists International Association (AIA) in 1937 (Morris and Radford, p.41). The AIA was founded in 1933, its initial objective being to mobilise ‘the international unity of artists against Imperialist War on the Soviet Union, Fascism and Colonial oppression’ (Morris and Radford, p.2). As the number of members increased (by 1936 over 600 artists had joined the AIA), their aim was broadened to a popular front against both Fascism and war which they strove to achieve through public murals, documentary photographs and travelling exhibitions of paintings and sculptures. It is not known whether this painting was exhibited, but many of the pictures Branson made while he was living in Battersea were included in an exhibition organised by the Artists’ International Association. In 1941, the year after this painting was made; Branson became a member of the Royal Armoured Corps and was sent overseas to India. He died on active service in Burma in 1944.
Lynda Morris and Robert Radford, AIA: Artists International Association 1933-1953, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, Oxford 1983
British Soldier in India: The Letters of Clive Branson, London 1944