At the Imperial War Museum (3): Percy Delf Smith’s ‘Dance of Death’

Dance of Death war etchings by Percy Smith - Death forbids

Percy Smith, Death forbids, from The Dance of Death series

While in London recently we saw the extensive Imperial War Museum exhibition, Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War. Billed as being the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years, it has needed three posts to do it justice. In this final post I want to highlight a suite of seven etchings by an artist who was completely new to me. The printmaker Percy Delf Smith’s series The Dance of Death, utilises the medieval allegory of the universality of death to express the macabre lottery of life on the Western Front. Continue reading “At the Imperial War Museum (3): Percy Delf Smith’s ‘Dance of Death’”

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At the Imperial War Museum (2): The disturbing vision of William Orpen

At the Imperial War Museum (2): The disturbing vision of William Orpen

 

While in London recently we saw the extensive Imperial War Museum exhibition, Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War. Billed as being the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years, it has needed three posts to do it justice.  This one is concerned with the paintings of William Orpen.

At the outbreak of the First World War, William Orpen was a member of the Royal Academy and a highly successful society portrait painter. How did this artist, regarded as the epitome of conservatism, depict the war? Continue reading “At the Imperial War Museum (2): The disturbing vision of William Orpen”

Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at IWM (part 1)

Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at IWM (part 1)

While we were in London recently we went to the Imperial War Museum to see Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War.  It’s billed as being the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years, and there is certainly a great deal to absorb.  I’ll review what for me were the highlights in this and two succeeding posts. As its title suggests, this retrospective encourages us to think about how artists represented the war, and helped commemorate it – but also, how their work still affects our perception of it a century later. Continue reading “Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at IWM (part 1)”

A Terrible Beauty: British artists in the First World War

A Terrible Beauty: British artists in the First World War

CRW Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, 1914

CRW Nevinson, ‘Returning to the Trenches’, 1914

The art and poetry that emerged from the First World War had no precedent, and both exercise a persistent hold over the public imagination and consciousness in a way unparalleled by any other body of wartime artistic expression. I’ve been reading A Terrible Beauty, Paul Gough’s excellent survey of British artists in the Great War,  which makes plain just how unprecedented was the war artists’ work: both in terms of official patronage and as the individual expression of the horror and waste of war.

Gough has drawn the title of his book from WB Yeats’ poem, Easter 1916, which proclaimed ‘A terrible beauty is born’. Though Yeats was addressing an entirely different subject, Gough’s choice is apt, encapsulating the central problem of art in the war: how can artistic beauty emerge from something so terrible?

Following the wartime careers of artists such as William Orpen, Paul and John Nash, Wyndham Lewis and Stanley Spencer and discussing the work they produced, Gough confronts us with the question: What is the point of a war artist?  Is it to produce patriotic  propaganda or, like a journalist, to record the routines of war? Many (though by no means all) of the artists who enlisted in the armed services – including those recruited into Britain’s first-ever official war artists scheme – produced works which rejected both these options.  Instead, they created art which questioned the war’s purpose and in which the horror of war is palpable.

This generously illustrated volume is based on Gough’s research in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, drawing on letters, diaries and sketches to  tell the stories of the British artists who produced extraordinary paintings and drawings of the war. Gough places the artists in their social, artistic and military context, explores their motivations, and reveals how every one of them was changed forever by the war.

In the heady first months of the war, many painters and sculptors enlisted in the armed forces. Around thirty joined the Royal Army Medical Corps en bloc, while many joined the Artists’ Rifles, an officer-training unit, which attracted painters, poets, architects, writers, and many others with artistic aspirations.  In the years before the war, many younger artists, such as Wyndham Lewis and CWR Nevinson,  had been inspired by the ideas of the Futurist Movement that glorified machinery, noise, and destruction, welcoming the prospect of war as an ‘essential hygiene’ that would cleanse a decadent society.  For the right-wing press, however, war offered an opportunity to rid the country of the avant-garde, with its distinctly un-English and unpatriotic ideas.

But there were others for whom military service offered no attractions: sculptor Jacob Epstein declared ‘Really I am too important to waste my days thinking of matters military’; Paul Nash and William Roberts were cautious, and Richard Nevinson actively tried to avoid active service.

Gough tells how, from the early days of the war, one of the largest and most comprehensive official arts patronage schemes ever devised was initiated by the British government. He traces the origins of the official British war art scheme to a decision made by the Foreign Office in late August 1914 to establish a secret agency to manage and disseminate British propaganda. Headed by the Liberal politician Charles F.G.Masterman, it published and distributed clandestine literature aimed at neutral countries across the globe. In April 1916 a section was established to produce visual propaganda, including war films, picture cards, calendars, bookmarks, lantern-slides as well as photographs and line drawings.

Muirhead Bone, cover of The Western Front, Part 1

Muirhead Bone, cover of ‘The Western Front’, Part 1

Gough describes how, by early 1916, the illustrated newspapers were also seeking authentic front-line images, leading Masterman to contract Muirhead Bone, a well-known Scottish etcher, as the first Official War Artist. Two hundred of his drawings were subsequently published for sale in ten monthly parts, starting in late 1916. The first part featured an effusive foreword by Douglas Haig, Commanding General of the British Expeditionary Force in France.

Heavy Artillery Officers' Mess, Vlamertinghe Chateau, August 1916 1916 by Sir Muirhead Bone 1876-1953

Muirhead Bone, ‘Heavy Artillery Officers’ Mess, Vlamertinghe Chateau’, August 1916

Bone set out on his first sketching trip in the late summer of 1916, ‘equipped with little more than twigs of charcoal and a sketchbook of fine-quality drawing paper’.  It was the height of the offensive on the Somme.  At first, as Gough notes, Bone toured the front line in a chauffeur-driven car, but soon set out on foot to see for himself some of the infamous sites of the Somme battlefield – Delville Wood, Montauban, High Wood.  Between mid-August and early October, in his billet after a day’s sketching, he completed around 150 drawings in charcoal or pencil, with additional touches of brown or grey watercolour.

Waiting for the Wounded at a Collecting Station in the Field on the Somme at Montauban 1916 by Sir Muirhead Bone 1876-1953

Muirhead Bone, ‘Waiting for the Wounded at a Collecting Station in the Field on the Somme at Montauban’, 1916

A Soldiers' Cemetery at Lihons, May 1917 1917 by Sir Muirhead Bone 1876-1953

Muirhead Bone, ‘A Soldiers’ Cemetery at Lihons’, May 1917

Muirhead Bone, Watching our Artillery Fire on Trônes Wood from Montauban

Muirhead Bone, ‘Watching our Artillery Fire on Trônes Wood from Montauban’, 1918

Gough writes that ‘Bone’s mastery of detail is extraordinary’.  While many of his most poignant images of the Western Front ‘depict little more than gaps and absences’, he also captured the individual character of fighting men, drawn resting behind the lines. Ironically, however, his most acclaimed drawing, Gough notes, is not one of these but is the charcoal drawing of a tank made immediately after the war machine’s first combat on 15 September 1916.

Muirhead Bone, Tanks, 1918

Muirhead Bone, ‘Tanks’, 1918

In September 1916, an exhibition opened in London of ‘Paintings and Drawings of War by C.W.R.Nevinson’.  Gough writes that ‘it is not too great a claim to make that Nevinson’s work marked the beginning of a new form of war art’. The exhibition aroused an extraordinary burst of critical and popular approval. Outwardly, Nevinson’s paintings could not have seemed more different than the work of Muirhead Bone, but Nevinson, writes Gough, ‘established a balance between literal representation and the near-abstract visual language of modernist art’ that appealed to the public.

With the flair of a journalist, Nevinson was quick to grasp the greatness of the opportunity offered by the war. He was one of the first British artists to go on active service in the autumn of 1914, volunteering with a Red Cross unit, based at Dunkirk. The unit served in the rear of the French forces in the early months of the war when the worst slaughter occurred (almost half of French war losses came in the first 18 months of the war).  Nevinson’s health broke down under the stress, but back in Britain he painted a series of pictures reflecting his experiences.

CRW Nevinson, The Doctor, 1916

CRW Nevinson, ‘The Doctor’, 1916

The Doctor is, in Gough’s words, ‘a brutally frank canvas, unstinting in its depiction of terrible pain’.  Doctors and medical orderlies are treating injured soldiers in an open building with straw on the floor.  The setting is the ‘Shambles’ (old English for a slaughter-house), a covered goods yard outside Dunkirk where wounded soldiers were treated. Nevinson’s first job as a volunteer with the Red Cross was to tend to the dying men. In his autobiography, Paint and Prejudice, Nevinson describes his work at the ‘Shambles’:

Our doctors took charge, and in five minutes I was nurse, water-carrier, stretcher-bearer, driver, and interpreter. Gradually the shed was cleansed, disinfected and made habitable, and by working all night we managed to dress most of the patients’ wounds.

Nevinson fully intended the painting to be a grim statement of the horrors he had seen at casualty stations:

I regard this picture, quite apart from how it is painted, as expressing an absolutely NEW outlook on the so-called ‘sacrifice’ of war.  It is the last word on the ‘horror of war’ for the generations to come.

Richard Nevinson La Patrie

CWR Nevinson, ‘La Patrie’, 1916

In La Patrie, Nevinson used his memories of what he had seen as an ambulance driver in Dunkirk following the early fighting around Ypres, depicting the awful conditions in an improvised field hospital housed in railway sheds. It’s a  picture that still has elements of Futurism, but though no doubt strange to most exhibition-goers in 1916, the scene was intelligible.

In 1915, Nevinson had told the Daily Express: ‘Our Futurist technique is the only possible medium to express the crudeness, violence, and brutality of the emotions seen and felt on the present battlefields of Europe. His style gradually evolved as the war went on, with the paintings and drawing he made early on reflecting most clearly the elements of Futurism, as seen in reflected in Returning to the Trenches (top) painted on the Western Front in the first year of war.  It demonstrates Nevinson’s extraordinary power and success in suggesting movement, and implies, like many of his pictures, that modern war is not about men as individuals but as merely parts of a complicated and inexorable machine.

C. R. W. Nevinson, Column on the March, 1915

CRW Nevinson, ‘Column on the March’, 1915

C.R.W. Nevinson, A Dawn, 1914, drypoint

CRW Nevinson, ‘A Dawn’, 1914

A Dawn shows French infantrymen marching with a relentless machine-like rhythm to the battle front. The use of repetitive stylized wedge-shaped forms to convey both movement and mass was a recognisable Futurist device. With the fervour of Futurism, before the war Nevinson had celebrated and embraced the violence and mechanised speed of the modern age. But his experience as an ambulance driver in the First World War changed him, and in the paintings and drawings he made while serving at Dunkirk and later when a volunteer in the Royal Army Medical Corps at the General Hospital at Wandsworth, the soldiers are reduced to a series of angular planes and grey colouring, losing their individuality and appearing almost like machines.

C. R. W. Nevinson, A Flooded Trench on the Yser, 1916

CRW Nevinson, ‘A Flooded Trench on the Yser’, 1916

CWR Nevinson, After a Push, 1917

CWR Nevinson, ‘After a Push’, 1917

Gough is reluctant to divide Nevinson’s war work into two distinct and successive styles – early radical, later more overtly realistic and less modernist. Certainly A Flooded Trench on the Yser, painted in 1915, is a bolder, simpler depiction of the battered Flanders landscape than After a Push from 1917. The earlier work is powerful and effective, with design emphasised more strongly than realism.  As in a Japanese print, the falling rain and the bleakness of the devastated landscape is expressed with an economy that is also poignant.

But who would argue that the scarred battlefield covered with water-filled shell craters and barbed wire depicted in After a Push is any less powerful as a critical response to the meaningless destruction of war?  The desolate shattered landscape, speaks powerfully of the bleakness of a war empty of meaning.

CWR Nevinson, A Taube, 1916

CWR Nevinson, ‘A Taube’, 1915

As Gough observes, the overtly realist and non-modernist A Taube was painted in 1915, during the first phase of Nevinson’s war work. The body of a French schoolboy lies on the pavement outside a house. The corpse is surrounded by broken cobblestones from a hole blown in the street during an air raid. The child is the casualty of an attack made from a Taube, a German reconnaissance plane which also carried bombs that were thrown from the cockpit. (Ironically, taube translates as ‘dove’, taub as ‘death’). The casual violence of the scene is symbolic of the deliberate targeting of civilian populations in this war: as the technology of the First World War developed, almost any target could be hit and its legitimacy justified.

In his autobiography, Paint and Prejudice, Nevinson described the scene that had inspired this painting:

Dunkirk was one of the first towns to suffer aerial bombardment, and I was one of the first men to see a child who had been killed by it. There the small boy lay before me, a symbol of all that was to come.

La Mitrailleuse 1915 by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson

CWR Nevinson, ‘La Mitrailleuse’ 1915

For Paul Gough, of all Nevinson’s war paintings La Mitrailleuse represents ‘the single most successful synthesis’ of Nevinson’s talents.  It depicts a French machine gun team ‘bent over their fearsome weapon’:

Everything is locked into place, the three living figures hemmed in by a stockade of wooden beams, the jagged sky barred by an interlocking web of barbed wire. A fourth figure lies sprawled in the shallow foreground, pale and wasted, sinking into the deep mire of the trench while the remorseless noise of the gun fills the composition.

Quoting Laurence Binyon, writing in the New Statesman in May 1917, Gough asserts that Nevinson grasped the appalling truth of war – ‘a world of men enslaved to a terrific machine of their own making’. His genius, Gough argues, lay ‘not merely in articulating the dehumanization of the modern condition, but also in making palpable the soldier’s sufferings, and being able to communicate the ‘feelings of pity and horror that had driven him to paint’.

C. R. W. Nevinson,  Night Arrival of Wounded

CRW Nevinson, ‘Night Arrival of Wounded’, 1915

After he returned from the front, Nevinson served as a volunteer in the Royal Army Medical Corps at the 3rd London General Hospital at Wandsworth (an experience that must have been very similar to that of Stanley Spencer, who was a hospital orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol at about the same time). While there, Nevinson contributed drawings to The Gazette, a monthly magazine for staff and patients. The standard of prose and drawing was high since many of the staff and patients were artists and journalists. In one of the best drawings, Night Arrival of Wounded, a faceless ambulance crew is lifting stretchers from their vehicles. There is both a sense of activity and of mounting casualties.

Nevinson’s exhibition in 1916 was a great success and brought him to the attention of Charles Masterman, head of the government’s War Propaganda Bureau, leading to his appointment as an official War Artist in July 1917. He was sent to the Western Front where he painted another sixty pictures, works that were to feature in a second, hugely successful, exhibition in London in 1918.

Nevinson shared the same mixed feelings about being an official War Artist as Paul Nash who wrote at the time:

I am no longer an artist. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.

Nash and Nevinson were right to be sceptical: being an official artist meant that Nevinson’s second exhibition in 1918 was subject to the intervention of the military censor. Though contemporary critics complained that the second exhibition lacked the visual fervour of his earlier pictures, the military censor prevented the display of Paths of Glory.  Nevinson had the painting displayed, but covered by paper with the word ‘censored’ scrawled on it.  The painting of two corpses face down in the mud and barbed wire makes a polemical statement, but artistically inferior to the earlier work.

Paths of Glory

CWR Nevinson, ‘Paths of Glory’, 1918

Meanwhile, Gough recounts how a new Department of Information was created in February 1917 under the direction of John Buchan (replaced in 1918 by the Anglo-Canadian media tycoon Max Aitken – Lord Beaverbrook).  It was Beaverbrook who created the British War Memorial Committee, modelled on the ambitious Canadian War Memorials scheme, which he personally directed.  Beaverbrook altered the direction and tone of official war art, moving it from the representation of the present (with a short-term emphasis on propaganda and documentary record) to the creation of ‘a permanent legacy for future generations, an emblem of remembrance, a lasting memorial expressed in art’.  Gough describes the rivalry between Beaverbrook’s department and the newly-formed rival National War Museum, which also saw itself as taking the lead in gathering existing war art and settings its own agenda for commissioning new art.

Under the energetic leadership of Arnold Bennett, and with the support of Beaverbrook, the British War Memorials Committee set itself on a very different trajectory from the War Museum. Gough writes:

Independent and original in its thinking, the committee did its utmost to frustrate establishment efforts to promote the old guard of British art. Instead, Bennett and his fellow members offered work to the cadre of younger soldier-artists with the ulterior motive of assembling a significant contemporary collection that would be representative of ‘the greatest artistic expression of the day’.

Remarkably, this meant the Committee giving its support to the sort of modernist work that right wing and conservative factions in the press and society at large despised, since it reminded them of alien and undesirable movements (Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism!)  which they regarded as antithetical to British values.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919

However, the work which came to be the best known of all the commissioned war paintings was a very conventional painting by an artist whose work had come to be regarded as old-fashioned, out of touch and superficial – John Singer Sargent, a man, Gough writes, ‘so removed from the realities of warfare that on his only visit to the battle zone he asked whether there was any fighting on Sundays’.

Yet Gassed is, writes Gough, ‘a vast frieze of pain; a work of compassionate engagement’. The image is of a scene encountered by Sargent on the road south west of Arras – several hundred gassed men, blindfolded and being led away from the battlefield.  Though Gough regards the painting as ‘one of the great monuments of the conflict, a testament to the pity of war’, it is also strangely sanitised – there is an air of discomfort, but no sense of the intense pain that came with the effects of mustard gas.  The bandages are clean, the wounds discreet, the soldiers fit and statuesque.  A single figure appears to vomit, though not in the direction of the viewer.

Beaverbook planned to house the commissioned works in an imposing Hall of Remembrance – similar to an equally grand planned hall in Ottawa.  Artists were paid to produce a single picture for the planned Hall. Younger, less established artists were offered a rather more modest deal – a salary of £300 per annum in return for their total artistic output during that period. This proposal was accepted by artists such as Paul Nash and John Nash
Seventeen large history paintings by artists such as Henry Lamb, Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash, John Singer Sargent, and Stanley Spencer; large sculpture reliefs by Charles Jagger and Gilbert Ledward, and twelve smaller canvases were produced by thirty-one artists. These formed the backbone of major exhibitions of the Nation’s War Pictures that toured Britain immediately after the war.

By contrast the National War Museum (renamed the Imperial War Museum in December 1917) set a very different course. To achieve a comprehensive visual record of the war, the Museum commissioned artists in a systematic and prescriptive way to produce work that recorded wartime activity in eight subject groupings (Army, Navy, Air Force, Merchant Marine, Land, Munitions, Clerical and other work by Women, Public Manifestations).

Beaverbrook’s Hall of Remembrance was not built, probably because, suggests Gough, the War Museum began to openly plot against him, seeking to discredit him, his Ministry and the War Memorial Committee. In July 1918  Beaverbrook ceded the entire operation to the Imperial War Museum, and later resigned as Minister of Information.

However, the paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture that Beaverbrook commissioned survive and are still housed (many of them in storage) in the Imperial War Museum in London. It is, reckons Gough, ‘probably the finest collection of British art in the country outside Tate Britain’.

William Roberts, A Shell Dump, France, 1918

William Roberts, ‘A Shell Dump, France’, 1918

Another example of a work commissioned by Beaverbrook’s department is A Shell Dump, France by William Roberts, one of the pre-war avant-garde Vorticist group. Like his fellow Vorticist and rival, Wyndham Lewis, Roberts enlisted in the Royal Artillery as a gunner, serving on the Western Front.

Having been told that artists were being chosen to do war paintings for the Canadian War Records Office, he applied, and in 1918 was ‘loaned’ to the Canadians for six months as an official war artist. He was subsequently also commissioned by the British Ministry of Information, for whom he painted A Shell Dump, France. His experiences at the front shifted the direction of his work, and significant pieces from his wartime output, such as the powerful Canadian commission The First German Gas Attack at Ypres (1918), dramatically depict the horror of war and are possibly the most acerbic produced by any of the British artists employed under the government’s schemes, compared by some to the social realism of the German artists Otto Dix and George Grosz.

One interesting story recounted by Gough concerns William Orpen, ‘brilliant draughtsman, consummate water-colourist and virtuoso painter’ who before the war could command four-figure fees for his portraits of the wealthy and the powerful of Edwardian society.  Employed as a war artist, and ‘equipped with his own transport, chauffeur, batman and indispensable personal manager’ Orpen toured the Somme producing ‘swagger portraits’ of officers (a ‘swagger portrait’, was, according to Gough, one in which the sitter is shown ‘full length in ostentatious and self-concious display.’

William Orpen, To the Unknown British Soldier in France, 1921

William Orpen, ‘To the Unknown British Soldier in France’, 1921

Days after the Armistice, the Imperial War Museum assigned Orpen to make two large official paintings of the Peace Conference at Versailles – ‘unsatisfactory pieces’, according to Gough.  Having completed those, Orpen embarked on a third panorama of the statesmen gathered in the gilded surroundings of the Hall of Peace at Versailles.  Then, without warning the museum, he painted them all out.  Methodically, he obliterated thirty-six figures, painting in their place a coffin covered by the Union Jack, two semi-nude soldiers guarding it and two cherubs in the air above.

Orpen told the Evening Standard:

It all seemed so unimportant somehow.  I kept thinking of the soldiers who remain in France for ever.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1923, with the title To the Unknown British Soldier in France, it was voted ‘picture of the year by public ballot. However, the posture of the soldiers, the nudity, and the bitter irony of the symbols gave rise to contrasting reactions in the press, with right-wing papers attacking it as a ‘a bad joke’ that lacked dignity and good taste. The left-wing press hailed the painting: the Daily Herald calling it ‘a magnificent allegorical tribute to the men who really won the war’. The Imperial War Museum rejected the painting and witheld the final instalment of Orpen’s fee.

William Orpen, To the Unknown British Soldier in France, 1929

William Orpen, ‘To the Unknown British Soldier in France’, 1929

Five years later, in 1928, Orpen approached the IWM and offered to make changes to the painting.  He painted out the ghostly, insane-looking soldiers, the cherubs and the wreaths. All that remained was the draped coffin and the marble hall. ‘Nothing is left,’ wrote one observer, ‘but a nameless dead soldier in a cold emptiness.  It is a disturbing picture’.

Gough concludes his survey of First World War artists by considering whether any generalisations can be made about  the motivations that drove artists to serve and record what they saw.  He finds it a difficult task, since their attitudes and experiences, both during and after the war, were so varied:

Many wanted merely to escape the petty tedium of service life, to be relatively free from danger and to be modestly rewarded for their talents. [As a result of] wartime experiences a number of them, those who were naturally bellicose, soon found their enthusiasms dampened; those who wanted to be officially recognized and supported were often frustrated in their aims, and nearly all of those who produced memorable art often had to do so in the face of hardship, privations, and an implacable administration which censored their work and taxed their often meagre incomes.

Gough concludes:

The war stimulated some of the best British art of the twentieth century, giving shape to a scheme of arts patronage on a scale never seen before, and nourishing the work of dozens of artists who would populate the creative milieu for decades to come.

I have illustrated this post with work by only a few of the artists discussed in Paul Gough’s generously-illustrated book.  I have written elsewhere about the murals produced by Stanley Spencer for the Sandham Memorial Chapel, perhaps the greatest artwork to emerge from the conflict.  I need to devote another post to the work of the Nash brothers. In July, a transformed Imperial War Museum London reopens with Truth and Memory, the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years.  I hope to be there.

See also

Contemporary Art and War at IWM North

Contemporary Art and War at IWM North

Ori Gersht’s Will You Dance With Me 4

Ori Gersht, ‘Will You Dance For Me’

It wasn’t intentional, but at 11am, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month I was at Imperial War Museum North, taking a look at their brilliant and provocative new show Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War which contains exhibits that range from the wittily satirical to those that are disturbing or deeply moving.

The exhibition – which consists entirely of works from IWM’s collection of twentieth and twenty-first century British art –  explores various artistic responses to war since the first Gulf War in 1990, and sets out to find answers to an interesting question:  what do artists contribute to our perceptions of war and conflict in a time when our general understanding of conflict is increasingly shaped by the media and the internet?

Many of the works displayed here are by artists who were commissioned by the IWM to respond to recent conflicts.  The first British official War Artists’ Scheme was set up by the government in 1916, during the First World War (Paul Nash and Christopher RW Nevinson were among those commissioned then). A larger scheme was established under the War Artists Advisory Committee during the Second World War, resulting in over 3,000 commissioned works being given to the Imperial War Museum (by artists such as Laura Knight, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer and Graham Sutherland). Building on this tradition, IWM has been commissioning contemporary artists  since the early 1970s, at first to create documentary work, but more recently shifting towards encouraging more personal artistic responses to conflict.

The IWM suggests that, ‘working outside the pressures of journalism, artists can propose ideas, urging the viewer to think deeply about what war is, about its immediate impact, its long term repercussions and how we remember it’.  Viewing the response of the artists displayed here, there’s a clear critique of the way in which war and conflict is presented in the media.  While at the time of the Vietnam war it seemed that TV news crews and photo journalists had opened up a new space for critical argument and debate about the war’s objectives and the means by which it was being pursued, now the media are more tightly controlled in conflict situations, and there is a growing emphasis on the media spectacle and instant coverage of events as they unfold.  This leaves little room for more critical or thoughtful perspectives.

This exhibition looks at how artists have questioned and confronted the way in which the media tends to cover conflict in the last 25 years or so.  Some mock the style and methods of the media, while others produce art that rejects the mainstream media’s need for spectacle.

Camp Boundary by Paul Seawright

Paul Seawright, ‘Camp Boundary’, 2002

In 2002 the IWM commissioned Paul Seawright to respond to the war in Afghanistan. Seawright was particularly interested in how an artist might engage with the conflict in a way that was different to the dramatic spectacles of photojournalism, and the photographs he made of minefields are radically opposed to that tradition.  They show a seemingly empty landscape, which in reality is both lethal and inaccessible. Seawright says that he had ‘always been fascinated by the invisible, the unseen, the subject matter that doesn’t easily present itself to the camera’. The Museum suggests that Seawright’s work ‘highlights the changing nature of contemporary warfare with its increasing emphasis on remote technology and hidden enemies’.

John Timberlake, Another Country XV

John Timberlake, Another Country XV, 2001

In his series Another Country, John Timberlake  combines well-known Romantic landscapes by Turner or Constable with nuclear mushroom clouds, taken from sources in IWM’s archives. He’s interested in exploring the idea of the ‘sublime’, used by the Romantics to describe scenes both terrifying and awe-inspiring, in a modern context. These qualities of scale, drama, shock and spectacle are features, he implies, that are increasingly a feature of the contemporary media’s portrayal of conflict. The Museum caption suggests that ‘the cloud is both toxic and fascinating, almost beautiful. The multiple layers in the work remove us from the event, leaving us as passive spectators, simultaneously seduced and disturbed’.  I thought of how we all watched those planes smashing into the towers on a September morning, the sky a beautiful blue.

Trio, Olympic Games Sarajevo, 1994

Trio, ‘Olympic Games Sarajevo 1994’

Trio is a graphic design group made up of husband and wife Bojan and Dada Hadžihalilović with Lela Mulabegović Hatt.  Trapped in the four year siege of Sarajevo and disheartened by the lack of worldwide interest in the conflict, the group produced darkly humorous postcards (later remade into posters) satirising icons of pop culture such as the Coca Cola logo or (as here) the famous image of US soldiers raising the US flag at Iwo Jima to raise awareness.  Their image references the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, which drew huge numbers of visitors to the city. A decade later the city’s residents felt abandoned by the world.

Tartakover, United Colours of Netanyahu

David Tartakover, ‘United Colours of Netanyahu’, 1998

Another example of this satirical approach is provided by David Tartakover’s poster, United Colours of Netanyahu. Tartakover is an Israeli artist and political activist who uses the medium of the poster, often satirising or re-appropriating visual symbols to present a politically provocative perspective on Israel. Here he uses an image of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, posing for a press call with his family, in a re-make of a United Colours of Benetton poster. It is a clear criticism of Netanyahu, and his resistance to the peace process with the Palestinians. The poster suggests an Israel, security-conscious and militarised, maintaining the illusion of a united, happy family.

Taysir Batniji

Taysir Batniji, ‘GH0809: Houses #3, #9, #20’, 2009

Taysir Batniji offers another example of this satirical approach.  He is a Palestinian artist, born in Gaza, but currently living in Paris. His work reflects on the situation in Palestine, but avoids the dramatic, drawing our attention instead to irrational aspects of the situation. GH0809 is a tongue-in-cheek comment on the situation in Gaza, portraying houses bombed by the Israelis in 2008-9 in the form of estate agent information sheets that present the home-seeker with desirable residences, offering the usual mundane details such as square footage and the number of rooms. But the sheets also also quietly state the number of former residents for each house. We do not know what has happened to these people, but the ruined homes shown hardly need a commentary.

John Keane, Death Squad, 1991

John Keane, ‘Death Squad’, 1991

In 1990 John Keane was commissioned as the IWM’s official recorder in the Gulf , just before the first Gulf War began in January 1991.  What could an artist add to our understanding of a conflict given extensive coverage in the media? Free from the responsibility of producing an official record of the war, Keane responded to events in a more personal and subjective way.Keane writes on his website:

I am interested in the process of painting, and I am interested in why human beings want to kill one another for political ends. These two apparently diverse preoccupations I attempt to reconcile by smearing pigment around on canvas in an effort to achieve a result whose success can be measured by how well it disguises the sheer absurdity of the attempt.

The first thing that crossed my mind looking at the ambiguously titled Death Squad, depicting a group of soldiers carrying a body bag, their sunglasses and masks concealing any emotion or expression, was the story of the Royal Marine found guilty by a military court only a few days previously of murdering an injured Afghan insurgent.  But you can read this image in an entirely different way: a group of foot soldiers doing an unpleasant job, clearing the dead from the field of battle.  It’s pertinent that Keane offers this quote on his website from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Then I reach what is perhaps the iconic image of war, and the revulsion felt by millions at the decision of the British government, led by Tony Blair, to go to war in Iraq in 2003, in the face of widespread public protest: Photo-Op by kennardphillipp.

kennardphillips, Photo-Op, 2007

kennardphillips, ‘Photo-Op’, 2007

Peter Kennard and Cat Picton-Phillipps have worked together since 2002, initially to make art in response to the invasion of Iraq. Their work has been shown online, in galleries and on protest marches. They describe their work as a direct means of communication: ‘the visual arm of protest’. Photo-Op, a collage depicting Tony Blair taking a ‘selfie’ in front of a huge explosion was produced in response to the personal anger the two artists felt, and to create something that reflected and validated the enormous public opposition to the war, which they felt had not been reflected in the media.

For me, though, the most moving and powerful works in this exhibition are those in which the artist seeks to explore the legacy of violence and the meaning of memory and loss. Much of this work looks at the links between violent events and the landscape in which they have occurred – and the memory that still resides there. Something of that sort would not lead you to immediately think of the homely landscapes of Britain.

Chris Harrison, 'Sites of Memory Sheerness'

Chris Harrison, ‘Sites of Memory: Sheerness’

But that is exactly what Chris Harrison’s project, Sites of Memory sets out to explore. It’s a series of photographs of First World War memorials that Harrison took as he travelled across Britain. They have a non-committal  and unsentimental appearance, frequently (as is the case with the Tesco store in ‘Sheerness’ on display here) highlighting the incongruity of the juxtaposition between past and present.  The monuments are surrounded by more recent buildings, overgrown greenery and street furniture – all emphasising the passage of time. Often the banality of the surroundings sits uncomfortably with the gravity of the events memorialised, suggesting the fading of collective memory and dwindling recognition of these once-resonant structures.

There were two works on display in the Museum which I had seen once before – on television, in a documentary about the art of war presented by Jon Snow.  One was Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country, a work that commemorates the British service personnel who died during the Iraq War.

Steve McQueen, Queen and Country

Steve McQueen Queen and Country (detail)

Steve McQueen, Queen and Country, 2006

Queen and Country was created by Steve McQueen in response to a visit he made to Iraq in 2003 following his appointment by the Imperial War Museum’s Art Commissions Committee as an official UK war artist. During the six days McQueen spent in Iraq, he was moved and inspired by the camaraderie of the servicemen and women that he met. He proposed that portraits of those who have lost their lives during the conflict be issued as stamps by Royal Mail.

An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in defence of our national ideals.  The stamps would focus on individual experience without euphemism. It would form an intimate reflection of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the everyday – every household and every office.

While discussions were under way with Royal Mail, McQueen made the Queen and Country installation – a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets bearing multiple portrait heads, each one dedicated to an individual, with details of name, regiment, age and date of death printed in the margin.  The images were chosen by the families of the deceased.  You engage directly with this work, sliding out panels that bear the sheets from the wooden cabinet, and contemplating the endlessly repeating images of the dead.  There is something here that questions ideas of sacrifice, community and nationhood.

Deller 1

Jeremy Deller, ‘Baghdad, 5 March 2007’

The other exhibit – not in the exhibition, but in the main gallery space – was a piece by Turner prize-winner Jeremy Deller entitled Baghdad, 5 March 2007. It consists of the wreckage of a car salvaged after suicide bomber detonated a truck packed with explosives, devastating Mutanabbi Street, a historic street of book stores and coffee shops in a mixed Shia-Sunni area of Baghdad.

World Trade Centre steelwork

World Trade Centre steelwork

Perhaps deliberately, the Museum’s organizers have place nearby a piece of twisted steelwork that once formed part of a window section in the World Trade Centre, destroyed in the attack of 11 September 2001 and extracted from the ruins at Ground Zero.  To one side a poem by Simon Armitage is displayed that follows the structure of a poem by Thomas Hardy with the same name:

The Convergence of the Twain

I

Here is an architecture of air.
Where dust has cleared,
nothing stands but free sky, unlimited and sheer.

II

Smoke’s dark bruise
has paled, soothed
by wind, dabbed at and eased by rain, exposing the wound.

III

Over the spoil of junk,
rescuers prod and pick,
shout into tangled holes. What answers back is aftershock.

IV

All land lines are down.
Reports of mobile phones
are false. One half-excoriated Apple Mac still quotes the Dow Jones.

V

Shop windows are papered
with faces of the disappeared.
As if they might walk from the ruins – chosen, spared.

VI

With hindsight now we track
the vapour-trail of each flight-path
arcing through blue morning, like a curved thought.

VII

And in retrospect plot
the weird prospect
of a passenger plane beading an office-block.

VIII

But long before that dawn,
with those towers drawing
in worth and name to their full height, an opposite was forming,

IX

a force
still years and miles off,
yet moving headlong forwards, locked on a collision course.

X

Then time and space
contracted, so whatever distance
held those worlds apart thinned to an instant.

XI

During which, cameras framed
moments of grace
before the furious contact wherein earth and heaven fused.

Ori Gersht’s Will You Dance With Me 1

Ori Gersht’s Will You Dance With Me 2

Ori Gersht, ‘Will You Dance For Me’

For me, there was no doubt which was the most moving and most powerful work in this exhibition. Ori Gersht’s film Will You Dance For Me is projected on two screens.  On the left we see Yehudit Arnon, now aged 85, rocking in and out of the light. Arnon was a prisoner in Auschwitz who, when ordered to dance at an SS officer’s Christmas party, refused and was was forced to stand outside, barefoot in the snow for hours. She swore to herself that if she survived she would devote her life to dance. As she rocks, a windswept snowscape – a field of stubble reminiscent of simple wooden crosses in a graveyard, a distant line of trees – appears on the right hand screen, alluding to the place of her memories.

Ori Gersht’s Will You Dance With Me 3

Yehudit Arnon did survive. She went on to become an internationally renowned dancer and choreographer, and in 1962 founded the Kibbutzim Dance Company. Aged 85 when Gersht filmed her, she had limited mobility, but in the rocking chair she was able to dance one more time.  She died last August, aged 87.

My own personal liberation – it was as like death.  We were made to stand in the courtyard. Suddenly we saw there were machine-guns there. And the Germans… It was clear to us that this was the end. We did not know the date. We did not know that in reality this was the last day. Instead we stood there and waited for the end. It was so extreme, the change, from the moment when I thought to myself “this is the end” – and then suddenly freedom… I could not even grasp it.

When the Germans … asked that I amuse them over Christmas – that was the first time in my life when I could say “No”. And at that moment I didn’t care if they would have shot me, because the conditions were so difficult, that it would not have mattered.

I was not shot. I was punished, and made to stand in the snow, I do not know for how long.  And then I decided, that if I survived, I would spend my whole life working with dance.

Will You Dance With Me: 90 second clip from the 13 minute video

Stepping outside after viewing Gersht’s film of Yehudit Arnon, I recollected that the IWM North building was designed by Daniel Libeskind, a Jewish architect whose parents were Holocaust survivors.  He designed it to resemble a globe shattered by the violence of war, from which a few fragments have been put back together rather chaotically. Once shattered by war, though things might be pieced together, nothing is ever quite whole again.

Gallery: Daniel Libeskind’s IWM

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An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street: a hymn to the book and the word

An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street: a hymn to the book and the word

Iraqi poet Ahmed Abdel Sara recites a poem in ruins of Al-Mutanabbi Street

 

Poet Ahmed Abdel Sara recites a poem as part of a protest by artists and writers against the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street

Built to enshrine free thinking and public access to knowledge, the John Rylands Library in Manchester is an appropriate place to see An Inventory Of Al-Mutanabbi Street, a project conceived by poet Beau Beausoleil and artist Sarah Bodman to ‘re-assemble’ the ‘inventory’ of reading material that was lost when a car bomb exploded in al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad, on 5 March 2007 – an attack in which more than 30 people died and many more wounded.  Outside, Deansgate thrums with city traffic and office workers urgently seeking a brief lunch; inside, there’s a cathedral calm in a place that feels like a temple to the book and the word.

Rylands 1

When a suicide bomber exploded his truck on 5 March 2007, Baghdad’s historic street of book stores and coffee shops in a mixed Shia-Sunni area was devastated. Mutanabbi Street is named after a leading 10th-century poet Abu al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi, who was born in what is now Iraq.  With its book stores and outdoor bookstalls, cafes, stationery shops, and tea and tobacco shops, Mutanabbi Street was regarded by Iraqis as an intellectual hub of the Arab world, and became over the decades a meeting place for writers, artists and intellectuals from across the capital.

I was there. I was on Mutanabbi Street the day it was bombed. The stationery store on Al-Mutanabbi where I worked exploded in flames, and my boss was immediately killed. How I survived, I do not know. I lay in the stockroom and could smell the books and newspapers burning. I could taste the smell of burning hair and flesh on my tongue. Lying on the ground, I watched the entire street turn hot and black with smoke and then, after a few minutes, stared up at the hole in the roof and saw thousands of small grey ashes—pieces of paper, books, newspapers—floating down from the sky. I will never forget that day. It changed us, changed my country forever.
– Mousa al-Naseri

A man stands amid rubble just after a suicide car bomb exploded in al-Mutanabbi Street.

The inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street was as diverse as the Iraqi population, including literature of both Iraq and the Middle East, history, political theory, popular novels, scholarly works, religious tracts, technical books, poetry, mysteries; even stationery and blank school notebooks could be purchased on the street, as well as children’s books, comics, and magazines. Arabic was the predominant language but there were books in Farsi, French, German, and English on sale, too.

For Beau Beausoleil, a San Francisco bookseller, poet, and community activist, the assault on Al-Mutanabbi Street touched a deep nerve. As a bookseller himself and a purveyor of ideas and culture, the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi made an immediate impact and in July 2010, he and artist Sarah Bodman put out a call for book artists to join An Inventory Of Al-Mutanabbi Street, a project designed to be ‘both a lament and a commemoration of the singular power of words’. Book artists from around the world were asked to produce works which reflected both the strength and fragility of books, but also showed the endurance of the ideas within them, in response to the attack on the heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community:

We are among the pages of every book that was shredded and burned and covered with flesh and blood that day.
And to those who would manufacture hate with the tools of language . . .
Those who would take away the rights and dignity of a people with the very same words that guarantee them . . .
And to anyone who would view the bodies on Mutanabbi Street as a way to narrow the future into one book . . .
We say, as poets, writers, artists, booksellers, printers and readers,
That Mutanabbi Street starts here.

Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here

What has now become the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition has evolved to include an anthology of writing and a growing number of artists’ books (several hundred so far) from contributors all over the world, constantly being added to the travelling exhibition that is An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street.  Each artist, poet or book designer has created a work designed to show the commonality of al-Mutanabbi Street with any street, anywhere that has a book shop or cultural meeting place, emphasising that this attack – the latest in a long history of attacks on the printed word – was an attack on us all.  When all the books are finished the Coalition will donate a complete set to the Iraq National Library in Baghdad.

Rylands 4

In the quiet of the Ryland’s reading room where people study beneath the vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows of what has been acclaimed as the best example of neo-Gothic architecture in Europe, exhibition cases display over 150 of the books created for the project, with more arriving by the day.

Obviously, in an exhibition which has contributions from over 150 artists, there is bound to be a wide variation in their approach, quality and noteworthiness. The tone ranges from anger to a gentle poetry.  Collectively, the pieces make a powerful statement.
Until it is in Flame, Beau Beausoleiland Andrea Hassiba, USA
Until it is in Flame, Beau Beausoleiland Andrea Hassiba, USA
Until it is in Flame, Beau Beausoleiland Andrea Hassiba, USA
The project instigator, Beau Beausoleil, along with Andrea Hassiba took three already existing, individual books burned, deconstructed and then reconstructed them. Inside each ravaged book is a space, a receptacle and a box which contains words, a poem.  It conveys the message that poems and words are potent, essential, and must be protected. The box is decorated with symbols: a hand, a fish, ritual objects that evoke reliquaries and shrines.  Beausoleil and Hassiba speak of ‘making visual the essence of what is being protected: the idea that language, words, and poetry are powerful and remarkable and cannot be destroyed’.
Wounded book series I, II, III 2012 Christina Mitrentse, UK
Christina Mitrentse (UK) has used three vintage Pelican books and shot each with one bullet, creating a physical wound in each one. ‘This is a visual statement on the universal importance of literacy’, Mitrentse says. ‘By going back to the importance of learning in the early ages of a child, something that connects all human beings, the act of attacking the book becomes a metaphor  for attacking the body of knowledge as happened in the Al Mutanabbi street bombing’.
Burned Book Sculpture, TS Eliot Ash Wednesday, Sarah Rhys, UK
Burned Book Sculpture by Sarah Rhys (UK) consists of three altered books of Penguin poetry, a homage to the books burnt and damaged by the bombings in al-Mutanabbi street. Rhys adds: ‘I imagine myself there finding half burned books, and after the horror, reading extraordinary fragments of texts. My acts of book burning are inverted demonstrations against censorship and cultural cleansing’.
A nation will fall into ruin if its people do not read books, Karen Apps, UK
‘A nation will fall into ruin if its people do not read books’ by Karen Apps (UK) looks like a child’s sentence-building game.  At the top are what appear at first to be randomly-selected words.  Below, they have been arranged to spell out the words of the title. Apps comments:

A book can carry ideas that are accessed by learning to read. First words then sentences that can be rearranged to make new meanings. We experience the freedom of turning thought into text. We can share ideas with others. We learn. So how do we arrive at a place where words are so threatening as to provoke such atrocities?

Gallery of some of the books in the Inventory

(Click an image to enlarge it)

Al-Mutanabbi Street book designed by Suzanne Vilmain

This is not the first time that the Mutanabbi Street has inspired an artwork.  Before it closed for renovation, the Imperial War Museum in London had put on display a piece by Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller entitled ‘Baghdad, 5 March 2007’. It features the wreckage of a car salvaged after the bombing of Mutanabbi Street.  A witness, Naeem al-Daraji, describes the scene on the museum’s website:

Papers from the book market were floating through the air like leaflets dropped from a plane… Pieces of flesh and the remains of books were scattered everywhere.

There is no evidence of human remains in the car and it was unlikely it was occupied. The car was exported from Iraq in May 2007 with the permission of the Iraqi government, and was donated to the New Museum in New York which commissioned the artist Jeremy Deller to turn it into an art installation.

Deller insists that the bombed-out car is not a work of art. It is what it is – a bombed-out car. It represents the charred remains of people that cannot be shown.  For Deller, the remains highlights that it is civilians and not soldiers who are increasing the victims of conflict. At the beginning of the 20th century, 10% of all casualties in conflict were civilians, now that figure is 90%.

Jeremy-Dellers-Iraq-car

One day there will be a museum dedicated to the conflict in Iraq. Until then we have to imagine what it might contain.  A car destroyed in a suicide bomb attack is a familiar image in the Western media, often a convenient replacement for the human form (or a corpse to be more precise). This particular car was destroyed in an attack on the crowded book market at Al-Mutanabbi street in central Baghdad on March 5, 2007. Thirty eight people were killed and hundreds injured. And only recently has the market reopened.  Al-Mutanabbi street is a cultural and social hub of Baghdad, and the attack was inevitably interpreted as an attack on contemporary Iraqi culture itself as opposed to the ancient culture of museums and historic sites.

—Jeremy Deller

The vitality and destruction of  Al-Mutanabbi Street were also captured in a prize-winning documentary shot before and after the bombing called A Candle for the Shahbandar Café:

The rubble in Al-Mutanabbi street was quickly cleared, and today the street is recovering. But many Iraqi writers, scattered into exile by continuing sectarian violence, have not returned.  A local resident quoted in a recent news report stated:

Mutanabbi Street has nothing to do with the reality of Iraq – it is an isolated island, the Iraq of our dreams. While outside we are confronted with violence and silly politicians, the Iraq of our reality, here we have the Iraq of our dreams.  Now, Mutanabbi Street is bustling with activity on Fridays, its narrow expanse crammed with street-side vendors and musty stores packed to the brim with literature. What makes us happy in this place is the lack of intolerance and hatred. Mutanabbi is the best of this country’s culture.

Mutanabbi Street 2012

 

Mutanabbi Street in 2012

 

Mutanabbi Street 2012

Mutanabbi Street in 2012

One of the book artists represented here, Stephanie Sauer, has made this video of her exhibit – ‘I Dare You’ – being constructed  whilst she recites the place and year of every act of recorded book-burning and destruction she could find, from 4100 BCE to the 21st century.  She writes:

I Dare You is my hymn to each and every page, person, symbol, codex, mural, tapestry, scroll, carving and oral account throughout history that has been banned, shamed, destroyed or subverted. Each collaged image is a surviving piece of a work or a culture or a tradition whose destruction was attempted or achieved. Somehow, always, these pieces survive or are remade.

The cities and dates spoken in the film are sites at which books were burned or otherwise destroyed throughout known history. I wanted to not only link them, but to point out that these attempts are not ends. That such targeted works and ideas do in fact continue on, even if they take different forms.  So, destroy this book. Drown it. Question its legitimacy, relevancy, need. Strike a match and light this book aflame.

I Dare You from Copilot Press on Vimeo.

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