Art

In the shadows of WWII: Civilian stories in Britain and Spain

The arrival of large-scale modern warfare at the turn of the 20th century, and the new levels of brutality that ensued, left artists wondering how to respond to the subject which had since the genesis of the “story-telling” historia genre been at the thematic heart of painting.

The terrifying and unprecedented nature of this new warfare required a complete break from traditional war images and the notion of the commemorative “battle-scene”, instead leaving artists to conceive of a new language of representation, one that reflected an increasingly visible anti-war agenda.

WWII artists focus on the severity and scale of the consequences of modern war which, for the first time, included the mass killing of civilians in their home cities via aerial bombings. Painting the reality of these civilian lives, so far from the frontline and yet still in the fire of the “collateral damage”, have helped artists to emphasis the vast scope and indiscriminate nature of the destruction that was caused.

British artist Clive Branson takes as his subject scenes of a desperate London during the Blitz, which, living in Battersea at the time, he witnessed first-hand. In his painting “Bombed Women & Searchlights” (1940) we see a haunting and surreal image which is confusing and unsettling visually. There are dramatically foreshortened and oversized objects in the foreground (a broken wooden chair, the red and white road barrier which almost pierces the picture plane, a cigarette box lying on its side) which disrupts any continuity or rational ordering of the composition.

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The backdrop to the scene is a sickly grey-green sky, split violently by the “X” of the two searchlight beams and filled by the monstrous forms of the barrage balloons – known at the time as “blimps” – which were used to protect the city from the Luftwaffe.  The blimps would tangle low flying aircrafts in the metal cables and nets which were suspended beneath as well as obscuring the pilots’ lines of vision, especially dive bombers, forcing them into higher airspace where anti-aircraft fire could dispose of them.

The broken cables hanging down here show that the German air force has already struck, and a temporal aspect is added: we are looking at the end of a sequence of events, the aftermath. However the danger does not seem to have passed completely, fire can be seen in the distance between the buildings and the red-white stripes of the road barrier also signals “danger ahead.” The two central women are presumably rescuing their possessions from a bombed out residence, but have they got somewhere safe to go?

In the painting, many different types of surface bear their own images like a collage. There is an over-sized poster on the wall, a named shop and factory front, graffiti scrawled across brickwork, a cigarette packet advertising itself. The  mixture of slogans: “Dig for Victory”, “Smile and say victory”, “Vote Joyce for Peace” relate to a number of opposing narratives which “draw attention to the tensions in British Society”[1]  at the time and also highlight the difficulties involved with deciphering truths within an overload of information, most of which is propaganda.

The confusion of surfaces, scales and contrasts leaves the viewer disoriented, looking in on a chaotic and claustrophobic dream-like vision. However there is also a faint message of hope and reassurance here. A woman in the middle-ground wields a broom, undeterred by events, ready to get stuck into the cleaning up effort. The closest figure, that looks directly at us, is gripped with resolve and empowered in her action: determinedly marching forward with her stone grey face, gritted teeth and broad shoulders straining forward. (This is perhaps a portrait of the artist’s wife, Noreen Branson).

The painting suggests the task of the women “back home” in London, maintaining order as best they could and keeping the flame of the  British spirit alive, is just as vital a duty as that of the soldiers, albeit a very different one.  In this way Branson has cleverly depicted not only the horror of the bombing aftermath, but in the same composition, the “bouncing back” of the British civilians, their tenacity, their jumping to action, even after catastrophe has hit.

Another British artist who featured scenes in London during the Blitz is Henry Moore, who in 1940 was appointed as an official War Artist. Moore had taken cover from an air raid in Belsize Park underground station and, deeply moved by the sights he had seen there of people sheltering together, made a series of monochrome drawings from memory, done with graphite, ink, wax and watercolour on paper.

In “Tube Shelter Perspective” (1941) we see a long dark tunnel, disappearing into the distance.  Just as in “Bombed Women & Searchlights” there is a resounding atmosphere of foreboding within the painting, the sense that danger is close by. This drawing takes a high perspective viewpoint, looking down upon two long rows of bodies which are lying horizontally on the floor. The tall walls loom over them, in one sense enclosing the people but also leaving a vast, cavernous space all around.

Tube Shelter Perspective 1941 by Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986

As the drawing moves into the distance the contours of the bodies become increasingly blurred, melting into indeterminate lines and shadows, no longer individual figures, but one solid mass. Like a group of resting animals, livestock perhaps, there seems to be a sense of strength in numbers, in solidarity: human beings sharing in each others plight.

The materials Moore has chosen create a great depth and darkness, the shadows are impenetrable, reminding us that there is no natural light deep under the earth. White chalk is used on the wall and the floor but does not suggest light, rather glistening moisture and damp surfaces. Splashes of bright yellow suggest beams of artificial light, falling in, but it does not reach far down the tunnel.

The National Gallery Catalogue of 1941 summarises this drawing as “a terrifying vista of recumbent shapes, pale as all underground life tends to be pale; regimented as only fear can regiment; helpless yet tense, safe yet listening, uncouth, uprooted, waiting in the tunnel for the dawn to release them.” Whilst it is certainly a frightening image of a dark and damp place which seems barely fit for human inheritance, what is most significant is that the people are “safe”, they are surviving. Moore presents not only a dingy tunnel but a sanctuary, a hiding place, a moment of respite, which thus gives the painting a hopefulness. In a similar way to Branson then, this image is also about the stoic resistance of the British people, quietly doing what they must, adapting to their environment and making-do.

If British artists were effective in communicating the fear that civilians during WWII faced, and the drawn-out resilience they had to show in the face of uncertainty, Spanish artists perfectly captured the sudden, horrific violence that civilians were now also exposed to. Spain in fact, in the grips of a turbulent internal conflict between the Republicans and the Nationalists, can be seen as perhaps the most severe example in Europe for the brutality that non-combatants faced during the years of WWII.

“Black Aeroplanes” (1937) by Horacio Ferrer and the world-renown “Guernica” from the same year by Pablo Picasso both depict scenes from the Spanish Civil War which raged between 17 July 1936 and 1 April 1939; specifically the aerial bombings of civilian cities that were carried out by Fascist forces under the direction of General Francisco Franco.

In Ferrer’s painting, as in the two already discussed, none of the perpetrators of the conflict are present, the black aeroplanes that the title refers to are excluded, but the still-smoking landscape and the rubble all around leaves no doubt of the that has just occurred. Ferrer focuses on four women: three with their children of different ages, and an elderly lady who is bent over and clasps her hands together in despair. This cross-section of figures shows how the tragedies of war encompass all generations and none are left unaffected. Each of the women’s faces are contorted into extreme grief, fear or indignation.

DE01147_0The woman in the middle with a raised arm reveals her exposed breast, and this reinforces not only the powerful movement of her gesture but also her role as an “innocent” mother: a child-bearer and life-giver who should not be perpetrated by violence in this way. Her bare breast and clenching fist might also perhaps refer us back to the very famous female symbol of liberty in “Liberty Leading the People” (1830), a French painting by Eugene Delacroix from a century earlier. This commemorated the July Revolution in which the monarch Charles X was overthrown. Here the figure of Liberty, holding the tricolour, leads the people heroically onwards over the bodies of the fallen, in a painting of nationalistic pride and spirit.

In “Black Aeroplanes” this figure seems to replicate Liberty’s gesture linking this ordinary Spanish mother to the icon of struggle and sacrifice, but here we see Liberty in reverse – a parody of the empowerment seen in Delacroix’s painting. This woman is far from the bringer or wielder of political change, she is the opposite, crying out in anguish because of her powerlessness and the injustice of suffering through events far beyond her control.

Eugène_Delacroix_-_Le_28_Juillet._La_Liberté_guidant_le_peuple This larger than life-size figure, with her strong profile and muscular neck, is enhanced by the strong relief and realism of Ferrer’s painting technique, which renders the bodies with sculptural solidarity. Light is cleverly used, for example illuminating with photographic quality the face of the grieving elderly woman, every line and crease of her tragic expression is visible and thus heightening the emotional intensity of the image.

The small portion of a destroyed house in the background is symbolic of many. These aerial bombings that fascist forces under Franco’s orders had carried out on several Spanish cities in Republican areas, affecting thousands of civilians, were seen by many to represent ‘a benchmark atrocity for humankind,’[2] the exemplar of a new kind of warfare which was more senseless and criminal than any that had gone before. Anyone and everyone could become a target, unsuspecting woman, children and elderly people in their own homes.

Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso takes the same subject of an aerial bombing, specifically the complete ruination of the Basque country village of Guernica which took place on the 26th April 1937. It could be said that Picasso’s image marks the apex of all anti-war sentiments in 20th century painting.

The event of the bombing of Guernica quickly gained a wider political significance amongst the Spanish people; the utter destruction of a peaceful community became symbolic of Fascist brutality in a universal sense.[3]  The event particularly resonated within the Spanish consciousness because the town of Guernica embodied the heart of Basque culture, a historic place which represented ‘the very spirit of their ancient pride and freedom.[4]

guernica Picasso’s painting from the outset, therefore, was confronted by the huge task of doing justice to the magnitude and horror of this event. He chooses to communicate it, in the same way as Black Aeroplanes, by focusing solely on the innocent lives that were destroyed.

The paintings sheer scale (3.5 x7.8 m) and the very raw nature of the emotion it conveys becomes almost overwhelming. Its monochrome scheme of black, white and shades of grey obtains the immediacy and impact of newspaper images and seems to share the objective of photo-journalism and war reportage in documenting the truth and the facts of the event.

The painting features a number of characters: a bull, a horse, a cockerel, a mother and child, a dead soldier, and several other women, all of which are frozen in horror, mid-action, with tortuous often screaming expressions of grief. The figures are set within an interior, although this space is not easily recognizable and it has been flattened, distorted and terminated in many places, appearing more like an amalgamation of overlapping shapes and planes in a surreal, cubist vision. This is a type of painting which sees forms and spaces literally shattered apart, just like the place and the people it is trying to capture.

We can make out the setting by its few recognisable features; an arc lamp on the ceiling ‘which presides like an all-seeing eye, complete with bulb pupil’[5] and emits rays of light in sharp teeth, a small window in the top right hand corner and what seems to be an open door, through which a figure emerges holding another lamp.  This roughly implies the dimensions of the room and the shadow in which it is cast; a blackness which encloses the figures and engulfs them on all sides.

it is hard to tell where one body figure ends and another begins, which are dead and which are still alive. The bodies and limbs and splayed out, sometimes entirely disconnected. The animals have suffered the same terrible fate as the humans; the body of the horse in the centre of the canvas, its legs flailing wildly in different directions, seems to be pierced by a spear and shows a large diamond shape wound on its side. It opens its mouth to reveal a pointed conical tongue, as if emitting a piercing, primordial howl.

Similarly audible is the screaming woman beneath the window, her hands thrown in the air, surrounded by triangular shapes which suggest encroaching flames.  To the left, a ghostly face appears to float through the top of the door frame; her expression struck with horror at what she sees. Directly beneath another woman seems to stagger forward dragging her arms and legs, in the process of keeling over. The most tragic character of all is the mother on the far left side who, with head flung back and mouth open wide, screams over her dead infant child.

Both “Black Aeroplanes” and Picasso’s “Guernica” use the image of women and children in pain to render an emotionally charged, outraged image of ‘the fatherland ravished by the fascists’.[6] They operate as specific political statements against Franco and his army but also can be viewed as universal comments about the evils and senselessness of war; the suffering that mankind is capable of inflicting upon itself.

Whilst in Britain Branson and Moore also explored anti-war feelings in terms of representing the trials and hardships that civilians in London endured, they chose subjects, or moments, which were more detached. (Perhaps Britain had no cultural equivalent to the loss of Guernica for Spain). The British painters rather stress a gritty acceptance of events, and the feelings of anxiety and dread in both paintings are soothed only by the smallest flicker of hope which is found in the resilience of the human spirit.

All four artists coincide in the realization of the inconceivably destructive potential of modern warfare, the terrible things already accomplished, and what might be still to come.

 

[1] Tate Online, <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/branson-bombed-women-and-searchlights-t11789&gt;

[2] K Brunner, Picasso: Rewriting Picasso, London: Black dog publishing, 2004, p. 76.

[3] R Arnheim, The Genesis of a painting: Picasso’s Guernica, Los Angeles & London: Berkeley, 1962, p. 19.

[4] Arnheim, p.19.

[5] Brunner, p. 60.

[6] Arnheim, p. 18.

Image Credit

http://www.Tate.org

http://www.museoreinasofia.es

http://www.wikipedia.org

 

© 2016, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.

Damien Hirst: commodity and the readymade

“The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living”, which is the extravagant title that Hirst gave to his shark in a tank of formaldehyde, has become one of the artist’s most notorious statements. Alongside other high-profile pieces such as Tracey Emin’s bed, the shark has become emblematic of the 90’s BritArt movement and its ethos.

The initial shock factor of the artwork, especially when seen in its original context at the 1992 Saatchi exhibition of Young British Artists, might have made it seem like a radical and exciting, if controversial, novelty. Conceptually however, as is usually the case, it was not without precedent. In employing a prefabricated object (in this case a shark) Hirst emerges at the tail-end of the readymade tradition in 20th century avant-garde art.

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Since Duchamp’s urinal first provoked outrage when he attempted to exhibit it in 1917, artists have been exploring the potential of the readymade object as a critical tool, pushing the boundaries of what we call “art”. We can think back to Minimalists such as Carl Andre with his piles of bricks stacked on gallery floors, to Pop Art in the 60’s with Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and rows of soup tins, even to Jeff Koon’s balloon animals and displays of household objects in the 80’s. For many decades artists have been asking the same question: what separates art objects from other objects in the world?

Hirst upholds the tradition of the readymade, but with one noticeable change. Where previously artists had used ordinary, commonplace, often industrially produced objects, Hirst uses the opposite – extraordinary objects, such as the shark. By substituting the likes of a cardboard box for the frightening, visceral melodrama of a 13ft long tiger shark in a glass tank, suspended as if it were still swimming, still alive and dangerous, Hirst has brought a new dimension to the avant-garde device of the readymade. That is to say, he has transformed it into a spectacle.

This is hardly surprising. For the YBA’s, who can be thought of as the first superstars of the art world, spectacle was everything. It was intrinsic to their image and concept. “Sensation” was the title of their 1997 group exhibition because this is what they caused; in the press and in the media, in the dusty citadels of arts institutions, in the casual-gallery-goer public who loved to hate them.

The spectacle is especially important to Hirst, it is the common denominator in all of his work. This spectacle is not something derived solely from the objects he chooses – although as we have seen with the shark, this is always part of it – but is generated from the aura of media celebrity which belongs to the artist himself, his artistic status which he has made into a brand.

Backed by advertising guru Saatchi, the YBA’s became experts at selling their art as a projection of themselves; a luxury commodity with a price-tag to match. It is this clever commodification process which makes Emin’s bed, not much more exciting than the one you woke up in this morning, worth £2.2 million. It is what makes Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull (which the artist himself played no part in making) dare to ask a price of £50 million.

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The much inflated value of these readymades, of what are essentially still just objects (albeit in the case of the jewelled skull, valuable ones) is symptomatic of what Marx described as the fetishization of commodity. Marx warned of losing the real value of human labour as a by-product of the estranged economic relations we experience within a capitalist consumer society. It is tempting to use Hirst’s skull to illustrate his point.

In regards to the shark, however, the spectacle is not quite as shallow or straight-forward. One of the elements that makes it an alluring and desirable object (or product) is the strange title Hirst has given it. A title which perhaps becomes the shark’s most evocative aspect. It is beautiful and poetic in its clumsiness: “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living”.

The phrase is simple and chimes with the infallible truth, revealing in a second the folly that underscores the human condition: that we are born to die and can never come to terms with that fact. For me the title transforms the creature, no longer a fear-inspiring monster it becomes sad and forlorn. Isolated and remote and trapped there in death till the end of time (or at least until it rots away and has to be replaced, as in 2006, but the sentiment stands).

The theatrical cruelty of the object is no longer the shark as an agent of death, but that of death itself, of the promise of death. And as we look at the shark in this new light it becomes almost heart wrenching to behold, engendering that feeling of pathos which Hirst will later perfect with another of his formaldehyde projects: a cow and its calf in separate tanks and severed in half entitled “Mother and Child (Divided).”

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In these “Momento Mori” works we realize we are not just looking at animals in tanks but at ourselves, at our own mortality. The artist has shamelessly and brilliantly brought the nihilistic glamour and tragedy of death – as a timeless, universal and sublime truth – into his spectacle. In Hirst, it seems, anything and everything can become part of the commodity.

To Hirst’s staunchest critics he is merely a savvy player of the contemporary art game with no real or authentic talents to speak of. It is certainly true that he is a far cry from that romantic artist prototype – the inspired, misunderstood genius labouring his whole life for little reward – he is rather a businessman and an entrepreneur. But maybe we should stop to wonder if this is not just a natural consequence of our times, a reflection of the increasingly materialistic world artists must negotiate, a world which beckons its own kind of artistic genius. In this context that question which has hung around since the dawn of modernity, that question of “what is art”, has become even more problematic.

Whilst no one has held back on their criticism of Hirst over the last decades (he has been variously named a con-artist, a fraud, and just simply bad) this has done nothing but help bolster his exposure and consequentially add to spectacle of his personality and his art, cementing works like “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living” into the history books of the future.

 

© 2014, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.

Exhibition review: Saatchi’s “Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America”

“Pangaea” refers us back some two hundred million years, when the young planet was home to a vast super-continent in which Africa and South America fit snugly together like two jigsaw pieces. It is this vision of a united prehistoric utopia  – of transcendent global connections – which has inspired the latest exhibition at the Saatchi gallery, London.

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Of course these continents are now separated by nearly 3000 km of Atlantic ocean and any link between the two contemporary cultures is no more established because this was once not the case. Yet in seeking to draw some underlying parallels curator Gabriela Salgada makes an important point about the increasingly globalized and ubiquitous nature of the art world and its audiences; an art world which no longer concedes to national or even continental boundaries.

The exhibition consists of 15 artists, some already well known and others not so, who are diverse and exciting in their approaches but linked throughout by recurring themes and often returning as in the following examples, to questions of civil war, migration, colonial pasts, political unrest and socioeconomic inequality.

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The exhibition’s initial showstopper is Rafael Gomezbarros’ Casa Tomada“, a giant ant installation comprising of 440 insects each half a meter long, which swarm and cluster upon the gallery walls in the first room. The spectator, suddenly dwarfed by the experience, might be initially alarmed, delighted, even amused by the sight. Yet on closer inspection the ants are not what they seem; their bodies are made from casts of human skulls bound together with bandages, their splayed legs wiry and skeletal, the combination of materials used (fiberglass with coal and resin) give them a rusty, decaying yet tough and resilient appearance.

Gomezbarros in fact employs the ant as a metaphor for the migrant worker.  Ordinarily the ant is viewed as a pest but can also be understood in terms of its strength and tenacity as a species (they are able to carry many times their own body weight and labour in order to support large and complex colonies). Here as they swarm together, perhaps fleeing from danger in their erratic clusters, they represent the plight of millions of people who have been displaced from their homes, and specifically the refugees from Gomezbarros’ native Colombia, which has suffered from more than half a century of civil war. The artist’s work draws our attention back to the suffering of asylum-seekers which goes largely ignored by the international community and by bringing these homeless, nameless individuals back into the public eye Gomezbarros attempts to make the invisible visible and give those that are silent a voice.

 

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Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou’s “Demoiselles de Porto-Novo” series of photographs are similarly loaded with meaning. His images of bare chested women, wearing traditional ceremonial masks and residing in the  doorways and corridors of colonial-style 19th century African mansions, attempt to reverse our expectations of the gaze and the Eurocentric understanding of seeing and being seen.

As unashamedly naked and confrontational as the prostitute in Manet’s “Olympia“, and as potentially treacherous as those in Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, the women in these photographs are beautiful, elusive, alluring yet dangerous and disconcerting. They subvert notions of not only sexual, but racial ownership, and deconstruct the power relations embedded within a history of colonialism and slavery in the West African Republic of Benin.

 

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Ibrahim Mahama’s “Untitled” installation consumes a vast space with dirty, torn, sewn together coal sacks (commonly known in Ghana as Juke sacks). Like the ants, the size of this work has an almost debilitating effect, looming upwards one imagines being trapped in an oppressive, gloomy cave. The material looks like it could be leather, or skin; a gigantic flayed carcass. The sheer quantity and weight of the sacks and the compilation of so many, meticulously sewn, reminds us of hard and grueling labor – the blood, sweat and tears – which remains in many parts of the world the beating heart of the economy.

These Juke sacks, the staple of African market places, are imported by Ghana Cocoa Board but then reused for charcoal and to transport other commodities. Each bears various scrawled markings which tells the story of if its movements within the trade system and thus each becomes a material document for the chain of supply and demand amongst the people of Ghana.

 

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Aboudia’s vast acrylic and mixed-media paintings, 7 of which are on show at “Pangaea“, give contemporary political violence a historic and monumental scale. This piece “Djoly du Mogoba” responds to the 2011 electoral disaster in the city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, when the presidential incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after loosing the elections, and wide-spread violence ensued. The artist was forced to take refuge in an underground studio at the time.

In this giant, frieze-like image, white faced soldiers stand in a row like ghoulish automatons equipped with large weapons. It is hard to tell but they might be children- the child soldiers who also fought and died in the Second Ivorian Civil War. They are interspersed by red faces with grimacing orange teeth, perhaps some kind of devil creature, or death masks, waiting ominously in the shadows for fate to take its turn. Aboudia’s painterly technique is cartoonish and child-like  but with none of the corresponding naivety. His brush marks are angry, red drips down the top part of the canvas like blood.

As with Gomezbarros we get the sense in this art work of the anguish and the indignation of those who watch their home nations get torn apart by civil war. However like the giant ants, Aboudia’s figures are also resilient, defiant, insistent on life even in the face of death. It is this which gives depth to Aboudia’s painting and in fact to all the artworks in this exhibition; through whatever hardship and adversity people are facing across the globe, the hopeful and tenacious human spirit remains.

Overall the exhibition succeeds in presenting artists that, despite the variety of their work, are surprisingly in-sync and create a fascinating and dynamic dialogue with each other. Needless to say that has nothing to do with the mythical unison of a prehistoric super-continent, but rather down to a thoughtful and vibrant selection of contemporary, international artists for whom geography now poses no limits.

Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America” is showing at the Saatchi gallery until the 2nd November 2014.

 

© 2014, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.