Entries in war (128)
If there was ever a painting that matched John Gillespie Magee's High Flight, below, it is Lanyon's Thermal, above.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Magee was in the RCAF, Lanyon RAF; Magee killed at 19 in 1941, Lanyon survived to buy a glider and paint what he saw into the early 1960s. There is a resurgence of interest in Lanyon because of a new exhibition at the Courtauld. Well-known, but not well-featured, but now there are articles on him everywhere, Thermal explained, Silent Coast discussed: the point where abstract expressionism met English landscape.
However it is explained, what I see in Thermal is that 1960s Austin side mirror shape that gives the whole painting its scale from the era to the plane, to the air outside it.
Silent Coast, below, just from the name alone, tells us it is an aerial of a coastline, beautiful but less magical than Thermal, which is complex, difficult.
Perhaps surviving WWII (Lanyon was stationed in the North Africa theatre, dangerous, but not as lethal as John Gillespie Magee's Sqd 412, an RCAF bombing squadron flying over Europe where an aircrew's life expectancy was about two weeks) – perhaps surviving WWII made Lanyon particularly free. For those who did survive, the war had been the high point of their lives and they'd made it through. The last verse of Magee's High Flight actually does not seem to end, so sublime is the moment of flight. Like Thermal, it is entirely absorbed in the act of flying, where survival, or not, is in the future and hardly to be thought of.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Thomas Hirschhorn's In-Between at South London Gallery has been reviewed in The Guardian under the title: 'Things fall apart: the beautiful Marxist bomb that's hit south London; Artist Thomas Hirschhorn plays on our manic pleasure at seeing ruins by making a whole building collapse in on itself'
But not really, it is in a gallery, which is still standing. This is a simulacrum of a building collapsing in on itself. Whatever he is doing, and it is explained in Adrian Searle's review, one has to ask whether or not such an installation does give us manic pleasure. I'm not sure. Hirschhorn quotes Gramsci's note, from Prison Notebooks, 'destruction is difficult; indeed, it is as difficult as creation'. Well, whatever. What is strange is that this art installation must be taken seriously in the light of the fairly simple destruction taking place in Palmyra, and the very similar images seen every day from Aleppo and Damascus. Or even the destruction of the MSF hospital in Kunduz, which although it took half an hour, was relatively quick and one might say simple.
Hirschhorn's ruins are actually made of cardboard and styrofoam standing in for concrete and steel, so technically, I suppose, a maquette, or a model. He says, 'a ruin stands for a structural, an economical, a cultural, a political or a human failure' and it is failure he is giving form to. Art is used here as an intermediary between real ruins and the causes of the real ruins, as if the lessons need to be spelled out. Indeed Adrian Searle appreciates this. If this exhibition is popular, does this indicate some sort of disaster fatigue amongst the general gallery-going first world public? 'oh god, another front page photo of a bombed building with little kids playing in the rubble. Can't take it in. Let's go look at Hirschhorn's ruin instead.'
Compared to Jeremy Deller's It Is What It Is, his exhibition of the bombed car that killed 38 people in Iraq in 2007, In-Between is a limp thing, lacking in commitment and urgency, It remains a maquette, and as such doesn't ask for much from the viewer. Of course it is unfair writing about any work one hasn't seen, but I hadn't seen Deller's piece either, but I got it, or at least got what I needed to hear out of it. And that is the point. What, and how much, in any piece of art, passes a critical point whereby viewers find something to engage with, not just gaze at. In-Between seems a gesture, only.
From History of the Great War - Naval Operations. God this is exciting reading. The first drawing above shows the movement of all the battle cruisers in this engagement from 2:45 to 3:00 pm. The next from 3:15 to 3:30, and the thrid from 3:40 to 4pm. The speed is evident. How quickly things moved.
Trafalgar was set up along Army lines: two opposing forces arrayed facing each other except that Nelson changed his line to two perpendicular arrows. By the Battle of Jutland in the North Sea, May 31, 1916, opposing forces appear to operate parallel to each other, in feints and parries. These were battle cruisers, weather not an issue but speed, torpedoes and range were. It looks like a deadly dance chart.
Nelson's enigmatic little sketch formalised into a historic account: mathematical, geometric, correctly military; theory rather than practice. This is, perhaps, the danger in all writing after the fact. The narrative is clarified, made correct. It is a design exercise, making a coherent object out of a melée on the sea with cannonballs breaking ships into splinters, people being killed, drowned, wounded. In this allegedly 'popular' print, the sea is like the table tops of battles between lead soldiers. By this time, seven years after Trafalgar, the battle had become mythic, as had Nelson.
A wall of ships, the British ships sail toward it planning to cut the line in three, taking out the flagship first, i.e. no signals. Not being a naval historian, and reading a brief summary, it appears that part of the English fleet was at Gibralter, weakening the total Navy, and so the French and Spanish thought they could defend Cadiz by forming a long line in front of it. However, weather will intervene. Little wind and contradictory orders to the French and Spanish to turn resulted in an extremely slow reformation leaving clumps of ships over a loose five-mile line. In come two tight arrow-like British lines. As they all were no doubt luffing around in the same calm weather, the battle must have seemed a bit like slow-motion. However, outnumbered, outgunned and out-shipped, the British won, Nelson was shot and died, and storms that blew up the next day sank several of the wounded ships of the day before.
If there is anything that endears one to Nelson's 'England expects that every man will do his duty' spelled out in signal flags flying from his own flagship, it is this scrap of a battle plan on the back of what looks like a bit of blotting paper. One must never be seen to be trying too hard, but duty is done nonetheless.
Does this kind of thinking exist any more? I only come across it in British espionage novels, those thrilling, complicated, but allegedly deeply conservative tales that pass these days as my escape reading. Ex-SAS men gone rogue sort of stuff. Not really rogue, in the end one finds they are on the side of right and duty. Of course.
Anyway, beautiful little drawing. It moves me to tears for some reason.
In terms of strategy I'm beginning to wonder if contemporary news coverage isn't preoccupied more with battles than with larger strategies, which would perhaps necessitate a discussion of root causes. Edward Luttwak, writing about Roger Knight's book on Napoleon in LRB, 18 December 2014, likens levels of strategy to a building where each floor is dependent on the one below: operational strategies depend on technical levels of strategy, and tactical strategy depends on operational strategy – the ability to actually fight. At the level of grand strategy where wars are fought between empires of alliances, there is an assumption that the supporting levels of strategy are all in place. In fact it all has to be in place: Germany in WWI was powerful and skilful in battle (technical, operational and tactical levels) but was hitched to the declining Ottoman and Hapsburg empires pitted against the British, French, Japanese and Russian empires. One might say these latter empires were declining as well, but were in an earlier and less debilitated stage of decline. Or in Napoleon's case it wasn't the battle of Waterloo that ended his reign, rather (according to Luttwak) it was the ongoing presence of a vast array of opposing forces, from Sardinia to Sweden, Britain to Russia.
This, above, is allegedly Alexander at the battle of Issus in 333 BC against Darius of Persia. The mosaic shows the base unit of a fighting force: the man, his armour, his sword and his horse: the elements of the technical strategy. It was a decisive battle, fought near present day Mosul. According to wikipedia Alexander had the smaller army but better tactics; his victory 'led to the fall of the Acaemenid Empire', or the First Persian Empire that had formed in the sixth century BC. One reason given is that the Persian empire by 333 was too large and too incoherent for efficient military support. I'm sure there were other reasons, but the failure of a coalition of many nations is interesting in light of our present creation and de-creation of allies and axes.
Here is the full mosaic, below, Darius in a chariot anticipating the eventual conversion of cavalry to tanks. There is such a similarity between all these battle depictions, from Issus to Wounded Knee. It is the horses, the horses.
And we return to a depiction not unlike the ledger drawings. Although the previous post's image from the 1371 Manual of Horsemanship and Military Practice shows the mounts bouncing towards each other like something from Thelwell, these horses are intent, flying flat out, gory scenes of death and dismemberment along the way.
My goodness, here is a forum all about historical martial arts – horses, armour, speed, distance and the length of your stirrups. This should explain it all, she said hopefully.
There is great interest in historic warfare and accurate re-enactments, and much debate about, among other countless details, such things as whether Parthian horses stirred up such clouds of dust that the Romans couldn't actually see where they were. Maybe. 'Chiron' (Lieutenant) says some would be making dust while others waited for their riders to restock their arrow quivers. This level of logistical detail seems to go on for pages as discussion shifts from the gait used to get to the battle to whether all the horses arrived together or not; this is for an army that existed from 247 BC to 224 AD, in what is now Iran. The Parthian empire covered pretty much all the middle east countries racked by war today, from Afghanistan to Georgia, Iraq to Turkey.
The Art of War, from Sun Tzu, is a treatise on tactics and strategies that have changed little in the fifteen centuries since it was written. Reading this and Clausewitz's early nineteenth century On War, one realises that war is a texture, layered but ultimately predictable as certain strategies reoccur throughout the centuries and appear, depressingly, in contemporary campaigns. Politics change, as do the issues that prompt warfare, but the actual fighting is always aiming and killing, at various scales and speeds.
There is that relationship between battle and horses that held up until the second world war, cavalry units converting to tank units after the first world war. There are dreadful stories of horses requisitioned from all over Britain, family horses to milk float dobbins to percheron teams, for the Front, poor things. Cavalry horses were supposedly a special kind, mythologised in War Horse, but were often just whatever horse was available that hadn't been killed in the previous battle. One suspects PTSD for animals is not much considered, most of the references to PTSD are about the role of horses in rehabilitating PTSD veterans. The BBC did a program on horses in WWI. It is tragic, their bravery.
Drawings and paintings of cavalry charges such as this one, just 6 years before the battle of Little Bighorn, differ greatly from the ledger drawings of the previous post. Here it is all heroics and glory and a large number of blades swinging about in the air. This wood etching by Winslow Homer for Harper's Weekly was the equivalent of the war photograph of today. Of course being a drawing licence can be taken. No blood gushes, it can only be imagined – all those sabres are landing somewhere. Being a civil war, it was brother against brother; the 'enemy' was like you just wearing a different coloured jacket. Does it have to happen?
Some essential reading: James Meek reviews four books on the British Army in Afghanistan (London Review of Books, Vol. 36 No. 24 · 18 December 2014) – many things we did not hear: Basra was an underfunded defeat, the subsequent transfer to Afghanistan was both face-saving and under the aegis of the Americans, Helmand province where they were based had 150-year old active memories of the last British debacle on the Northwest Frontier, British performance was mostly defensive under near-constant fire from local groups. This isn't quite how it was told sold to us. I'm waiting for the equivalent analyses of the Canadian record in Khandahar. We didn't have the oppressive prestige of the British Army that had maintained the Empire and all that now-superseded stuff, but the situation in Khandahar province was most likely just as manipulated, just as treacherous.
Unlike the linear arrays of a certain kind of depiction of war, battles and their aftermaths, this set of 26 drawings uses an entirely different narrative form. The whole set is on an american tribes forum and charts the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. There is an accompanying text by Mniconjou, a Lakota chief who was there. Both the text and the drawings were recorded at the Cheyenne River Reservation in 1881, at the request of McChesney, an army doctor at Fort Bennet collecting material for a study of sign language. Known as ledger drawings, as they were done in blank ledgers, often with ruled pages, columns and general accounting pencils, this set is on blank paper with an array of coloured pencils, which makes them unusual.
These drawings depict in terrible detail the wounds and mutilations on both sides – horses die, heads and hands are chopped off – this is ghastly warfare. But then all warfare is, and it reminds one that most of us, who have never been in a war, hear the statistics on deaths in Syria and never think that it is actually like these drawings.
The US Army troops are undistinguishable: they have beards, blue trousers, black hats; their horses wear saddles. The Lakota nation however is drawn in beautiful detain, the different war bonnets carefully counted, the shields inscribed with totems. The army is a homogenous unit; the Lakota are individuals, carrying their family histories with them. And what of the horses. They die as well, their saddles gone just as the army dead have lost their boots.
The previous post's paintings and drawings flatten the space of war into a representative frieze. These ledger drawings are simultaneously profile and plan. The top of the page is no less important than the middle or the bottom, all participants are equal in size – there is no re-scaling to fit any laws of perspective. We have been taught that renaissance perspective gives a scene veracity: distance blurs, makes dim and small. In these ledger drawings the veracity is more overwhelming, everything is foreground, everything is heroic, nothing is diminished for 'art'. The frieze drawings gain their power in presenting the line of soldiers, or police, as a clear middle ground with no ameliorating fore or back grounds. The ledger drawings present similar lines, but many of them and all in the same space of the page showing rank after rank of cavalry and warrior riding toward each other and clashing violently.
I've shown just three of the drawings here, the full set of 26 is both breathtaking and sobering: a tragedy drawing in careful detail.
After writing about Robert Longo's drawing of Ferguson, in the previous post, I kept thinking of another battle painting featured on Amanda Vickery's The Story of Woman and Art, Lady Butler's 1874 Calling the Roll.
From the Civil Rights Movement:
And lastly, because by this time it seems so obvious, the frieze on the entablature of the Parthenon:
There is something about the linear array of warriors that perhaps has its roots in the rendering of the endless wars – war as a permanent state of existence – between gods, states and cities of the eastern Mediterranean. Sargent's Gassed is an oil painting, but acts visually as a bas-relief: little depth of field here, and what is in the background is a smaller repetition of the foreground.
Lady Butler is known for a new sensitivity to the reality of war; conventional paintings of British heroism portrayed the heart of battles, all glory and snorting horses, rather than the ongoing grind of war. The Roll Call showed British soldiers in a state of extreme and weary collapse, after the battle, not in the battle. The Grenadier Guards are not shown in their full complement, but are crowded into a dark cluster of wounded spirit. This was the ordinary, unheroic side of war, a depiction unusual for its time. Now, I cannot find anywhere that says that Lady Butler actually saw a battle. Sargent was there, Longo wasn't, Martin Spider clearly held the camera. The painting is not necessarily a witness, rather it supplies a narrative needed, politically, by certain groups at the time. The nineteenth century British Army needed reform, mid-twentieth century America needed suffrage, The Great War needed an ending, early twentieth-century USA needs to re-examine the licence and the impunity given to its institutions of law and order.
The Parthenon frieze aside as it is included here for its formal structure, in all of these artworks we see the backs of men, the artist is a viewer from a distance, not gassed, not beaten, not weary. The men do not pose for the artist, or as is the unspoken intention, they do not pose for us, thus they do not accuse. That is left for the artist to do.
There is a horizontal datum line through the heads in these pieces, above is an empty air, below all is struggling uncertainty. There is no perspective, and perhaps no perspective can possibly justify these scenes. We are not asked to engage, the precision of the row exludes us, we are forced to simply gaze at the panoply, and this shocks us. And it shocks us into muteness because the subjects can't or won't hear us.
Robert Longo (Petzel shows his most recent work) has flirted around the edges of political art for a long time, forming a punk band when the Velvet Underground was a punk band, drawing from photographs figures seemingly in some sort of physical angst, an idea he claims from a still from Fassbinder's The American Soldier. He redraws iconic abstract expressionist works – a photo of his studio shows a Motherwell on the wall. He did album covers; he has an assistant who actually does the details of his drawings – such is the contemporary art process: the artist thinks of the piece, the assistant realises it, the artist finishes it. He directed Johnny Mnemonic; he did a memorable photo shoot for Bottega Veneta. This is a post-70s New York Lou Reed manqué artistic career that appears to be political but perhaps is merely black and white. And he is married to Barbara Sukowa.
This 10' long charcoal drawing, Untitled (Ferguson), is redrawn from news coverage of the Ferguson riots. It is beautiful in a way that black and white photography often is, as is charcoal. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian is very taken with it, classifying it along with Warhol's silkscreened 'Birmingham Race Riot', 1964, taken from a news photo, Rauschenberg's Dante drawings and Richard Hamilton's Northern Ireland triptych, especially The State. With Longo, the artist has stepped back somewhat from manipulating the image: this is a straight translation into charcoal from a digital image projected onto a ten-foot sheet of paper. The process means that it is not a print, it is from the age of reproduction, it is not reproducible.
Jones feels that because Longo chose the image, that makes it significant art, much in the way that Duchamp chose everyday items from which he made art. I'm not sure that this is a strategy that still holds, a century after Duchamp and the surrealists investigated it. Longo, and all the rest of us, have a keen eye for the 'significant image'; we are not as graphically naïve as we were during the Civil Rights movement, or the Vietnam War. The rise of photojournalism, war photographers, and the sheer volume of images of wars and riots and terrible incursions have trained us to read images of war aesthetically.
Longo's Untitled (Ferguson) is terrifically forbidding and full of foreboding, sobering and monumental — a piece of art to mark the Ferguson travesty of justice and its aftermath, but first of all it is beautiful, romantic even, in its theatrical smokey lighting and its linear array of protagonists, as if the artist simply can't help aestheticising the smell of tear gas. I suppose I've become cynical in the power of contemporary art to be really angry and this mise-en-scène is about as close as we will get.
35mm Film Installation
Duration: 10:18 Loop (this is a lower resolution edited trailer – just a taste)
from Stankievech's website:
Black Mountain College, North Carolina, started an interdisciplinary summer arts school at Lake Eden in 1944 during a war, when things rarely start, and continued to throw artists, musicians, dancers and experimental types together through the 1950s. One of these was Buckminster Fuller who had done his startling dymaxion work in the 1920s and 30s and by the late 1940s mostly taught, did workshops and mentored people. One of these was Jeffrey Burland Lindsay, an engineer-industrial designer in Montreal who headed up the Buckminster Fuller Research Institute, a grand name which turns out to be Lindsay and Ted Pope in a small space on the Plateau. One of the summers Fuller was at Black Mountain, Lindsay too was there: the practical fellow to Fuller's inspirational stuff. They built a 48' geodesic dome in 1948, called by Elaine de Kooning the Supine Dome, as it failed, gracefully. From the pictures it looks like they were building it out of ribbon.
One Black Mountain listing says 'the college played a formative role in the definition of an American aesthetic and identity in the arts during the 1950s and 1960s'. It must have done, it appears to have been stacked with emigrés from the Bauhaus, plus Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Josef Albers; there were poets, there were painters, all was possible. Students included Ray Johnson, Noland, Rauschenberg, Twombly, John Chamberlain — these are the ones I know, there are many others I don't know, but it was clearly seminal, formative, an essential part of American postwar modern art.
The college was located on Lake Eden, planned in 1938 by Gropius and Breuer but development was suspended during WWII, and then after the war Lawrence Kocher took over the design of the main building. It was built by students and faculty from 1940-41, plus, for sustenance and extra cash, there was a farm and a mica mine.
This is a curious episode in American architectural history, one senses that money was tight, creativity and optimism high, materials were often found, the country itself was in the grip of a military-agricultural complex. Kocher's austere, Gropius-influenced, minimal campus building, the stamp of which is in Frey's canvas house of the 1930s, and so similar to a wartime barracks, is also not unlike a North Carolina tobacco-drying shed: wood frame, clad in corrugated galvanised steel. And it has aged like a tobacco-drying shed, leaving behind its bauhaus modernity and revealing its deeper connection to a local vernacular.
When we see the bullet proof vests on foreign correspondents, they are basically kevlar with ceramic trauma plate inserts roughly from 5" x 8" and 1/4" thick for concealed vests, to 10" x 12" plates up to 1/2" thick for tactical vests. They work in combination with the aramid fabrics: high ballistic protection from the plates, dispersal of blunt trauma from the fabrics.
Boron Carbide: B12C3 for those who understand such things is exceptionally hard because the molecules form a network plane. Not a new technology, it was first synthesised in 1899. The discs in the Dragon Skin are silicon carbide (SiC) or carborundum, used since 1893 as an abrasive. thank you wikipedia. Both these materials have a zillion other uses: something about how their molecules arrange themselves in dense interconnected plates makes them exceptionally inert, resistant, hard and defensive.
The small overlapping plates of the Dragon Skin allows more motion and is designed, evidently, to absorb multiple hits, which is a sobering thought. All of these are meant to protect vital organs, not to render someone entirely bullet proof. I expect that development in ballistic technology forces the development of anti-ballistic systems. There is, for example, something called a full metal jacket bullet which is a soft lead core fully jacketed in hard metal which allows higher velocities as the hard jacket slides more easily down the bore. Do I want to know this? I suppose so, I thought the movie Full Metal Jacket was actually about some kind of armoured jacket for soldiers. The point of a full metal jacket bullet is that they can be used indiscriminately against both soft and hard targets. I think I'll leave this topic now.
There was a scandal in 2007-8 where the US government did not equip its soldiers in Afghanistan with $5000 Dragon Skin armour, choosing cheaper armour from companies with government contracts. Some things never change.
Memory Wound, above, is one of three memorials to the victims of the massacre at Utøya, Norway in 2011. The rock cut out of the Sørbråten peninsula to make the channel will be used to make another memorial in Oslo on the site of a car bomb, also Anders Breivik's responsibility.
According to The Guardian, Dahlberg has spoken of poetic rupture, beauty indissolubly linked to loss. One wall of the cut is inscribed with the names of the children killed, the other is carved out into a ledge from which to view the names. The cut is aligned with Utøya – it doesn't eradicate Utøya by being placed literally on the site of the massacre itself.
This is how such massively inexplicable deaths are memorialised these days, by massive land art. There is little else that we feel is significant enough to approach the scale of war, for this was an act of war between a race-based fundamentalism and an unwitting, wealthy, liberal and secular populace. It seems to be too difficult to explain how Anders Breivik came to be, the best we can do is to set up sites where we can contemplate what he did. Memory Wound is a powerful place to do this; does it address the rise of anti-islamic fundamentalism in Europe? Not really, it addresses the children, their absence – the effect of a cause that remains active, not absent.
Land art puts human activities into the context of the earth as a planet, the sun as a star, time measured in light years – things almost beyond comprehension for all we have been taught how geology and astronomy works. These things have become our ineffable, things so detached from the development of the human race that they absorb human failings. It's cosmic and all, but there are other Breiviks out there, and they are unmoved.
About the time I was young and tooling around on a little sailboat in Nanaimo Harbour, I found a book of drawings of the BC coast done by an artist on Captain Vancouver's ship. They looked much like Serres' paintings (above) – navigation charts, meant to point out signal points, rocks bays, harbours and dangers. These and Vancouver's drawings, which I've never been able to find again, delineated land, not from land itself but from an opposing position on the water. The land is the objective other.
It is interesting, from our map-dominated representations of land today, that in the eighteenth century elevations were as necessary as reckoning by the sun: they are visual one-to-one maps without translation to a plan. Of course they eventually had charts, but Vancouver was in uncharted territory: a drawing or a painting bypassed translation, gave the context and the scale of the coast, especially if it was potentially hostile.
From the water, the land-bound built environment is very small – a toytown between the sky, the mountains and the sea, all huge. Even approaching a city such as Vancouver by ferry, its complex urbanity is itself but a pale cluster, not very tall, almost irrelevant. From the middle of the strait one can see that the Island is the top of a mountain range, that the strait is full of small islands, that there are dozens of boats from tugs to freighters, container ships to barges: daily life on a terrain that remains mysterious to those on land.