Magazine article Artforum International

Atelier in Samarra

Magazine article Artforum International

Atelier in Samarra

Article excerpt

DURING THE NAZI OCCUPATION of Paris in the early 1940s, Picasso's atelier at 7 rue des Grands-Augustins was regularly visited by Gestapo agents in search of inflammatory material and hidden Jews. Once, an officer noticed a sketch of Guernica pinned to a wall, and he asked the artist, "Was it you who made this?" Picasso replied succinctly, "No, it was you."

Whether or not the anecdote is true--Picasso supposedly told it to a Newsweek reporter shortly after the liberation of Paris--it reveals a great deal about the art of war. Picasso had never visited the Basque town of Guernica y Luno; he learned about the Franquista atrocities from newspaper reports and photographs. For that matter, despite adamant assertions to the contrary ("yo lo vi"), Goya, whose "Disasters of War" etchings have recently been clown-and puppy-(de)faced by the shrilly naughty Chapman brothers, never actually witnessed the effects of battle or the execution of anti-Napoleonic rebels either. Yet Picasso and Goya, through their art, left a kind of fragmentary testament--not of "man's inhumanity to man," as the banal humanist credo would have it, but of specific perpetrations of what we now call "war crimes," their effects on victims, and, above all, their implications for bystanders.

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Picasso and Goya spring to mind precisely because contemporary artists confronting the war in and on Iraq seem to approach the question of responsibility so differently. This may have something to do with the changed nature of war (and war coverage) itself. I suspect it has more to do with the fact that the nature of artistic production and the expectations of artistic effect have themselves changed so dramatically--even in the past thirty years. These days, few artists would dare to try to make an Esto es Peor-type etching, partly because of the danger of commodifying suffering and partly because they recognize the political inefficacy of such a gesture. Never mind Goya and Picasso: Most contemporary artists wouldn't even bother to attempt to do what recent exhibitions of Nancy Spero and Philip Guston show they did so effectively in response to Vietnam, which was to indict something (including themselves) in the very forms of their work.

One notable feature of some of the contemporary war-related art recently on view in New York has been a resurgent interest in locality--in witnessing the effects of conflict unmediated, with one's own eyes. Last year, after the US invasion, the young American artist Steve Mumford went to Iraq, once in April for five weeks and once in August for two months. A talented painter of colorful, figurative, highly narrative canvases, Mumford had, in the late '90s, been associated in a few art-press accounts with an attempt to move "beyond irony" (or back to sincerity), and his two trips to Iraq might be considered an expression of that conviction in his art--which is precisely what makes it both interesting and problematic. Alternately following journalists and troops around and simply acting like a conscientious tourist, Mumford recorded what he saw in drawings and watercolors, never spending more than an hour on a single work. He made about two hundred images, posted dozens of them in his well-written, informative dispatches for the web publication artnet.com, and showed forty-five in a late autumn exhibition at Postmasters in New York.

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Some of the drawings of ordinary Iraqis that Mumford made initially look like snapshots taken by a well-intentioned backpacker; their titles--Backgammon Players; The Suq; Portrait of Mhedi--give a clear sense of their images. Yet drawing admits shades and nuances that photographs and television images, despite their pervasiveness, cannot, and Mumford clearly believes that the exposure to duration inherent in "anachronistic" handmade art can counteract the waning of affect produced by information saturation. This is especially evident in the images Mumford produced on his return to Iraq in late August, when he gained access to troop life. …

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