Art and photography tackle the conscience and chronology of war

0 Posted by - March 28, 2015 - Features, Reviews, Visual art

A review of:
Conflict – Time – Photography @ Tate Modern, London
Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War @ Pallant Gallery, Chichester
Brute @ arthouse1, London

We have just returned from Tate Modern and the exhibition Conflict-Time-Photography. On the cover of the exhibition catalogue is the photo of a statue. It’s on the tower of Dresden City Hall, a rare survivor of the fire bombing of the city just months before the ending of the Second World War.

The statue, the allegory of goodness, looks down sadly on the tragedy of devastation below. In the first room of the exhibition is a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s great, semi-autobiographical, anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five, written in 1969, some 24 years after the event, “jumbled and jangled because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre”. The catalogue for the exhibition open with the words, “Kurt Vonnegut, Jn was present during the firebombing of Dresden”.

The day of our visit (Friday, as it happens), February 13th, 2015, marked the seventieth anniversary of the first of the bombing raids on the city. Death came to Dresden, the Florence of the Elbe, the Four Horsemen arriving over a period of three days in the form of wave upon wave of Lancaster bombers and B-17 Flying Fortresses.

They dropped 3,900 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs in a city that, till then, had been untouched by the war and was full of refugees fleeing from the Russian advance in the east.

Similarities with Guernica and Hiroshima are striking as both were untouched by conflict and Guernica had its population swollen by an influx of people from the surrounding villages attending the local market.

As Vonnegut might well have said, So it goes.

Simon Norfolk, bullet-scarred apartment block, Kabul.

Simon Norfolk, bullet-scarred apartment block, Kabul.

There is much in the UK and German press at the moment about the destruction of Dresden and the policy of area bombing. It remains a matter of controversy and debate. The statue of Bomber Harris was daubed with red paint soon after its unveiling in 1992.

There was no memorial to Bomber Command in London until 2012. It has received a good deal of unwanted attention ever since.

Churchill himself had doubts about the strategy and within weeks of the raids was distancing himself from policies “designed to spread terror amongst a civilian population” and advocated concentration on “military objectives” rather than on “mere acts of terror and wanton destruction”. Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris had no such qualms.

“I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier”, borrowing from Bismarck’s 1876 observation about the bones of Pomeranian Grenadiers.

Whilst consensus on Harris as an aerial strategist would be hard to find there can be little argument about his (lack of) historical understanding: Bismarck protected his grenadiers by not going to war in the first place. Using events from the past to make points about the present is both difficult and dangerous. Loosed from the chains of context history can be an uneasy ally, though more, perhaps, in the field of politics than in the arts and literature.

Martin Amis, for example, in Time’s Arrow, plays games with the narrative of the Holocaust, using reverse chronology to tell the story backwards; and Slaughterhouse Five uses both flashback and time travel, as it tells the tale of the main protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, “unstuck in time”, as he struggles to come to terms with his war-time experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden.

This “playing with time” provides the rationale for both the title, Conflict-Time-Photography and for the hanging and organisation of the exhibition. Sites of conflict are grouped together not in chronological order but according to the time lapse between the actual event and the photographic image of the site of conflict.

The first room in the exhibition is labelled Moments Later and includes photographs taken in 1945 of Hiroshima, just after the dropping of the atomic bomb; an image of the immediate aftermath of the bombing of a Taliban position in Afghanistan in 2001; and Don McCullin’s iconic portrait, Shell-shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue,1968.

They are linked by the fact that each photograph represents an on-the-spot response to the event, providing a contemporary perspective unfiltered by hindsight. They show the immediate effects of actions of war.

Each room distances the works further from the events they portray. Distance often suggests the unending futility of conflict, with photographs of the wanton and pointless destruction of civilian targets from the American Civil War through to current conflicts in the Middle East.

Photos of deserted blockhouses and traces of the derelict Hejaz railway line, running from Damascus to Medina, through Syria and Palestine to the Arabian desert, a relic of the Great War, timelessly crossing a desert of seemingly endless destruction. The photographs were taken in 2003, 85 Years Later. Who says time heals?

Tracks are abundant. War leaves its mark on the landscape, marks that, in their longevity, are more akin to the Nazca Lines of Peru than any ephemeral work by Richard Long, timeless reminders of past conflicts: cart tracks from the Crimean War; tank tracks from the first Gulf War; tracks across the battlefield of the Somme; tram tracks in Berlin (redolent of the railway track to Auschwitz) that go nowhere, except to the blankness of the Wall!

There is a portfolio of photographs relating to (the)Ukraine. It might have been in the first room, Moments Later, but it is not. Rather, it is in the room of 67 Years Later.

Taken in 2012-13, the photographs tell the story of Holocaust survivors displaced to Ukraine at the end of the Second World War.

Victims of Hitler’s Generalplan Ost, three million Ukrainians were murdered between 1941 and 1945, whilst millions more died in combat or were victims of collateral damage; Germans were moved in during Nazi occupation with Ukrainians deported to Germany as slave labourers; under Stalin, the mass movement of ethnic groups continued with Russians replacing Germans.

To understand current events in Ukraine you need to dig deep into the past; the photographs bear witness to events in a nation state that is not a nation state, one with an ethnic diversity that defies the drawing of boundaries.

The events of the two great wars of the twentieth century are revisited throughout the exhibition, in particular, with reference to Japan (the photograph on the end cover of the catalogue is a Steel Helmet with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki,1963) and more recent conflicts in the Middle East. Other theatres of war, in other time frames, are not ignored, starting with the USA, during the American Civil War (Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1866 – One Year Later) and the Paris Commune of 1871, weeks after the destruction of the Hotel de Ville.

There is coverage of many later conflicts, among them the Congo and Angola, Serbia and Bosnia, Lebanon and Armenia, Ireland, Nicaragua and Vietnam. The Spanish Civil War is represented by one photograph of the remains of a skeleton at the bottom of a recently excavated grave outside Malaga.

There are over eighteen mass graves in the area each containing the bodies of thousands of republican prisoners murdered by the Franco regime. The forensic exhumation of the graves took place in 2009; the photograph is in the room labelled 70 Years Later; the roots of the conflict run deep and seem impervious to the passage of time. So it goes.

The final room, 85-100 Years Later, includes Shot at Dawn, 2013, a series of unexceptional landscapes, views of sites in Northern France where allied soldiers were executed for desertion and cowardice.

They are the final photographs in the exhibition catalogue, taken at dawn and as close to the actual sites of execution as possible. On hundred years on and the anti-war aesthetic of the exhibition remains clear:

“The work is not about information, and its not about the war. It’s only a work about our scars”. — Fait, Kuwait, 1992 – 7 Months Later, Sophie Ristelheuber

Distressed Area (1938). Merlyn Evans.

Distressed Area (1938). Merlyn Evans.

The Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, Sussex, has followed up its successful exhibition of Stanley Spencer’s World War One paintings, Heaven in a Hell of War, with an exhibition of the work of British artists in the Spanish Civil War.

Unlike writers, the role of artists in the war has been rather neglected. Think of the war and you think of Hemingway or Laurie Lee. Conscience and Conflict attempts to put the record straight and covers the little known war role of a wide range of sculptors and painters, including Edward Burra, Barbara Hepworth, Wyndham Lewis and Henry Moore, with Moore’s sculpture of The Spanish Prisoner, 1939, a dominant presence.

More than that, it places the work in a broad socio-political context with an array of posters and artefacts from the period of the war, 1936 to 1939.

A criticism of the exhibition might be that, in both the advance publicity for the exhibition and in the show itself, the work of British artists is overshadowed by Spanish artists, especially Picasso. Paintings by Joan Miro, Goya’s the Disasters of War (shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1938, in support of the Republican cause) and Picasso’s prints, Dreams and Lies of Franco, and his painting, Weeping Woman, on loan from Tate Modern, do rather dominate the show.

Guernica could hardly be ignored. A colourful cloth collage of the painting, made by a local collective, was in keeping with the activist banners of the period. Britain’s role in bringing the painting to the world is recorded in a shaky film of Clement Atlee, leader of the Labour Party opposition in Parliament, giving a speech in support of the Republic at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.

Guernica was shown in the gallery in 1939 on its way to safety in the USA (via a car showroom in Manchester). [The role of the Whitechapel Gallery, in the story of Guernica’s removal from Nazi occupied Paris, is covered in Chapter 19 of Leviathan and the Pilot Fish.]

There was much discussion within the arts community in Britain about the best way to support the Republican cause. Under a non-interventionist agreement the British government followed a policy of neutrality, unlike Franco’s Fascist allies in Italy and Germany.

Laurie Lee in A Moment of War records, first-hand, “the fatal sound which Spain was the first country in Europe to know” as italian and German airplanes took off from Franco’s airfields in Majorca to bomb the republican stronghold in Albacete. The International Brigade of volunteers like Lee, offered an opportunity to support the cause.

Few of the 2,500 British volunteers were artists, though the war took the life of Vanessa Bell’s son, Julian, as well as the artist, Felicia Browne. Her drawings from the front in 1936 inspired many artists to sign up to the Artists International Association.

The AIA took the lead in many propaganda and fund raising activities and agitated for the government to support the democratically elected, republican government of Spain. It brought together a range of artist groups, from the Bloomsburys to the Surrealists.

Paintings were sold to raise funds, manifestos published, banners and billboards painted and marches and demonstrations organised, all of which are covered by the exhibition.

Some of the exhibits have a contemporary resonance. Masks worn by May Day demonstrators in 1937, depicting Neville Chamberlain (the no-interventionist Prime Minister) are precursors of the Guy Fawkes masks worn in Occupy demos after the 2008 banking and financial debacle; the ethics and practicality of intervention and volunteering in Spain echo the same issues today in Ukraine and Syria; the horrific barbarity of ISIS is reflected, to some degree, in the chilling piety of the Catholic Bishop of Pamplona who offered indulgences to anyone who killed a Marxist (in stark contrast to George Bell, Anglican Bishop of Chichester, who repeatedly condemned the allied practice of area bombing in the Second World War from his seat in the House of Lords).

Similarly, the contrast between the attitude to the war of the arts community and the British government could not have been more marked. The portraits of Spanish refugees, by the teenage prodigy, Ursula McCannell, who had visited pre-war Spain, played a large part in encouraging local people to take in refugee children.

In all, some 4,000 Basque children were settled in camps along the south coast of England and were photographed doing the things children do. No such humanitarian concern was shown by the British government. In February 1939, it recognised the unelected military junta of General Francisco Franco.

Stakić. Ian Parker.

Stakić. Ian Parker.

By chance, at arthouSE1, a new gallery, near the White Cube in Bermondsey, London, the artist, Ian Parker, is showing work entitled Bombing & Painting, an ongoing series of paintings where (abstract) imagery is derived from 20th century photographic sources, including aerial reconnaissance photographs of bombing during the Second world War, both of London and cities in Germany.

The formal structure of the work is arrived at using a computer programme. Source images are subjected to chance manipulation, the results reassembled through the act of painting.

In Parker’s own words, “The errors and accidents resulting from the transcribing process constitute the formal locus of the work. On the one hand these paintings are coded images of acts of destruction and on the other reflections on the act of painting.

The fracture between the source of the images and the end result of the paintings is intended as a filter, a means of bringing the ‘trace’ into the realm of painting, but perhaps also as a kind of amnesia”.

The work resonates through time, the words of the Ode of Remembrance, “lest we forget”, no more than empty rhetoric. Targeted, twentieth century drones, in an endless continuum of destruction, may have replaced Lancaster bombers but, like the civilian communities in Guernica and Dresden, civilian wedding parties are as likely to be on the end of an explosive device as the intended Taliban terrorist or ISIS Islamist.

The body count might be down but the “spreading of terror amongst the civilian population” remains the same. Art can serve as a remembrance of things past.

So it goes!

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