Monday, 22 November 2010

Shooting war: art on the frontline

Vietnam changed the art of war forever. Think of the most memorable images of that conflict and they are all photographs: Don McCullin's 1968 photo of a US marine that defines 'thousand-yard stare'; Nick Ut's famous image of naked, scarred nine-year-old Kim Phuc escaping a napalm attack in 1972, and Eddie Adams' picture of Southern Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a suspected Viet Cong with a gunshot to the head (1968).

Of our most recent conflicts the defining images are more remote: footage of the missile attack which wrought 'shock and awe' on Baghdad or black-and-white aerial videos of targets before they are wiped out. On the ground, the most memorable photographs are those connected with the humiliation of our prisoners, whether US soldiers' snapshots of hooded or naked men in Abu Ghraib or the orange-garbed inmate being wheeled on a makeshift trolley in Guantánamo.

In Iraq, official US artist Michael Fay's best sketches are portraits of fellow marines or, again, prisoners. British artist Michael Cook's pictures of Afghanistan are particularly odd - these could be images of an unlikely tourist destination, off the beaten track, superimposed with the paraphernalia of war: a football match where everyone is wearing khaki, with sandbags in the background, a man leading a camel train blocked by an armoured army jeep, or ordinary street scenes, notable for their bullet-pocked buildings.

One of London's best museums, the Imperial War Museum has a great collection of war art, notably from the First World War, including work by Paul Nash, William Orpen and CRW Nevinson (who, Wikipedia informs me, was credited with holding the first cocktail party in England). As well as those haunting images of strobe-lit fields (Futurist Nevinson is especially good on this), some of my favourite paintings feature those behind, in each sense, the carnage: try A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay (1919) by Orpen, or William Nicholson's The Canadian Headquarters Staff (1917-19) - impossible to miss at some two-and-a-half by three metres. (Nicholson is notable for a couple of other war paintings a long way from the frontline, including Ballroom in an Air Raid, 1918, where a trail of red, perhaps a fallen curtain or rolled-up carpet, leads the eye to the centre of this desolate picture.)

Battlefield surgery is a perennial favourite as are flag-draped coffins, which led to the biggest recent controversy over war art. Last year, US defence secretary Robert M Gates announced that the Pentagon had lifted a ban imposed in 1991 on photographing the return of war dead to America. That was five years after Amy Katz and Tami Silicio's picture of an apparently endless line of coffins bearing the Stars and Stripes in an airplane fuselage.

World Press Photo 2010 is at the Royal Festival Hall, on London's South Bank, until 5 December and features pictures of the aftermath of a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, a phosphorus bomb over Gaza City, and a fatally wounded US soldier being treated in Helmand province, Afghanistan, among other images of current conflicts.

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