The war artist is a profession rarely seen in modern conflict. Cameras have taken the place of the canvas, brush, and easel, and with smartphones being commonplace, everyone now has an HD camera in their pocket. Even soldiers working in the harshest environments of the frontlines are able to capture the action around them instantly in terrifying quality.
However art still has a place in war. There are very few ways to capture the emotions of war as effectively as with the brush. Max Denison-Pender is an artist who does this in an incredibly powerful and unique way, creating works of art that captivate and immerse the viewer in a situation they would otherwise not have experienced.
Max and I went to school together, what feels like a lifetime ago. From there we followed very different paths in life. For me, across oceans, while Max became an intrepid creative. However both these paths converged in a war torn Ukraine.
Back in January Max got in touch with me, telling me about the project he, his brother Charlie, and close friend and filmmaker Henry were working on; Art in the Extreme. This took the three of them all over the world, to countries such as Rwanda, Brazil, and Uganda, to share the universal experience that is Art. And now the team wanted to come to Ukraine.
In mid April I met Max and Henry (Charlie did not join for this trip) in Kyiv, after the overnight train brought them across the border from Krakow, to Lviv, then into the city. Just like everyone else who visits, including myself, they were immediately captivated by the beauty, power, and resilience of the Capital. Max chose Mykhailivs’ka Square as the first location to paint. His piece depicting a young child inspecting the destroyed Russian armour, against the backdrop of a bullet ridden civilian vehicle, is one of the most powerful works of art I have seen. The contrast of the innocence of youth, compared to the destruction wrought by war tells a story that is unfortunately a shared experience among Ukrainians.
It is a 40 minute drive from the centre of Kyiv to the town of Dmytrivka. Here, and in the surrounding towns, history was written. An irregular Ukrainian force consisting of regular soldiers, as well as recently mobilised civilians, did what the world thought was impossible. They stopped the “2nd army in the world” in its tracks, scuppering their plans of taking Kyiv in 3 days. It was these battles that cemented the Ukrainians’ historic reputation of being certified badass motherf*ckers. Now, over a year later, with the immediate threat to the area taken care of, life carries on as normal as it can, however the scars of war are everywhere. Family homes burnt out and turned to rubble, craters and shrapnel damage, and rusted columns of destroyed Russian armour. Among this destruction Max again captured the innocence of youth during war. Children from a local football team using the rusted tanks and IFVs as a playground; a sight almost unimaginable anywhere else, however so normal here.
Donetsk in the East has become a home for me. Its oceanic fields, starry nights (albeit under blacked out cities), and endless horizons, all remind me of being offshore. Even the ever present rumble of war feels like incoming weather, dogged awareness and all.
We spent 6 days around the front, visiting units, medics, and volunteers working in the area. The reaction to painting was remarkable. Any wariness towards the lads, and in particular Henry’s cameras, left once Max began painting. Painting sessions turned into mates hanging out, and we even extended our stay so we could spend more time with a unit who was about to go back to work. I had arranged for Max and Henry to spend time with a squad who were on rest. They invited us to spend a day at their house, where Max painted Manya, a young soldier from Poltava Oblast, who had helped support my team in Bakhmut. After seeing the finished work, several of the guys asked if they could also pose for a painting.
We were lucky enough to be invited to spend several days with the commander of the unit, as they were conducting training. This included live fire drills, patrolling, and medical training, which also included live fire drills… Despite wearing armour, and lugging all their gear, Max and Henry both kept up with the action, while also capturing it in the art. After several days of painting, drinking tea and coffee in there bunkers, and telling each other stories of our past adventures, we built firm friendships with the soldiers, building a bond that is so common at war.
I met Rebekah in March 2023, when I was delivering medical supplies to her and her team at a stabilisation point several km back from the front. She is one of the most committed foreigners out here, and her selfless attitude and constant desire to help others is an inspiration. When Max first told me about his project and asked if i knew anyone to paint, the first person who came to mind was Rebekah. She tentatively agreed, at least initially to meet the guys, however once we arrived at her base she was her usual incredibly accommodating self and said she’d be happy to sit and chat while Max did his thing, partially because it would allow her to sit still for an hour or so! with regular outgoing, and occasional incoming, Max created the portrait below; of an inspirational woman who has given everything already, and has no plans to stop.
I spoke with Max and Henry several times about how the trip was living up to their expectations. Like most people out here, they didn’t really know what to expect before arriving, however, again like most people, it was exceeding any expectations they did have. Ukraine, and Ukrainians are uniquely beautiful. They are some the most kind, generous, caring, and badass people I’ve met. Max and Henry’s trip touched everyone who was involved in it, including myself. The fact that people are willing to come here and put their lives on the line to tell the stories means a lot to everyone. The support and ripple effect that the trip has caused is beyond belief, and we are all very much looking forward to his return.
All of Max’s painting can be viewed and purchased through Fine Art Commissions