Long Hope, 1917. Orkney, Sir John Lavery, IWM ART 1255
Our guest blogger, Angela Weight, was formerly Keeper of Art at Imperial War Museums from 1981 to 2005. Angela curated the exhibition War at Sea currently showing at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until 31 October 2012. The exhibition consists of paintings by Sir John Lavery, an official war artist during the First World War, and all but one of the paintings are from the art collection of Imperial War Museums.
When I was asked to curate an exhibition of Sir John Lavery’s war pictures for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, I knew at once that I would need to visit as many of the places where he had worked as possible. The munitions factories in Glasgow, Newcastle and Edinburgh have long since vanished, but the naval ports in Scotland, the Orkney Islands and on the south coast of England are still there, if much changed. Despite the passage of nearly one hundred years since Lavery was employed as an official war artist, I wanted tread in his footsteps and see what he had seen, in order to understand the man and his work.
- Ori Gersht, Still from Evaders, HD Film, Dual Channel Projection, 2009 © Ori Gersht, courtesy of Mummery + Schnelle
For a large part of the last year I worked on the exhibition Ori Gersht: This Storm is What We Call Progress which has now been on display at IWM London for three months. One of the most interesting things about the process of putting the exhibition together was how my own understanding of the work developed throughout our logistical, and significantly less poetic, planning discussions. Before working on this show I knew many of Ori’s works well: the cityscapes from Sarajevo which are part of IWM’s collections; his intriguing 2005 film, The Forest, where trees fall without explanation in a Ukrainian forest, and his best-known work, Big Bang, in which a Dutch still life shatters in spectacular slow-motion across the screen. I had also seen some of his Evaders photographs at his gallery show in 2009. This is the work that explores the fated flight of writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin from Vichy France, following a path through the Pyrenees. I hadn’t seen the film of the same name until a much later studio visit, but this was one of the works that became part of the show.
Ori works in a curious way, often employing both film and photographs to explore an idea, a subject or place. The two elements complement each other, but are not to be considered part of the same work. Most importantly, the photographs are very specifically not film stills. They are images produced and crafted in their own right. The Evaders photographs are very empty; the beautiful but harsh landscape of the Pyrenees becomes a dominant protagonist in the images. Intriguingly many of these places don’t actually exist, but are composite images of several sites. The landscape here becomes a construct, an artificial memory. Benjamin’s physical presence is barely registered. It is only through his abandoned suitcase, shown left amongst some jagged rocks, which indicates his absence. In reality, Benjamin’s suitcase was noted as being found at the scene of his suicide, but later mysteriously disappeared. It was said to contain his final piece of writing and has since become a potent symbol of loss and the mythology surrounding his death.