The Age of Uncertainty: The Painters and Photographers of the First World War Were Resolutely on the Side of the Ordinary Solider. Today, Artists Have an Ambiguous Attitude to Conflict in the Middle East, and Struggle to Express Its True Horrors

By Adams, Tim | New Statesman (1996), November 17, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Age of Uncertainty: The Painters and Photographers of the First World War Were Resolutely on the Side of the Ordinary Solider. Today, Artists Have an Ambiguous Attitude to Conflict in the Middle East, and Struggle to Express Its True Horrors


Adams, Tim, New Statesman (1996)


Two exhibitions, two anniversaries. The first, In Memoriam at the Imperial War Museum, commemorates 90 years since the end of the war to end all wars. The second, On the Subject of War at the Barbican marks seven years of the "war on terror", a war, by definition, without end. The first places us on familiar poppy-strewn emotional territory, but retains its inviolate capacity to move and to shock. The second puts us squarely in no-man's-land.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The thing about the great artists of the First World War was that they knew exactly where they stood, and where their audience stood. They were muddied near the front lines at the Somme, or stranded on the beaches of the Dardanelles, and they were resolutely on the side of the ordinary soldier, the primary victim of the war. Paul Nash could delineate the suffering he experienced first-hand at Ypres and give it universal significance; John Singer Sargent, cajoled into service as a war artist by a letter from Lloyd George, reproduced here, could frame his epicpainting of the blindfolded leading the blind in Gassed (1918-19) and be sure where the viewer's sympathies lay; William Orpen could drape a Union Jack over the tomb of the unknown soldier in To the Unknown British Soldier Killed in France (1922-7), and invest it with all the charged ambiguities of sacrificial patriotism.

There is an extraordinary photograph included in In Memoriam which shows the 137th (Staffordshire) Brigade being congratulated by General Campbell for their capture of the bridge at St Quentin Canal. The men, thousands of them, clothed in mud, are ranged against the far bank of the canal, like the toy soldiers of a Chapman brothers hell, and seem as if they have been modelled from the hillside. Look closely, though, and each man seems to have made of stories, full of engagement in the desperate events that have shaped him. We can project this because we know it to be true. Each one of the thousands of survivors looks as full of life and as broken with of sorrow as the last remaining survivor, the wonderful Harry Patch, now 110, who has never forgotten his own private war: "The day I lost may pals, 22 September 1917, that is my Remembrance Day," he recalls here, "not Armistice Day. Ninety years after and I always remember it, I never forget the three I lost."

What will the Harry patches of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan say of their war at the end of this century? How will those waking up, as their new president says, in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, some of whom will not make it home, be remembered? What should we project on to their photographed faces?

Artists have struggled to get to grips with the last seven years of warm, not least because they have looked in vain for a human scale to its horrors and have lacked an audience certain of its sympathies. Some have made powerfullocalimages of skewed patriotism and forgetting-Steve McQueen's postage-stamp portraits of the British servicemen and women who have died come to mind-or claimed wider points about the people's sense of the illegality of war-Mark Wallinger's Turner Prize-winning recreation of Brian Haw's Parliament Square protest. But few have come remotely close to expressing the texture of the conflict itself in way that Nash and Sargent's bold lines conveyed the blood and mud of that earlier sacrifice.

The four artists grouped in the Barbican show -he most rigorous attempt to address that absence I have seen-take on those difficulties squarely. They are preoccupied with questions of vantage, of where the front lines of the current war might lie; and of empathy, of their name when simple lines of propaganda will not do. Each of the artists has an ambiguous relation to the war itself. The photographer An-My Le was evacuate from Saigon in 1975 and went on to study medicine in America before picking up a camera. Omer Fast is an Israeli film-maker, born in 1972; Geert van Kesteren is a Dutch photojournalist, who works on assignment for the German weekly Stern; paul Chan is a New Yorker, a satirist and a campaigner.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Age of Uncertainty: The Painters and Photographers of the First World War Were Resolutely on the Side of the Ordinary Solider. Today, Artists Have an Ambiguous Attitude to Conflict in the Middle East, and Struggle to Express Its True Horrors
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.