FALL OUT: WAR AND CONFLICT IN THE BRITISH COUNCIL COLLECTION
- Lea Andrews
- Kenneth Armitage
- Terry Atkinson
- Edward Bawden
- Don Brown
- Reg Butler
- Mat Collishaw
- Stephen Dixon
- Rita Donagh
- Mona Hatoum
- Tim Head
- Mustafa Hulusi
- Henry Moore
- Rodrigo Moynihan
- Stephen Murphy
- Paul Nash
- John Piper
- Albert Richards
- William Roberts
- George Rodger
- Michael Sandle
- Paul Seawright
- Colin Self
- Bill Woodrow
- Madame Yevonde
Spanning more than 90 years - from 1916 to the present day - this exhibition looks at art from the British Council Collection produced during and in response to conflict and war. Sweden is a nation that has remained `neutral´ for almost two hundred years and therefore the ability to truly comprehend the endeavours and conflicts that Britain has engaged in remains somewhat foreign. It is possibly for this reason that the issue is particularly prominent and engaging for me.
The first examples are by official war artists from the first and second World Wars. Paul Nash’s energetic lithographs (1917/18), produced from his sketches on the front line at Ypres, and Albert Richards’ painting Take Off and Landing Field (1943) provide vivid accounts of war experienced at first hand. Richards was to die in the field aged twenty-five but, like his fellow war artists, produced luminous works under horrific conditions, capturing a world transformed by war from the unique perspective of a soldier. Later, the imagery produced during this period seems to have become a repository for other artists, less involved in the direct prosecution of war, to explore and mine more deeply.
In the aftermath of World War II its effects and traumas are investigated and analysed most notably in the work of two sculptors, Reg Butler and Kenneth Armitage. Butler’s work is characterised by spiky, alien-looking figures that contain within them a host of post-war anxieties, some of them expressing a fear of the future, others the devastation of all known form wrought by arms and munitions. Armitage had direct experience of the machines of war, working in aircraft and tank identification, and his understanding of their menace makes his stricken Figure Lying on its Side (Version V) (1957) all the more poignant. The post-war anxiety and the effects of atomic fallout hang like a pall over the work of both these sculptors.
The subject is pursued by British artists well after the end of World War II, but the scope becomes more diverse. Nuclear war, Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles´, the Palestinian conflict, the engagement in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, as well as a more generalised atmosphere of terror, can all be found in the work selected for this exhibition. Works such as Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murders deal with the conflict in Northern Ireland through documentary photography, whereas Don Brown and Stephen Murphy’s Missile (No. 3)employs a powerful symbol of war without reference to any specific conflict. Mona Hatoum, a Palestinian-born artist raised in Beirut before settling as in Britain, stares down oppression in her giant billboard Over my Dead Body, using an English cliché to ward off the advance of a toy soldier; while Mat Collishaw takes inspiration from news images of the school siege in Beslan, Russia, by Chechen militants in 2004 to create a work that distills the sense of pity and loss associated with all children memorialised through photographs.
Other artistic media are also pressed into service. Stephen Dixon’s On the Brink is a rare example of a work in ceramic used to make political comment. Made during the build-up to the l991 Gulf War, it makes a semi-comical tableau of the imminent clash between west and east; the forces of war represented by mounted camels and elephants which strain at the leash while a central figure representing peace can do nothing to hold them back.
From the outside, Britain is a nation that appears to be in a constant state of conflict. In the public sphere, the cityscape and landscape is populated with monuments and memorials to war - testaments to conflicts past, present and future. From images of the home front to invented memorials to past events, the exhibition perhaps tracks a uniquely British response to war and conflict - neither heroic, nor militaristic - but engaged, wry, and full of questions.
Theodor Ringborg, 2010
The term ‘Documentary’ was not coined until the 1920s, and then used by the British film-maker, John Grierson, to refer to moving pictures. It has a long and continuous history in British photography, reaching back to the invention of the medium. Many critics claimed that the documentary impulse, which can perhaps be best defined as the systematic recording of visual reality for the purpose of providing information and encouraging understanding of the world, is inherent in the medium itself. It was this view which came to be known as the realist paradigm - the belief that a photograph represents a ‘slice of reality’ easily understood by the viewer. This belief governed understanding of photography from the moment of its invention in the era of positivism in the 19th Century, until it was itself subject to interrogation in the 1980s.
Early British practitioners included John Thomson whose visual essay Street Life in London (1876) documented the life of the London poor, and Hill and Adamson who portrayed, in the mid 1840s, the customs and way of life of the fisher folk of Newhaven near Edinburgh. In the early 20th century, following the emergence of documentary film-making and Mass Observation (a study undertaken in the North of England by the anthropologist Tom Harrisson), this new aesthetic found its most persuasive outlet in the mass circulation weekly magazines, such as Picture Post and Life. In time, however, pressure from advertisers combined with the restrictions of group journalism and curtailed the independence of creative photographers, with only exceptional individuals such as Bill Brandt able to survive as both a photojournalist and an independent photographer. His images of Britain’s class-ridden society along with his more experimental nudes, portraits and landscapes had a profound influence on a younger generation and established Brant as a major creative force in the development of modernism in Britain.
Mass Observation was designed to emulate the radical achievements of the worker-photography movement which had arisen in Germany during the 1920s. It proved influential on the evolution of British documentary, especially on those photographers associated with the Side Gallery in Newcastle. The gallery fostered a regional, community-oriented form of documentary practice. Its philosophy was rooted firmly in the notion that an authentic document can only be generated by those familiar with the local community. Photographers associated with Side Gallery included Sirkka Konttinen, Isabella Jedrecyck, Graham Smith, Peter Fryer, Chris Killip and Julian Germain.
It was, however, across the Atlantic that the more enduring legacy concerning the ethics and status of documentary was to be found in the work of the photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration to document the plight of the American rural poor during the Depression. One of its outstanding photographers was Walker Evans whose use of signs and symbols (such as billboards and advertising hoardings) as images of desire created a text or narrative to accompany the careful sequencing of images. The direct inheritors of the photograph as social sign were the American photographers of the ‘social landscape’, namely Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus whose unsympathetic vision of the American landscape reflected the anxieties of urban life during the booming consumer decade - store fronts, billboards, graffiti and advertising. They chose to portray people, situations and artefacts in a casual and objective way that allowed the viewer to interpret the work freely; a strategy that became known as the ‘snapshot aesthetic’. One of those who experienced many of these developments first hand was the British photographer Tony Ray-Jones. His work was widely reproduced in the 1960s and his book A Day Off (1974) proved a particular inspiration for the generation of documentary photographers who developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The work of early documentary photographs can be found in the collections of the Royal Photographic Society www.rps.org)
The Mass Observation archive is held by the University of Sussex www.sussex.ac.uk/library/massobs/
The work of the Side Gallery can be seen at www.amber-online.com/gallery/
The archive for the Farm Security Administration is now in the Print and Reading Room Collections of the Library of Congress in Washington www.loc.gov/rr/print
Landscape is one of the principle genres of Western art. In early paintings the landscape was a backdrop for the composition, but in the late 17th Century the appreciation of nature for its own sake began with the French and Dutch painters (from whom the term derived). Their treatment of the landscape differed: the French tried to evoke the classical landscape of ancient Greece and Rome in a highly stylised and artificial manner; the Dutch tried to paint the surrounding fields, woods and plains in a more realistic way. As a genre, landscape grew increasing popular, and by the 19th Century had moved away from a classical rendition to a more realistic view of the natural world. Two of the greatest British landscape artists of that time were John Constable and JMW Turner, whose works can be seen in the Tate collection (www.tate.org.uk). There can be no doubt that the evolution of landscape painting played a decisive role in the development of Modernism, culminating in the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists . Since then its demise has often been predicted and with the rise of abstraction, landscape painting was thought to have degenerated into an amateur pursuit. However, landscape persisted in some form into high abstraction, and has been a recurrent a theme in most of the significant tendencies of the 20th Century. Now manifest in many media, landscape no longer addresses solely the depiction of topography, but encompasses issues of social, environmental and political concern.
Work of art made with paint on a surface. Often the surface, also called a support, is a tightly stretched piece of canvas, paper or a wooden panel. Painting involves a wide range of techniques and materials, along with the artist's intellectual concerns effecting the content of a work.
UK, Canterbury, Sidney Cooper Gallery
- 02 October 2010 − 20 November 2010
UK, London, Whitechapel Art Gallery
- 26 March 2010 − 30 May 2010