James Boswell

Untitled (Iraq)


Not on display

James Boswell 1906–1971
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 508 × 914 × 19 mm
frame: 635 × 1040 mm
Presented by Ruth Boswell, the artist's widow 2000


This is one of a pair of paintings, neither of which is titled, which James Boswell painted in London based on his wartime memories of Iraq. Both this work and its partner (Tate T07600) consist of a restricted palette of red, black, white and grey. Both use unmodulated areas of these non-naturalistic colours, and a stark and spikey mode of representation, to conjure up a sense of isolation and of the uncanny.

Here, the red foreground rises steeply to an array of man-made structures: grey stone huts, a water-tower, a signpost presumably marking a former military installation. The starkness of the scene is exaggerated by the compositional emphasis on strong horizontal and vertical lines. The darkened doorways of the austere buildings, and the simplicity of the tower, the sign and the post in the foreground, all suggest a feeling of abandonment. Two enigmatic shapes, perhaps rocks, and the remains of what appear to be palm leaves introduce a certain anxious quality that they share with the contemporaneous work of Lucian Freud. Boswell could have seen the exhibitions in London in 1946 and 1947 in which Freud established an angular and linear style of painting with an air of unease that seemed to speak to the post-war world. If the man-made elements in Untitled (Iraq) may speak of a departed human presence, the decimated leaves seem to suggest past violence - of a storm perhaps, or of war.

Having been called up as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1941, Boswell was sent to Iraq in 1942 and returned the following year. By the beginning of the war, he was already established as a painter and illustrator. As a member of the Communist Party and a founder member of the left-wing Artists International Association, his work had been highly political, consisting of satires on the forces of the state and representations of working class cultures. In the army, such themes continued in private, as the artist filled sketchbooks with drawings in which officers are shown with bulls' heads riding on the shoulders of the ordinary, expendable soldiers. After the war he left the Communist Party and his work became less overtly political, as he returned to painting. Untitled (Iraq) might, nevertheless, be seen as a comment on the soldier's life or on an austere and haunted post-war world. While in Iraq, Boswell noted the dreamlike existence he shared with his comrades and his desire 'to eliminate the incidental. To extract the dream reality, to evoke the unreality of the soldier's life' (quoted in Wilson 1999, unpaginated). Similarly, the stark desolation of the scene inevitably suggests the widespread sense of loss and anxiety that succeeded the war and the Holocaust and which characterised the beginning of the nuclear age.

Further reading:

Barry Curtis, 'James Boswell', Block, no.1, 1979, pp.53-6
Lynda Morris and Robert Radford, The Story of the Artists International Association 1933-53, Oxford 1983
Andrew Wilson, James Boswell: Extracting the Dream Reality, exhibition catalogue. Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London 1999

Chris Stephens
October 2000

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