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