After the end of the First World War, Manchester Art Gallery’s Director Lawrence Haward was inspired to collect one of the best collections of art from the conflict anywhere outside London.
Now a new exhibition at the gallery, the Sensory War 1914-2014 brings many of those works to the public for the first time since the 1920’s.
This, quite remarkable and important exhibition has been in the planning for four years says its current director Maria Balshaw.
It is an attempt, she adds, to recognise its impact on the region, no just in looking at the horror of war but also how it changed society and attitudes for ever in its aftermath.
Split into a number of themes across two floors, two large paintings greet the visitor, Henry Lamb’s Advance Dressing Station on the Struma and Henry Tonk’s ‘ An advanced dressing staton in France both from the Imperial war museum.
The 1914-18 war was the first that truly industrialised war. Nevinson’s Making Aircraft’s aggressive modern style, stands alongside Frank Brangwyn’s ‘Making Sailors’ whose bodies are turned into exaggerated examples of the classical body and Clausen’s ‘Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal’ where seventy four thousand munitions passed through.
The war was seen from entirely new perspectives, the ariel war depicted in Nevinson’s searchlights and exploding anti aircraft shells across a clear blue sky would be replicated in the Second World War with Eric Ravilious’ ‘View from the cockpit of a moth’.
There are hard hitting pictures of the suffering of people in the firing line and the way that the geography of Flanders was completely destroyed.
Paul Nash’s ‘Wounded at Passchendaele’ depicts stretcher bearers as they carry the wounded through a poisonous Landscape filled with the colours of gangrene and mustard gas
Nash witnessed the final stages of the 1917 battle having returned in the late autumn after being badly injured. His regiment having been almost wiped out in August on an attack on the notorious Hill 60.
At the end of the war, Rothenstein would return to the church at Bourlon and would paint it’s shattered spire and broken windows to stand as a memorial to the dead.
While Otto Dix’s shocks our senses with powerful anti war works, the dying soldier whose face is literally deconstructing in front of us, of prisoners of war, torture and shell shock.
By the time of the 1939-45 conflict warfare had turned into wholesale devastation and would end in the nuclear age.
It was forecast in Georges Leroux’ ‘l’enfer’ a frightened soldiers view of a world consumed by fire.
The highlight, if that is an apt description, is the works of the hibakusha, the haunted memories of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, memories so devastating that it was many years before they were able to set them down in the form of art.
It is the first time that the works have been shown outside of Japan
They are horrifying memories. People jumping into water tanks attempting to relieve their burning bodies, the black radioactive dust and soot, the surface of the river covered with bloated floating bodies, the charred body of a women standing frozen, her arm outstretched in a final plea and an incinerated boy of five.
Then to modern warfare, Simon Norfolk’s photograph of a destroyed Taliban Tank appears as a spine of some ancient carcass of a long extinct animal and Sophie Ristel Heuber’s West Bank roadblocks which show clearly the artificial topography of a war torn landscape.
In the 1980’s chemical attacks came to prominence in the Iran Iraq war and only now are Iranian artists finally tackling this taboo subject. Some of their work is on show here alongside Richard Mosse’ ‘s Ariel photograph over the Congo, its lurid pink landscape connecting the Congolese forests back to the first use of chemicals in 1915 and later in Vietnam.
The exhibition brings us right to the current day, the escalating use of drones in warfare in Omer Fest’s ‘5,000 feet is the best’ explores the terror of drone strikes for the victims while emerging artist Katie Davies in the ‘separation line’ focuses on the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan by documenting the repatriation of dead soldiers in Royal Wootton Bassett.
Let there be no doubt, this is a fundamentally powerful exhibition which though starting with the First World War, ends up forcing the visitor to think about the persistence of conflict, the way that artists have dealt with the impact of war and that unfortunately wars continue across the world.
Yet there is a message of hope as well that human resilience can win through in the end.
The Sensory War 1914-2014
11th Oct to 25th January 2015
Manchester Art Gallery