Bruegel in Vienna, part 2: Religion, politics and war

Bruegel in Vienna, part 2: Religion, politics and war

In the first part of this appreciation of the Bruegel room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, I looked at Bruegel’s paintings of the seasons. This time I want to explore a group of paintings that share a preoccupation with religion, politics and war. Continue reading “Bruegel in Vienna, part 2: Religion, politics and war”

‘The heartbeat of who we are’: Jeanette Winterson on war, wealth and creativity

‘The heartbeat of who we are’: Jeanette Winterson on war, wealth and creativity

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson

She began with Dorothy Wordsworth walking the Lakeland fells in May 1800 and continued by way of Karl Marx, prehistoric cave painting, James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,  John Maynard Keynes, Degas and the Arts Council, to arrive at the First World War and Wilfred Owen.  All this in the space of  a brilliant fifteen minute essay by Jeanette Winterson broadcast on Radio 3 last week.

Winterson’s essay was one of a series in which writers from different countries were asked to reflect on the meaning of the First World War for them personally, and as a creative artist. Lavinia Greenlaw, who curated the series, gave the contributors only the loosest of frameworks, borrowing the title, Goodbye to All That, from Robert Graves’s famously ‘bitter leave-taking of England’ in which he wrote not only of the First World War but also of the questions it raises: how to live, how to live with each other, and how to write.

Jeanette Winterson used her fifteen minutes to sing a hymn of praise to creativity – ‘the heartbeat of who we are’ – and to indict the capitalist system and its drive to maximize profit for fostering inequalities which eliminate for the great majority the opportunity to be creative or to enjoy the creative arts. ‘Underneath the endless, acute crises of our planet’, she argued, ‘is the chronic crisis of how we manage what it is to be human.’ For Winterson, the question posed by the First World War and all those that have followed is: ‘Why is it that no matter what shape we are in we can always afford a war?’

Winterson began with Dorothy Wordsworth in May 1800, walking in Ryedale and meeting a friend who observes that ‘soon there will only be too ranks of people, the very rich and the very poor’.  She notes how Dorothy’s journals were alert to both ‘the flow of beauty – and poverty’, and how her friend, at their meeting in 1800 – alert to the implications of the emerging industrial revolution – had prophesied ‘the present state of our world in which the richest 85 people control more wealth than the poorest three and a half billion’.

A few decades later, Winterson continues, Marx envisaged a socialist future where our basic needs – food, water, shelter, health, rest and so on – could be met collectively, so that people might have the means and the leisure to supply their human needs – education, books, music,art, friendship, and curiosity. In other words – creativity.

In a spell-binding section of her talk Winterson unpacks her understanding of ‘creativity’: she gives examples of daily activities which reveal its presence.  Creativity is there ‘every day in everything we do’ (or at least, it should be, or could be, she insists).  Creativity is revealed in cave paintings from prehistoric times – ‘the earliest expressions of what it means to be a human being’.

Hargreaves’ spinning jenny represented that creativity, too.  But whereas the technology of the Industrial Revolution ought to have been liberating, instead it ‘became a measure of what had been lost’. With all the technological advances since then, Winterson argues, ‘we should be working less, not more’.  That we are not is because ‘profit is more important than people’.

In 2008, when the crisis happened, recalls Winterson, it seemed like a golden opportunity to act a basic question: ‘is the economy for human beings – or are human beings for the economy?’  Instead, as she crisply expresses it, ‘politicians talked about capitalism like a powerful car, stolen for a while by a few crazy teenagers and driven too fast and crashed.  Fix the car, get decent drivers back behind the wheel, and off we go towards the sunshine.’

From there, it’s a short hop to Thomas Picketty, whose Capital in the 21st Century challenged whole basis of modern capitalism by bringing economics back to the key question of inequality. Exploring the nature of inequality and deprivation, Winterson concludes:

I do not believe that the point of being human is for the majority to scrape a living with not a chance at the imaginative, open, ingenious, curious, playful, creative life that we see in every one of our children. How can we dream if we can’t sleep in safety?  What chance to read a book, let alone write one, without a home? How can you buy even the cheapest theatre ticket when you need two jobs just to feed the kids?

Underneath the endless, acute crises of our planet, she argues, is ‘the chronic crisis of how we manage what it is to be human’.  Which brings her, at last, to the significance of the First World War.  ‘Why is it’, she questions, ‘that no matter what shape we are in we can always afford a war?’

War dead

Winterson concludes by reading Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Futility’, written in May 1918, not long before he was killed in a particularly futile effort in the last moments of the war:

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

At the end of the First World War, notes Winterson, the motto became ‘lest we forget’. Recalling that John Maynard Keynes, tasked with negotiating the French war debt to Britain, secured an agreement that a collection of paintings by Degas (modern art!) should be accepted in lieu of payment – and then displayed, free of charge, to the public in the National Gallery, Winterson incisively compares that act with the recent Arts Council cuts in support for the arts forced in consequence of bailing out the collapsed banks.  That same Arts Council, she notes, that was established by Maynard Keynes. No Marxist, Keynes did believe, argues Winterson, that wealth should be in the service of human beings.

‘Lest we forget’: what it means to be human.  Creativity, insists Winterson, is not ‘ornament or luxury’, but ‘the heartbeat of who we are’

Better to hear Jeanette Winterson read the essay herself.  It’s available for a year on iPlayer or permanently as a downloadable podcast. Or you can read it here on the 14-18 website.

The Last Days of Troy: Homer by Armitage

<em>The Last Days of Troy</em>: Homer by Armitage

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus –
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds
– The Iliad,
Book One, opening lines

I’ve never been able to keep straight in my head the stories and characters of the Greek myths – who did what to whom, who was related to whom, and who was mortal, who of the gods.  So I was mightily appreciative of Simon Armitage’s Last Days of Troy which we saw performed at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester this week: the clarity of the language and narrative drive of his adaptation of the Iliad meant that I never once lost the plot.

Somehow, Armitage has managed to compress into a three and a quarter hour performance the essence of fifteen thousand lines of the Iliad, as well as throwing in episodes from The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. He has done this by paring the epic poem to the bone and focussing on the wrath of the maverick Greek warrior, Achilles. The production grips throughout – a combination of Armitage’s poetic prose, imaginative staging, and powerful performances by several members of the cast.

Zeus (Richard Bremmer) and his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) in The Last Days of Troy
Zeus (Richard Bremmer) and his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) in The Last Days of Troy

Homer’s Iliad written around 700 BC, begins at the end of the ten-year siege of Troy by a coalition of Greeks determined to revenge the abduction by the Trojan prince Paris of Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. But Armitage places another act of vengeance at centre stage in this adaptation – Achilles’s wrath when his ­commander-in-chief Agamemnon seizes Briseis, Achilles’s captive woman, as his own compensation. Achilles, his pride and honour outraged, withdraws from the fighting and persuades his mother, the goddess Thetis, to ask Zeus to turn the tide of war against the Greeks, with appalling consequences. Simone Weil once remarked that ‘the true hero, the true ­subject at the centre of The Iliad is force, that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing’. Later on in this production, a powerful and terrifying scene in which Achilles howls and tears at a body he has butchered revealed the truth of Weil’s words in the most vivid terms. Stubbornly resisting appeals to return to battle, Achilles has ­eventually agreed to send his beloved comrade, Patroclus, into the fray.When Patroclus is killed by Hector, Achilles embarks on a lengthy and pitiless slaughtering spree, finally killing Hector and dragging his mutilated triumphantly around the walls of Troy.

The play opens in present-day Hisarlik in north-west Turkey, the archaeological site where the remains of Troy have been excavated. The god Zeus is now reduced to being a pedlar to the tourists – selling little statues of the gods and replicating himself as a living statue performer. He relives his memories of the siege and the machinations of the gods that extended a wasteful and horrifying war.

Why do nations go to war? At whose orders? These are issues still as urgent today as they were some three millennia ago when Homer gathered echoes and whispers from events that took place in the Bronze Age, four- or five-hundred years before he was born.  You could interpret the clumsy interventions by bumbling gods as a comment on modern-day politicians who lead their nations to war, while other aspects of the narrative such as the factional struggles, the grandiose but hollow rhetoric of war, the delusion and growing despair might seem familiar. But Armitage and director Nick Bagnall resist the temptation to draw heavy-handed parallels with present-day conflicts.

Although Simon Armitage has made these connections in interview, his play seems to be primarily concerned – just as in Homer’s original telling, or in Alice Oswald’s stunning Memorial – with presenting us with a clear-eyed view of the carnage of war.  A couple of years ago, in the London Review of Books, Edward Luttwak wrote of how, in Homer’s poem:

Spears cut through temples, foreheads, navels, chests both below and above the nipple. Even despised bows kill, and heavy stones appear as weapons. Joyful victors strip their victims of their armour and gain extra delight from imagining their weeping mothers and wives. Yet the Iliad is a million miles away from the pornography of violence offered by many lesser war books, battle paintings, martial sculptures and most obviously films, in which the enemy bad guys are triumphantly trampled or gleefully mown down, because the humanity of the victims, their terror and their atrocious pain, are fully expressed. The powerful affirmation of the warrior’s creed – we are all mortal anyway so let us fight valiantly – coexists with the unfailingly negative depiction of war as horrible carnage.

Sneaking a look at Adam Nicolson’s  new book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, which Rita has just begun reading, I see that he asserts that:

The siege of Troy, often seen as a kind of war, as if these were two states battling with each other’, is in fact more like a gang from the ghetto confronting the urban rich … the hero-complex of the Greek warriors is simply gang mentality writ large.

‘Iliadic behaviour’, he writes, ‘echoes through modern urban America.  gang members ‘talk about themselves, their lives, their ambitions, their idea of fate, the role of violence and revenge, in ways that are strangely like the Greeks in the Iliad.’  As I read that sentence, I thought of The Wire, The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad.

So, revenge is one strand here in Simon Armitage’s stage dramatization; another is his implication that Helen’s abduction was really just an excuse. The final scene seems to suggest that the real motivation of the Greeks was plunder and annihilation of a rival state, rather than justice for Helen’s seizure. In this production, we are drawn inexorably into a forcefield of consequential violence. Armitage has explained how he excised minor characters, parallel narratives and self-contained episodes, and rolled some principal characters into one in order to maintain the narrative thrust. Odysseus, for example, is an amalgamation of several high-ranking nobles in the Greek encampment, though Armitage has expressed the hope that he has preserved the personal traits associated with him.

Ashley Martin-Davis’s stage design includes some striking visual effects: the Trojan warriors emerge from a smoke-filled tunnel as if from the mists of time, while the arrival of the wooden horse, which lies beyond the scope of the Iliad, is done with great effect. There are powerful performances from Jake Fairbrother as Achilles and Simon Harrison as Hector. Richard Bremmer is a rather comedic Zeus, Colin Tierney makes an impression as wily Odysseus,  while David Birrell gives a good performance as Agamemnon.

Lily Cole as Helen of Troy Photo-Jonathan-Keenan
Lily Cole as Helen of Troy (photo by Jonathan-Keenan for the Royal Exchange)

Talking about it afterwards (appropriately enough, over meze at Dimitri’s at the bottom of Deansgate), we did feel that were weaknesses in respect of the presentation of the women and the gods – failings that were apparent in both the writing and the performances.  None of the women in the play really shone  – Lily Cole, in particular, gave a performance that was as inexpressive and wooden as the ships her face reputedly launched. She has one haunting moment, however, when she sings a lament to seduce the Greeks inside the wooden horse with dreams of home. (In the programme, the words are in English, but I could not identify in which language Cole was singing).

As far as the gods were concerned – they were presented as figures of fun, bickering among themselves, rather than cosmic forces feared by men.  I know there is an element of this in Homer, but the humour did deflate the tragic intensity. The immortals may have squabbled, and their bickering may have worsened the conflict, but in Homer’s time they were perceived as divine beings; here they appeared to be no more than a bunch of petulant, squabbling relatives.

fresco depicting lyre player with a bird, palace of Nestor, Pylos
A fresco depicting a poet with a lyre and a bird, Myccenaean palace of Nestor, Pylos

 Apart from those reservations, though, this was a gripping production.  As always, the question is why, in Edward Luttwak’s words, ‘people keep buying and presumably reading an interminably long, frequently repetitive and intermittently gruesome Iron Age rendition of Bronze Age combat’.  In his new book, Adam Nicolson reckons it’s all to do with ‘Homer’s embrace of wrongness, his depiction of a world that stands at a certain angle to virtue.’

He does not give us a set of exemplars.  These poems are not sermons. We do not want Achilles or even Odysseus to be our model as men.  Nor Penelope or Helen as women.  Nor do we want to worship at the shrine of Bronze Age thuggery.  What we want is Homeric wisdom, his fearless encounter with the dreadful, his love of love and hatred of death.

In the Royal Exchange programme, Simon Armitage puts it this way:

Ancient fables endure for all kinds of reasons, but their continued relevance to the way we live now plays a major part in their survival. At the time when this play will be premièred many countries will be marking and commemorating the centenary of the First World War, with images of atrocities and questions of military morality high in people’s minds, just as they were for Homer. Moreover, the channel or strait that runs from the Bosphorus to the Dardanelles or Hellespont continues to symbolise a political, economic, cultural, philosophical and religious fault line between east and west. In that context, the story of Troy is a blueprint for a conflict that rages to this day.

See also

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

See also

Tim Hetherington’s soldiers: ‘You never see them like this’

Tim Hetherington’s soldiers: ‘You never see them like this’

Restrepo 4

At Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery this month there’s an exhibition that pays tribute to the work of Liverpool-born photojournalist Tim Hetherington who was killed on 20 April 2011 during a mortar attack on the besieged city of Misrata in Libya, where he was covering the conflict. I went to see the exhibition this week, as well as watching  Restrepo, the film shot by Hetherington and edited with Sebastian Junger that documents 15 months during which an American company defended a remote outpost in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan, under almost daily fire.

The title of the Open Eye exhibition, You Never See Them Like This, is a quote by Tim Hetherington talking to his creative collaborator Sebastian Junger, describing the revelation he had looking at the sleeping soldiers:

They always look so tough… but when they’re asleep they look like little boys. They look the way their mothers probably remember them.

The soldiers portrayed in the images on display at Open Eye are, for the most part, barely out of their teens.  The morning after seeing the exhibition I opened the Guardian to read this introduction by Blake Morrison to a poem he has written for a new anthology to mark the centenary of the First World War, in which poets respond to poetry, letters and diary entries from the war years:

I’ve been shocked by the tender age of some of the British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan: would armies exist if no one under 25 was allowed to fight? Wilfred Owen has poems that touch on this theme, but I’ve chosen something less well known that I came across in a 50-year-old anthology – Ewart Alan Mackintosh’s ‘Recruiting’, which dissects the jingoistic doublespeak used to persuade young men to go to war. My poem was partly inspired by its plain speaking – but much more so by the death of a young man my son was at school with, Mark Evison, and by the book that his mother Margaret as written about her struggle to discover how and why he died.

Blake Morrison’s poem Redacted (follow the link to see the poem displayed for full impact) is, like Ewart Alan Mackintosh’s ‘Recruiting’, a bitter critique of wars that are instigated and directed by men considerably more advanced in years than the teenagers who fight them:

As to claims that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable,
That teenagers are being used as cannon fodder and that
Their deaths serve no purpose whatsoever –
To comment would be inappropriate.

The concluding lines of Ewart Alan Mackintosh’s ‘Recruiting’ might be an epitaph for the American boys killed or wounded at camp Restrepo during the time that Tim Hetherington was embedded with them:

Lads, you’re wanted. Come and learn
To live and die with honest men.

You shall learn what men can do
If you will but pay the price,
Learn the gaiety and strength
In the gallant sacrifice.

Take your risk of life and death
Underneath the open sky.
Live clean or go out quick –
Lads, you’re wanted. Come and die.

Sleeping 2

Young soldier sleeping, camp Restrepo, Korengal valley, June 2008

Teenagers, lads, wanted for gallant sacrifice, to die.  Hasn’t it always been so, from the Trojan Wars to the trenches, from Vietnam to Afghanistan?

You said that you and God were friends.
Over and over when you were at home
You said it. Friends. Good friends. That was your boast.
You had had me, your child, your only child
To save Him from immortal death. In turn,
Your friend, the Lord our God, gave you His word,
Mother, His word: If I, your only child
Chose to die young, by violence, far from home,
My standing would be first; be best;
The best of bests; here; and in perpetuity.
And so I chose. Nor have I changed. But now –
By which I mean today, this instant, now –
That Shepherd of the Clouds has seen me trashed …’
(from the opening of Christopher Logue’s War Music)

Sleeping soldiers

The centrepiece of Open Eye’s exhibition of Tim Hetherington’s work is not a photograph but a three-channel video installation entitled Sleeping Soldiers. The work juxtaposes images of the young American soldiers asleep at camp Restrepo with video of intense conflict and fighting that appear on the two flanking screens, sometimes bleeding into the image of the sleeping soldier as if they are haunted by the scenes replaying in their dreams. It’s a powerful and deeply moving work that emphasises the fragile vulnerability of these men who, in Hetherington’s words, ‘look like little boys … the way their mothers probably remember them’.

The still images on display here have all been selected from the period which Hetherington in the Korengal Valley, recording the arrival of a US contingent tasked with establishing an outpost in this remote north eastern part of Afghanistan. Like many of Hetherington’s photographic projects, his work with the Restrepo contingent highlights his preference for establishing close relationships with his subjects through long-term observation, and his interest in narrative.  The Periscope interviewed Hetherington after he and Sebastian Junger had returned from Afghanistan where they had shot footage that would form the feature-length documentary Restrepo:

I was brought up pretty much on the move. We lived in 12 different pl aces growing up. My parents by nature they moved around a lot. It gets into your blood. Then, in 1992, there was a recession in Britain and there was no job, so I left the country and started travelling. I got into photography because of that. I have travelled to about 70 or 80 countries. Around 2005 and 2006, I lived in West Africa and worked in 25 to 30 countries in Africa. That is because while I travel for assignment work, people ask “Will you go do this?.” But I am not interested in being a war photographer who flies from hot zone to hot zone. That is not what I do. My work is in depth. So my personal work is focused on long-term projects and for that, I’ve lived in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and now Afghanistan.

Really my works are narratives, I am really interested in stories. I find different visual ways to talk about narratives, political narratives. My work is about conflicts and politics, but links to a very intense kind of intimacy like soldiers sleeping. I am interested in getting very close to my subjects, and I live how they live, and share things with them.

Hetherington’s images speak of days of intense conflict broken up by long periods of boredom, waiting for the next contact. They explore how the soldiers cope with an emotionally intense and draining existence, looking at how they build up resilience and manage their feelings. Hetherington documents the strong ties of brotherhood forged during the year at the forward post:

I feel awkward when I kind of get into a subject, because I am on the outside. So the question is how you get onto the inside? You have to learn how to connect with people. And I think honesty is the most important thing. You can see someone being honest in their work. You can sense it. People also sense the honesty when you deal with them. We are humans, we pick up all sorts of subtle body language. If you drop me in a foreign country anywhere, I will survive OK because I will adapt.

Sleeping 3

Soldier sleeping, camp Restrepo, Korengal valley, June 2008

For 15 months, between 2007 and 2008, Tim Hetherington, and reporter Sebastian Junger shadowed these men. The journalists compiled their work in a documentary, Restrepo, and a book of photography, Infidel, documenting the time during which they shared food and sleeping quarters with the soldiers, and joined them on patrols. Hetherington told the Independent:

The book and film are about the intimacy of war. That’s what I see when I see the photographs of these guys sleeping. We are used to seeing soldiers as cardboard cut-outs. We dehumanise them, but war is a very intimate act. All of those soldiers would die for each other. We’re not talking about friendship. We’re talking about brotherhood.

Reviewing the book for the Independent in 2010, Rob Sharp commented:

Their sleeping beauty belies the danger of their situation. In a tiny outpost built on a steep hillside in north-eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, these men could be attacked at any moment. US troops nickname the Korengal the “Valley of Death” because, by the end of September 2007, one-fifth of all the country’s fighting had happened here. In early 2008, Battle Company’s Second Platoon, part of the Second Battalion of the US army’s 503rd Infantry Regiment, built “Outpost Restrepo” to draw enemy fire away from soldiers based at the bottom of the valley. The fortification was named after Juan Restrepo, their platoon medic, killed during the first two months of their deployment.

Korengal Valley, 2007 3

Afghanistan, Korengal Valley. A soldier from 2nd platoon rests at the end of a day of heavy fighting at the Restrepo outpost, 2007

After Hetherington’s death, Micahael Kamber wrote:

His books – Infidel and Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold – are genre-bending meditations on masculinity and violence. His revolutionary images communicate the horror, the banality, and the humanity of war with incomparable immediacy. His video installations – Diary and Sleeping Soldiers – transcend boundaries between journalism and art, engaging new audiences by portraying war with unprecedented intimacy.

Restrepo 1

Sergeant Sterling Jones of the 2nd Battalion Airborne of the 503rd US Infantry practises his golf swing while on deployment in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, in April 2008.

Restrepo 7

Korengal Valley, Kunar Province. July 2008. Specialist Tad Donoho watches while other members of 2nd Platoon look at porn in their hootch at the main firebase in the valley.

In the images displayed at Open Eye it is easy to sense the fascination that Hetherington had for the way young men become enamoured of war, and the powerful bonds it creates between them. His photographs explore answers to a question he asked himself: ‘what is it about war that really draws men?’  What many of these images reveal is an addiction to the thrill of violence and conflict – something to which he was not immune  himself: ‘Which way is the front-line from here?’ he asked, just hours before he was killed.

At the same time, Hetherington’s images highlight the close physical bonding between these young men.   ‘War,’ said Hetherington, ‘is the only place where young men can openly show affection for one another without it being misinterpreted as something sexual’.


Mock fighting at camp Restrepo

There are reminders here of the lines on the opening page of Matterhorn, the novel of the Vietnam war by Karl Malantes:

From the skipper right on down, they all wore the same filthy tattered camouflage, with no rank insignia, no way of distinguishing them.  All of them were too thin, too young, and too exhausted.  They all talked the same, too, saying fuck, or some adjective, noun, or adverb with fuck in it, every four words.  Most of the intervening three words of their conversations dealt with unhappiness about food, mail, time in the bush, and the girls they had left behind in high school.

Or, indeed, Kevin Powers’ fiction informed by his experience of serving as a machine gunner with the US Army in Iraq, The Yellow Birds, a novel I only got round to reading last month. The title is taken from a marching song he learned with the army:

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
my windowsill.
I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head.

Korengal 2

Soldiers at the Restrepo outpost pass the time with a mock fight.

Kevin Powers wrote his brilliant novel (it received the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction and the Guardian First Book Award for 2012) as his own attempt to answer the question, ‘What was it like over there?’ It’s an exploration of the first conundrum of war: how can you retain your humanity when sacrificing it might be the only way that you could survive?

As with the poets, so with novelists: warfare has served as a source of great literature. From The Iliad to All Quiet on the Western Front, from Hemingway and Mailer to Michael Herr’s Dispatches, writers have been determined to portray the brutality and ultimate futility of combat.  Kevin Powers’ extraordinary first novel sits easily alongside these great examples of war literature.

Korengal Valley, 2007 2

Tad Donoho pictured after he was given a ‘pink belly’, a traditional slapping of the stomach administered by other members of the platoon on someone’s birthday.

In The Yellow Birds, two soldiers barely out of their teens bond during basic training, but only one survives service in Iraq. Bartle is a young US soldier, haunted by the death of his close friend, Murph, during the war, especially after making a promise to Murph’s mother to watch the younger man’s back. Powers cuts between the present, with Bartle, disturbed and isolated, back in America, and events that took place in Iraq that Bartle is trying to make sense of. As you might expect, the novel is graphic and brutal in parts, but there are also unexpectedly poetic passages, such as the novel’s superb opening passage:

The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.

Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all colour from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings. It cast a white shade on everything, like a veil over our eyes. It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded. Not that our safety was preordained. We were not destined to survive. The fact is we were not destined at all. The war would take whatever it could get. It was patient. It didn’t care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the would have its way.

The war had killed thousands by September. Their bodies lined the pocked avenues at irregular intervals. They were hidden in alleys, were found in bloating piles in the troughs of the hills outside the cities, the faces puffed and green, allergic now to life. The war had tried its best to kill us all: man, woman, child. But it had killed fewer than a thousand soldiers like me and Murph. Those numbers still meant something to us as what passed for fall began. Murph and I had agreed. We didn’t want to be the thousandth killed. If we died later, then we died. But let that number be someone else’s milestone.

John Burnside, reviewing the book for The Guardian, wrote:

Kevin Powers was a soldier in Iraq for two years, serving in Mosul and Tal Afar. In a brief preface he says that The Yellow Birds began as “an attempt to reckon with one question: what was it like over there?” However, he quickly decided that he was unequal to that task, because “war is only like itself”.

This is a perennial problem in trying to describe those experiences that relatively few share: war, madness, extreme violence or suffering, spiritual visions – all of these are only like themselves. But the fact is that, while they cannot be fully conveyed in words, the work of bearing witness – to create what Powers calls “the cartography of one man’s consciousness” – is essential; and while few will have expected the war in Iraq to bring forth a novel that can stand beside All Quiet on the Western Front or The Red Badge of Courage, The Yellow Birds does just that, for our time, as those books did for theirs.

In the creation of his three principals, moreover, Powers has given us a highly sensitive and perceptive portrayal of men at war: the mysterious, vulnerable Murph and the brutal but enormously damaged Sterling are wonderfully delineated, and it is no accident that the central character’s surname makes us think of Melville’s Bartleby, another man numbed to the point where, in the end, all he can do is refuse to perform the few simple acts that would preserve him.

No doubt it will seem rash to make such references in praise of a first novel, but they are difficult to resist after a close reading of this extraordinary work: the final vision alone, in which a young man’s tortured and broken – but also transfigured – body is washed away by the slow current of the Tigris is both highly risky and beautifully accomplished, the mark of an artist of the first order.

Sebastian Junger (left) and Tim Hetherington

As this exhibition amply demonstrates, Hetherington was a master of many mediums: audio, film, video, and photography. He was, colleagues observed, not interested in being labelled. He was neither a film maker nor a photographer. Rather, as he himself expressed it, he was working at ‘transjournalism’, a multidisciplinary approach to getting the message to as wide an audience as possible: ‘If you’re interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer” he told fellow photojournalist Michael Kamber.

We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something, in terms of mass communication, that is past. I’m interested in reaching as many people as possible.

So Hetherington shot both still images and video footage.  The video was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, a collaboration with journalist Sebastian Junger. The same work produced the photographs in his award-winning book Infidel, while he combined both media to create Sleeping Soldiers, juxtaposing chaotic scenes of combat with still images of soldiers at rest.

Korengal Valley, 2007

Korengal Valley. 2007. US bomb insurgents who are attacking from the northern positions in the village of Donga with phosphorus.

After the sequence of still images of Afghanistan, the exhibition ends in the upper gallery with Diary, a 20 minute video that blends fragments of fearful moments from stories that Hetherington had covered – Liberia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan – with very personal video footage – of his family in an idyllic, sun-kissed England, and of himself, the war photographer constantly on the move from one location to another, on the phone in hotel rooms, waking to a stirring fan or mosquito netting shifting in the morning air.

There are glimpses of moments of terrifying violence: on a street in Sri Lanka a man is being pushed around before being noticed by a group of armed who drag him away to certain doom, his eyes blank with fear and terror.  Hetherington described Diary as:

An experimental film that expresses the subjective experience of my work … a kaleidoscope of images that link our western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media.

This short film represents a powerful and moving attempt by Hetherington to come to terms with his own conflicting thoughts on the impact that ten years of war reporting was having on him.  There’s one scene in a hotel room where he is on the phone, presumably being interviewed about his work. Responding to a question about images he’d shot, we hear him defend their validity, his words trailing off into silence:

I make the pictures to try to understand the situation for myself.  If you say suggest there is no hope, then I…, I…

Subjectively probing deep and unconscious memory, Diary doesn’t follow any chronology or tell a consistent story. But the density and complexity of the images that form this short film are clearly the result of a deliberate artistic process, and suggest that Hetherington’s work might have taken an interesting direction had he survived.

I didn’t use any selection criteria. If anything, the criteria was that I wanted it to be like a dream, like a stream of consciousness. There is no set criteria in a dream.

Stephen Mayes, photographer and friend of Tim Hetherington, has written the following introduction to the Open Eye exhibition:

In his cruelly short career Tim Hetherington helped shape a change in our understanding of conflict reporting. Working with an expanded vision that stretched far beyond describing the drama of action, he invited his audience to place themselves in a world that is continuously connected from viewer to protagonist.

Often described as a conflict photographer, Hetherington’s mission was never so simple. “Trying to understand my own fascination with conflict and war has become something that started to focus on what it means to be a man. What is it about war that really draws men?” Never selfishly obsessed but always acutely self aware, Hetherington was intensely focused on understanding the issues underlying the subjects he investigated and with sharing his insights with the wider world. “My work is all about building bridges between me and the audience” he said shortly before his death in 2011.

We see him work through this process in the trajectory of this exhibition. His mission in Korengal Valley starts with the direct reporting of conflict: guns, munitions, action and stress, but across the year he spent with Second Platoon of the 503rd US Infantry at Outpost Restrepo the tone mellows and the more intimate and surprising aspects of conflict begin to emerge. Boredom, play and daily routine begin to fill the frame.

I became less interested in photographing combat and more interested in the relationships that existed between the soldiers. I saw that there was a special kind of bonding going on – something forged by the extreme circumstances. Someone once told me, “Only in war is it possible for men to demonstrate their love for one another.”

By the time he left the Korengal, Hetherington had immersed us in the dreams of the Sleeping Soldiers, stripped of their hardware. In so doing, he invites us to reflect on the fine line that separates vulnerability from aggression, and consider the public role that these men play. Hetherington’s intimacy with the men is only a symptom of a more profound exploration. In effect, Sleeping Soldiers is a reflection on masculinity that looks deeper than the role-play and performance of war and strips away the familiar iconography of conflict to contemplate the origin rather than the consequences of aggression. Tim stated:

The truth is that the war machine is the software as much as the hardware. The software runs it and the software is young men. And in some ways I’m part of the software. I was a young man once. I’m not so young any more but I get it, I get the operating system. I am the operating system”

And finally we see Diary, where we are drawn into Hetherington’s own experience of the stories he reports. This ultimately immersive reportage stands as his last finished work, a manifesto for a different way to see, feel and understand the world we live in.

Restrepo 8

Korengal Valley. 2007. Captain Dan Kearney, head of Battle Company.

In preparation for the Open Eye exhibition, I watched Restrepo, the documentary photographed by Hetherington and directed by him in collaboration with the writer Sebastian Junger. It’s an impressive film, aptly described by the New York Times as ‘a blunt, sympathetic, thorough accounting of the daily struggle to stay alive and accomplish something constructive.  It documents the 15 months an American company fought in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley, described by  CNN as ‘the most dangerous place in the world’. The soldiers were under almost daily fire and tasked with establishing a new forward outpost, eventually named Restrepo after Juan S. Restrepo, a medic who was killed early in the deployment.

The young soldiers dig rock and construct their shelters whilst also engaging in regular skirmishes with the Taliban and simultaneously attempting to win hearts and minds in a local village amidst harsh and desolate terrain. At weekly meetings with local elders and in other, informal encounters, the soldiers, led by Captain Dan Kearney, try to overcome suspicion and resentment, and persuade the locals that the presence of American soldiers will bring jobs, a new road and other good things. I thought Roger Ebert summed up this aspect of the film perfectly in his review, describing the local elders as:

A group of men who could not look more aged, toothless and decrepit if they tried. A portrait of one would be all you needed to suggest the poverty of the region. One elder complains he has lost a cow. It’s explained that the cow became tangled in razor wire and had to be put out of its misery. He is offered compensation: The cow’s weight in rice, beans and sugar. He wants cash. His heart and mind are not won.

Restrepo 6

A US Apache helicopter fires off flares to deter surface to air missiles after completing a gun run.

As with the still images shown at Open Eye, it is clear from Restrepo how much Hetherington was preoccupied by individuals and what made them tick, whether during combat (filmed with hand-held camera as the soldiers are pinned down on the mountainside and being fired upon by the Taliban at extremely close range) or during long periods of boredom between fire fights. The soldiers rarely speak of the wider politics of their mission; instead the film portrays their bravery as an eagerness to do the job and return alive.  The film reveals their concern for each other, their professional response in combat, and the means they adopt for fighting off long stretches of boredom and dealing with primitive living conditions.

Restrepo 2

Korengal valley, July 2008: soldiers with guitars at camp Restrepo.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the decision by Hetherington and Junger to intercut the location footage with debriefing interviews with the survivors conducted soon after the mission has ended and they have been flown out to Italy. There is a sense of powerful emotions left unstated or understated, the deaths of men who they fought with  almost impossible to speak of. The memory of Restrepo lived on in the name given to their outpost, in the guitar lessons he gave fellow-soldiers, and his book of flamenco songs.

But the most telling moment comes as Captain Kearney justifies the mission as necessary and as a success: ‘we really made a difference in the Korengal’. At the film’s close, a caption informs that the US military closed Korangal Outpost in April 2010, after which the valley reverted to Taliban control.

The film makes no overt point about war other than its pointlessness and futility.  The reality it depicts is far from the propaganda of military or political leaders: simply soldiers putting their lives on the line, getting little thanks for it, and returning from the fire damaged and vulnerable.

Battle Company

Korengal Valley, April 2008: drawing inside Restrepo base.

‘We’re making our living out of death, that’s the truth,’ says Junger. ‘God forbid the tragedies of the world don’t get reported. But for the people who do that there’s an accumulated moral burden.” After Hetherington’s death, Junger gave up war reporting for good.  But he has explored the moral questions of war reporting, in a new documentary about Hetherington’s life, Which Way is the Front Line From Here? soon to be released in Britain.

Junger’s documentary shows how Hetherington learned his trade photographing the human rights repercussions of the Liberian civil war, which ended in 2003. Born in 1970 in Liverpool, Hetherington studied literature at Oxford University and Photojournalism at Cardiff University. Throughout his career Tim Hetherington photographed the experience of war from the perspective of the individual, mostly in West Africa and the Middle East. When he died, his friend and collaborator Sebastian Junger wrote:

Tim was 40 years old when he died and had devoted most of his professional life to documenting the human cost of war. On April 20, in a bombed-out section of Misrata, a single mortar shell made him part of the cost. He was hit in the groin with shrapnel and bled out in the back of a pickup truck while Guillermo Cervera, a Spanish photojournalist he had just met, held his hand and tried to keep him awake. Hours earlier, amidst fierce shelling by Qaddafi forces, Tim had sent what was to be his last message on Twitter: In besieged Libyan city of Misurata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.

Restrepo: trailer

Restrepo: edited clips from the film

Which Way is the Front Line From Here? trailer

Which Way is the Front Line From Here? Discussion with Sebastian Junger

And then I saw Murph as I’d seen him last, but beautiful. Somehow his wounds were softened, his disfigurement transformed into a statement on permanence. He passed out of Al Tafar on the slow current of the Tigris, his body livid, then made clean by the wide-eyed creatures that swam indifferently below the river’s placid surface. He held whole even as the spring thaw from the Zagros pushed him farther downstream, passing through the cradle of the world as it greened, then turned to dust. A pair of soldiers watched his passage while resting in the reeds and bulrushes, one calling out to the battered body while the other slept, not knowing Murph was ever one of them, thinking that he must be the victim of another war of which they likely did not feel they were a part, and the voice rose softly through the heat, and it sounded like singing when he said, “Peace out, motherfucker,” loud enough to wake his friend, but the body that he called out to would have been, by then, little more than skeleton, Murph’s injuries erased to the pure white of bone. He reached the Shatt al Arab in summer, where a fisherman who saw him flood into the broad waters where the Tigris and Euphrates marry unknowingly caressed his remains with the pole that pushed his small flat-keeled boat along the shallow waters of the marshes. And I saw his body finally break apart near the mouth of the gulf, where the shadows of the date palms fell in long, dark curtains on his bones, now scattered, and swept them out to sea, toward a line of waves that break forever as he enters them.

– the concluding paragraph of The Yellow Birds

Like leaves who could write a history of leaves

The wind blows their ghosts to the ground
And the spring breathes new leaf into the woods
Thousands of names thousands of leaves
When you remember them remember this
Dead bodies are their lineage
Which matter no more than the leaves 

– from Memorial, Alice Oswald

See also

The Art of War

The Art of War

Last night’s Channel 4 documentary, The Art of War, presented by Jon Snow, was an impassioned and absorbing survey of the ways in which British artists have responded to the horrors of war and, since the First World War, challenged the idea that war art should simply celebrate valour, victory and glory. Snow traced this critical tradition from the artists of the First World War – Richard Nevinson and Paul Nash – via the work of Stanley Spencer and Henry Moore in the Second World War, to the work of contemporary artists such as Jeremy Deller and Steve McQueen.  He demonstrated how Britain’s war artists have pushed the boundaries in their determination to express the pain and tragedy of war.

Richard Nevinson was under the spell of the Italian Futurists movement when he was appointed an official war artist in 1917. At first his paintings expressed the Futurists’ exultation in the drama and modernity of war, but their tenor soon changed, as a result of his experience as an ambulance driver.  His painting Paths of Glory (above) was initially banned by the military censors, but Nevinson managed to display it during the war, attracting attention by taping ‘censored’ across the image.  The ‘paths of glory’ have led these soldiers to death in a wasteland, imprisoned by barbed wire, faces down, anonymous and unrecognisable, slowly decomposing into the landscape.

In La Patrie (above), Nevinson used his own memories of what he had seen as an ambulance driver in Dunkirk following the early fighting around Ypres.

The artistic reputation of Paul Nash was just beginning to take off when the war broke out. Nash joined the Artists’ Rifles and saw service in the Ypres Salient before being invalided home. While he was recovering he exhibited works that depicted the desolate landscapes of the trenches, which led to Nash becoming an official war artist. We Are Making a New World (above) is one of the most memorable images of the First World War, the title mocking the ambitions of the war, as the sun rises on a scene of the total desolation.

In early 1918 he was commissioned to paint a Flanders battlefield for a Hall of Remembrance (which was never completed). In depicting one of the most battle-scarred areas of the Ypres sector, Nash shows two human figures overwhelmed by a hellish landscape of flooded shell craters, shattered trees, concrete blocks and corrugated iron.

Paul Nash also responded to the Second World War, most memorably with Totes Meer (above).  This painting, the title of which is German for ‘dead sea’, was inspired by a dump of wrecked aircraft at Cowley in Oxfordshire. Nash based the image on photographs he took there: ‘The thing looked to me suddenly, like a great inundating sea … the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain. And then, no: nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead’.

In The Art of War, Jon Snow was most visibly moved when visiting the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire, which is decorated with an outstanding series of large-scale paintings by Stanley Spencer (above).  The images were inspired by his experiences as a First World War medical orderly and soldier in Macedonia,  and are considered to be among his finest achievements.

The chapel was commissioned by Mary and  Louis Behrends as a memorial to Mary’s brother, who died in Macedonia.  The main painting,  The Resurrection of the Soldiers (above), shows soldiers climbing out of their graves bearing white crosses and embracing their dead comrades. One man kneels at Christ’s side, his head in his lap, one man caresses a turtle, while another clasps a dove to his chest. Spencer wrote of the painting:

During the war, I felt the only way to end the ghastly experience would be if everyone suddenly decided to indulge in every degree or form of sexual love, carnal love, bestiality, anything you like to call it. These are the joyful inheritances of mankind.

In his film, Snow said:

Had his paintings been for a Wren church in the city, Spencer might even now be celebrated as the creator of our own Sistine Chapel. From the outside, the Sandham Memorial Chapel is unremarkable. Step inside and you are drawn into an account of war no artist has ever previously conjured.

Some of the best-known art works of the Second World War are Henry Moore’s sketches and watercolours of Londoners sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz.   After the outbreak of war in 1939, Moore commuted from his home in Kent to London where he was teaching at the Chelsea School of Art. He began making drawings of people sheltering in the Underground during the German bombing raids and these came to the attention of the War Artists Advisory Committee, chaired by Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery.  Moore was commissioned to make larger and more finished versions. When the drawings were exhibited in 1940 and 1941 they proved very popular with the public.

Returning to the work of Stanley Spencer, Jon Snow discussed his eight epic Second World War friezes, Shipbuilding on the Clyde, which depict the various stages of  work in the shipyard- from riveting and pipe-bending to welding and rope making.  Spencer was commissioned to paint civilian war efforts and he immersed himself in every aspect of the Glaswegian shipbuilding process to produce these images.

Snow concluded his survey by examining British Artists’ responses to recent conflicts.  He discussed Jeremy Deller’s Baghdad, 5 March 2007 (aka It Is What It Is) with the artist, who described his experience of taking the work – a car destroyed in a 2007 truck bomb attack among the book stalls of Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad – on tour around the United States.

Jeremy Deller, It Is What It Is

Of this work, Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian:

With his new work, Baghdad, 5 March 2007, at the Imperial War Museum, he makes us see real death. It is the closest he could get, within the parameters of public display, to laying out the bodies of Iraq’s killed on the floor of the gallery.

A dismembered body is what you immediately think of when you come into the museum and see a car destroyed in a 2007 truck bomb attack among the book stalls of Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, an attack that killed 38 people. Lying among the missiles, tanks and war planes in the museum’s main hall is the eviscerated corpse of what was once a car. It is more than wrecked. It appears to have been flung in the air, crushed, then burned in an inferno. It suggests a human body in a deeply perturbing way. First, because it is so flattened, with viscera of pipes and tanks sticking out. Then again it is scorched by fire to a colour that evokes dried blood. It looks curiously like Lindow Man in the British Museum.

That visual suggestiveness is not the work of a sculptor in a studio. Deller did not make this. He had the idea of exhibiting a car from a Baghdad bombing, was able to get his hands on one, and toured it around America as an object of curiosity before the Imperial War Museum made the brave decision to show it in their displays. The horrible sculptural quality of this relic is accidental, and it forces you to confront the real suffering of the people killed and wounded in Baghdad on that particular day. It is a simple enough thought: if the bomb did this to metal, what did it do to flesh?

The truth stares you in the face, while gleaming machines of death loom above. It makes you imagine not just this reality, but all the realities those weapons created, from a burned-out Panzer on the eastern front to a London street just hit by a V1. Deller has often created works of populist social theatre, but here he achieves something new: the most serious and thoughtful response to the Iraq war by any British artist.

Poet Abdul Zahra Zaki recites a poem outside the shell of the Al-Shahbandar café as part of a protest by artists and writers against the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street, March 8, 2007

The final piece chosen by Jon Snow was Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country. McQueen, collaborated with 160 families whose loved ones lost their lives in Iraq. He created a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets, each one dedicated to a deceased soldier. The Art Fund, the UK’s leading art charity, presented this cabinet to the Imperial War Museum in November 2007 and toured the work around the UK between 2007 and 2010.

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 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, Steve made Queen and Country – 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.Viewers are invited to pull out the double-sided panels bearing the sheets from a wooden box and thereby create an intimate space to contemplate the imagery.

Steve McQueen Queen and Country (detail)

Steve McQueen: ‘Queen and Country’ (detail)

Until Royal Mail agrees to issue the stamps, the artist considers the overall work incomplete. The Art Fund is spearheading the campaign to gain public support for McQueen’s vision for Royal Mail to officially issue the stamps.

Steve McQueen with Queen and Country

Steve McQueen with ‘Queen and Country’


Don McCullin: Darkness Visible

Don McCullin: Darkness Visible

In Manchester today I explored retrospectives of the work of two very different photographers, Don McCullin and Dorothy Bohm.  At the Imperial War Museum North, there is Shaped By War, an outstanding exhibition about the life and work of Don McCullin, now 75 years old. It’s the largest show ever mounted of his work, many items on public display for the very first time, both photographs and personal items from his years as a war photographer.

Don McCullin with one of his images at Imperial War Museum North

One of the images, Hue, February 1968, of a US marine suffering severe shell shock waiting to be evacuated from the battle zone, is displayed within McCullin’s notes to the printers at the Sunday Times on how it should be reproduced: ‘This print should be much darker’. McCullin preferred to work in black and white, and you see very clearly from this exhibition that the prevailing tone of his work – right through to his most recent English landscapes – is of darkness visible.

Hue, Vietnam, February 1968: A US marine suffering severe shell shock waits to be evacuated from the battle zone
Hue, Vietnam, February 1968
Somerset, 1991
Somerset, 1991

There’s always a question that hovers when you’re looking at McCullin’s war images: are you guilty of voyeurism, gazing at a terrible form of pornography? Don McCullin has wrestled with these questions throughout his career – and ultimately his personal resolution was to withdraw from conflict photography.  But the exhibition quotes him as saying in 2009:

“I want you to look at my photographs.  I don’t want you to reject and say: ‘No, I can’t do that.  I can’t look at those pictures. They are atrocity pictures.’  Of course, they are.  But I want to become the voices of the people in those pictures.”

Two photographs I had not seen before stopped me in my tracks.  They are displayed side by side and were taken in Lebanon in 1976, when McCullin was shadowing Christian Phalangist squads who were searching out Palestinian men in order to execute them. We see a stairwell.  In the first image, Palestinian women are fleeing down the stairs, whilst below the steps we can just see the men, huddled and awaiting their fate.  In the second image, the stairwell is deserted except for the bodies of the dead men at the foot of the stairs. Dear god, what must it do to you to be there, behind the camera the whole time, in order to document an atrocity for the rest of us.

In 1964 he won the World Press Photo Award for this photograph of a Cypriot woman whose husband has just been killed. Her face captures the grief of war,  but it’s her son’s outstretched hand that completes the story, a child seeking both reassurance and to reassure.

Cyprus, 1964: A grieving woman and her family
Cyprus, 1964: A grieving woman and her family

This image reflects a shift that took place in McCullin’s war photography.  He has spoken of how, through being constantly in the company of soldiers, his images ‘harped too much on the glory of the battlefield’. But once he realised that ‘the people who were picking up the real price of war’ were the civilians, the focus of his work shifted to the civilians, ‘always the last people to be told that it was coming to them’.

‘There are pictures here that I could say I was ashamed of. I was in the Biafran war and I was in a school that was designated as a hospital, and I saw 800 dying children. There was one particular boy there: he was an albino and he was staring at me and I thought, I wish he wouldn’t look at me because he was really unnerving me.  So I went away, and I was talking to one of the doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres, and suddenly somebody touched my hand and he was holding my hand.  I thought I was on the verge of really crying…’

Don McCullin is regarded as one of Britain’s greatest photographers. For 50 years his photographs have shaped our awareness of modern conflict and its consequences. For myself, his photo stories for the Sunday Times colour magazine in the 1960s – a golden period when the paper was edited by Harold Evans – were seminal. The exhibition pays close attention to McCullin’s period with the Sunday Times – and his falling out with the paper after the Murdoch takeover.

The exhibition is excellent at setting McCullin’s work in context. It is arranged in five sections: early years, discovering photojournalism, the Sunday Times magazine, changing times and a new direction.

“Like all my generation in London, I am a product of Hitler. I was born in the 30s and bombed in the 40s.”

McCullin’s early years were difficult, at times violent. He was born in Finsbury Park, north London in 1935, and his earliest memories are of the second World War and its consequences, air raids, evacuation, fear and deprivation.  For him, the disruption to family life and education had lasting consequences. In his teens McCullin fell in with the violent gangs who dominated north London in the early 1950s.

The Guv'nors, Finsbury Park, London, 1958
The Guv’nors, Finsbury Park, London, 1958

His first  published photographs, in The Observer, were of The Guv’nors, a gang he was close to at the time. These look rather staged and artificial, the one above almost like an album cover.

Working first for The Observer and later the Sunday Times, McCullin was particularly drawn to the major conflicts of the day. His career developed rapidly from photographing Berlin in the 1960s without assignment to his award winning coverage of the civil war in Cyprus in 1964. In 1965, he made his first of many visits to Vietnam,  carrying out his first assignment on the Vietnam war on behalf of the Illustrated London News.  For the next 18 years, McCullin specialised in covering conflict and war.

Shaped By War: introductory Imperial War Museum video

On the web there are two slideshows of images from the exhibition: one on from the BBC Today programme and one at The  Guardian. Update: an extensive article, A life in photography: Don McCullin, appeared in the Guardian on 22 May.

Don McCullin in Conversation with Paul Herrmann, director of Redeye Photography Network

“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

The exhibition concludes with examples of McCullin’s recent work with Christian Aid in Africa. He has returned to photographing the extremes of human circumstances in the fight against HIV and AIDS in Zambia and South Africa.

‘You do not go away from here without carrying a huge burden, if you are a decent human being and you have a conscience.’

In 2000 McCullin travelled to Southern Africa to record people and communities living with HIV/AIDS.  To mark World AIDS day 2004 McCullin went back  to see what had changed 4 years on, and find some of the people he had met before. His photographs became a new exhibition called ‘Life Interrupted’.

The Battlefields of the Somme, France, 2000
The Battlefields of the Somme, France, 2000

Dorothy Bohm: A World Observed 1940 – 2010

Paris 1953
Paris 1953

‘Having lived through times when human dignity was debased, moral values soiled, I find that I seek to portray the dignity of man, the harmonious relationship of people to their environment.’

There’s a very different mood to the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, A World Observed 1940 – 2010, the first major retrospective of the photographer Dorothy Bohm, who was born in Königsberg, East Prussia in 1924, and has lived in England since 1939.

The exhibition opens with a selection of Bohm’s work as a student at Manchester College of Technology (from which she graduated in 1942) and of the portraits she produced while working first at Samuel Cooper and then, from 1946, in her own Studio Alexander in Market Street, Manchester. By the late 1950s she had abandoned studio portraiture for street photography.

‘I photograph the humble, the anonymous, who are spontaneous and mirror all of us.’

“The photograph fulfils my deep need to stop things from disappearing. It makes transience less painful and retains something of the special magic, which I have looked for and found. I have tried to create order out of chaos, to find stability in flux and beauty in the most unlikely places.”

Like the McCullin exhibition, there are displays here of cameras, notebooks and other items relating to Dorothy Bohm’s work, including a complete replica darkroom demonstrating the almost forgotten technique of black and white photographic processing: the second exposure with an enlarger, the bottles and trays of developer and fixing liquids, and the clothesline pinned with drying prints. This brought back memories of waking up some Sunday mornings to find my father doing the same thing in our tiny back kitchen.

After Gaza: aerial bombing should be banned

Palestinians inspect the rubble of a destroyed building in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza, 7.01.09
The rubble of a destroyed building in Rafah refugee camp, Gaza, 7.1.09

In a powerful article in today’s Guardian, Simon Jenkins argues that ‘air launched bombs and long-distance shells’ should be declared illegal under the 1983 Geneva convention. He argues:

The tragedy in Gaza surely marks the time when the world declares air-launched bombs and long-distance shells to be illegal under the 1983 Geneva convention. They should be on a par with chemical munitions, white phosphorous, cluster bombs and delayed-action land mines. They pose a threat to non-combatants that should be intolerable even in the miserable context of war.

Continue reading “After Gaza: aerial bombing should be banned”