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.
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. …