The Genteel
October 20, 2020


Through the looking glass: troops ready to advance as the sun sets in the background. Artwork by Matthew Cook.
Prisoners of the limbo: war trapped both foreign
troops and the local populations of Afghanistan
and Iraq in a timeless and placeless state.
Artwork by Matthew Cook. 

Art can elevate the spirit and connect with the darkest recesses of a man's soul. It can evoke memories, inspire and enlighten. At times, it can also save lives and heal a tormented mind. 

Academic and scientific research is beginning to explore the healing power of art over the psychological impact of deeply distressing or life-threatening experiences, both in everyday situations and in extreme contexts like terrorist attacks or war. Although art therapy sessions are becoming a larger component of  medical programs for troops returning from conflict zones, the role of art on the battleground is still a relatively unexplored field of study.  

Matthew Cook is a British war illustrator whose works have become the visual soundtrack of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. He has worked for publications such as National Geographic, and companies like Knight Ridder and Penguin Publishing. The Prince of Wales is a fan. In 2003, Cook was sent to Kuwait as a war artist for The Times, just a week before the invasion of Iraq. "It was the job of a lifetime and a childhood dream come true. All the pressure and uncertainty of what to expect was both exciting and terrifying," he says.

Stolen moments of life: artistic production was
banned under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Artwork by Matthew Cook.

Cook was asked to record the everyday life of British troops deployed on the dusty grounds of a country that was soon to become the stage of one of the most controversial wars of our time. His illustrations depict battle scenes and local life in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the dirtiest aspects of war: death, boredom and the absurdity of being stranded in a completely foreign reality, isolated behind high protective walls and barbed wire.  

Rapid events on the battlefield can often leave no time to think, and the very physical act of drawing is similarly affected by an ever-changing visual and psychological landscape. This sense of urgency is translated into some of Cook's sketches. Beautifully coloured landscapes and scenes become nothing more than black-contoured silhouettes against a white background when portraying live combat. "I learned to draw with a black line to cope with the fast moving subject matter: this has helped me with working on location."

Just like art, war is irrational, primitive, inexplicable and overwhelming. Like art, war too can elevate, inspire or appeal to the darkest depths of a man's soul.

Although the sandy colours and landscapes in Cook's works can evoke images from exotic tales like Arabian Nights, the truth behind them is anything but idyllic. As is often the case with art, life and death collide in the experience of war. While soldiers fight for their lives and cling to guns, the weapon that saved Cook was his sketchbook. "All I could do was sketch while I sweated in my respirator and NBC [Nuclear, Biological, Chemical] suit, and try not to think of a slow death," he says of the suspected nerve agent missile attacks that he experienced.  

Cook's words offer insight into the therapeutic role of art on the battlefield: the experience of art can lead to a catharsis and purification of one's soul, which provides relief to the mind. Traditional art therapy draws on this concept. It encourages patients to express their feelings through the creation of art, thus releasing some of the trauma.

In Cook's case, the artistic catharsis played a "live" role, detaching the artist's immediate perception from the reality around him. "I think that drawing things helps me understand them, but I do often feel that I'm an observer and not a participant," he explains. "I no longer see the carnage as a film set and, by being there, I am part of it."

Fully immersed in the heat of battle, the war artist is simultaneously an actor and an observer. This dualistic dynamic creates a sort of suspension from reality. No past, no future: time decompresses in a seemingly everlasting moment for both the artist and the soldier - the one absorbed in contemplation, the other engaged in combat, both equally challenging their fate. "I believe the experience of war has been the most addictive thing that I have ever lived through and I haven't fully worked out if I'm cursed or blessed by it."

Many similarities exist between these two powerful experiences. Just like art, war is irrational, primitive, inexplicable and overwhelming. Like art, war too can elevate, inspire or appeal to the darkest depths of a man's soul. They can both bend space and time, and both hold an eternal place in history.

However, one essential difference separates the two: war is the lesson humankind always fails to learn, while art is the teaching humans can never get enough of.  



Sign up to receive a weekly dispatch from The Genteel.

About Us

The Genteel unearths the forces shaping global fashion and design through the lens of business, culture, society and best kept secrets. 

More about us

Our Contributors

A worldwide collective of contributors currently form The Genteel. On a daily basis our team dispatches thought-provoking and insightful articles from the streets of Oslo, Toronto, Beirut, Moscow, United Arab Emirates, Seoul and beyond.