May 9, 2015 by Caroline Jaine
As soon as I started painting pictures of motors, I knew at some stage I would paint a Land Rover. A very special vehicle to me, it was my “divorce car”, my freedom vehicle: freshly single nearly a decade ago I had a what-the-hell moment and went out a bought the most impractical khaki green short-wheel-base Defender I could find. As a single mother of three the lack of seats in the back didn’t put me off – I was in love with it. The Defender was my rebound car. I drove her to Cornwall and North Wales and after a while of loving her, I bizarrely and spontaneously traded her in for a Discovery, which I promptly rolled in a ditch in the rain. A few years later I bought another Defender, but it wasn’t the same. This one regularly let me down and eventually moved to France where it died a muddy disappointing death.
It wasn’t the corny bumper-stickers which initially led me to see the Land Rover as a symbol of freedom – but because a few months earlier I’d found myself squashed into the back of one on a British airbase in Southern Iraq (the setting for this painting). That is another long story (you will have to read my book for that one) – but suffice to say that during my time in Iraq the military “Snatch” Land Rover was a bit of an legend. The government department I worked for criticised the Snatch for offering inadequate protection. The military argued that what the Snatch lacked in protection it offered in mobility and nimbleness. Despite this, the Land Rover has “snatched” the lives of 37 UK personnel since 2003.
The first Land Rovers built after World War II were usually coloured in military greens – using surplus aircraft cockpit paint. And their association with the military has remained strong. For me the Land Rover feels like a familiar friend – a utilitarian British style icon. But its dark underbelly is not only its poor ability to protect – but its use in warfare and the path it so often takes through foreign lands, carrying soldiers.
Those that know me, will understand that I am no lover of conflict, despite having worked in war-zones. This painting is not about glorifying or romanticising conflict. Some have asked about the angel in this painting – in fact I was surprised that more people were offended or “turned off” by my recreation of Pietro Berrettini da Cortona’s guardian angel than they were by the soldier with a gun. A lack of tolerance for anything vaguely religious, even ancient paintings, is as frightening as the conflicts that are driven by the distortion of faith.
So my version of Berrettini’s Renaissance angel has become ironic rather than iconic. Baroque artists like Berrettini were encouraged by the Catholic church to not just communicate religious themes but to ensure “emotional involvement”. Here the angel provides the reverse: we live in a world where religious imagery is so heavily burdened with either fanaticism or blind atheist rejection, that we are more comfortable with pictures of war. And yet unrest and murder in Iraq over the past decade contains a high element of “faith” – whether it is faith in god, oil or making money through violence: belief systems have clearly been hijacked. The angel, like the Land Rover fails to be our guardian angel and although she points beautifully to the heavens, the message is clear – that you are ultimately on a path to death. A death which to many might seem like freedom.
So whilst I may have appeared flippant in my choice of divorce car, and indeed about my time in Iraq, there is a more serious message in this and in the painting. “Snatch” is about false gods, vulnerability, and yes, freedom – but at a devilish cost.