The 100th anniversary of the First World War lasts until 2018. As important as it is to mark the centenary of such a generation-changing event, with the endless list of exhibitions, war-themed Hollywood blockbusters, plays and TV programmes, there’s a risk that the public will become completely desensitised, if it isn’t already.
If I’m honest, I went into the Sensory War exhibition already jaded when it came to war art. To use a massive generalisation, the early 1900s were not the most expressive of periods of art in the Western world, and many paintings from the time retain a hint of propaganda. Writing about war also becomes difficult without slipping into cliche, so forgive me.
To say that the images cut through the white noise of war imagery is an understatement. A piece by piece study of the exhibition would be as tedious for you to read as it would for me to write, so I’ll focus on one particular section, entitled ‘Rupture & Rehabilitation: Disability & The Wounds of War’. The series of paintings, drawings and photographs featured in a small part of the gallery act as a microcosm for the wider theme of the exhibition; a study of the large-scale assault on whole societies epitomised in the physical and emotional scars left behind.
During the first world war, many artists found work documenting wounds to assist early reconstructive surgeons in their research. In a series of small watercolours, Herbert Cole shows the facial injuries of some of the patients at Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, some healed, and some bloody and open to the air. However extreme the wounds, each image is clear without being clinical, each soldier is shown with an upright bearing. There is no grief or pain in these paintings, if anything there is a surprise and even pride that the victims have lived through such an experience.
Drawings and paintings provide the viewer with a level of distance for the viewer from the image’s subject; seen through the filter of the artist and their pen, we can remain relatively far-removed from the original scene. The filter of a camera lense does not give us quite the same level of comfort. A photograph of a local survivor from the Vietnam war by Richard Mosse gives an unflinching look at the deformities many outside of the reach of ‘modern medicine‘ are left to live with. With a lower face so disfigured by gunfire, the viewer is forced to fight the instinct the look away and has to stare in order to distinguish the remnants of a functioning human face; teeth, tongue, a nose. A reproduction here would not reflect the true and appropriate brutality of this experience.
Other photographers turned to recent, American survivors returning from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as their subjects. One, Marine Corporal Michael Jennigan, has taken life’s unfairnesses on the chin, or more accurately, in the eye. Like so many returning soldiers, war not only ripped apart their bodies on the battlefield but also their relationships at home. After being left blind, Jennigan’s wife couldn’t deal with the impact of his injuries, and divorced him. A lesser man would have done everything he could to forget this betrayal; Jennigan had the diamonds from his ex-wife’s wedding ring embedded into his prosthetic eye.
To say that The Sensory War brought new insight to not only war art but war itself is as glib as it is true. Shocking without being gratuitous, emotional but without sentimentality, the juxtaposition of the 21st century impact of conflict with images from a century ago provide a fresh and powerful view on an oft-repeated theme.