Visions of War Above and Below’ curated by Claire Brenard at IWM London explores how artists have used both the aerial perspective and that ‘from below’ to explore how these different, at times dramatic perspectives, can convey both power and vulnerability in the face of modern warfare.
The painting which opens the exhibition positions the viewer with the pilot, high above Damascus, observing the tightly painted grid-like layout of the city below, yet looking towards the implied freedom of the wider landscape which the aerial perspective offers and the looser handling of the paint implies. The sense of remoteness is interrupted by the clouds rising from explosions below, perhaps suggesting that the beauty of the view is misleading in the circumstances of war.
This painting is one of a significant collection of works made by the two Carline brothers, Sydney and Richard, fringe members of the Bloomsbury Group, who were commissioned as official war artists by the Imperial War Museum to document the war in the Middle East from 1918 to 1920.
As we walk through the galleries together Brenard explains that both Carline’s painting and Paul Nash’s Aerial Flowers – ‘a response to aerial bombardment in the Second World War’ hung on the opposite wall were key works in the process of developing the concepts for the exhibition, as they show two creative approaches; the observed experience by the former artist, countered by Nash’s imagined interpretation of flying above a city subjected to aerial bombing.
For Brenard it is important that the artist’s vision is reflected. “In other IWM collections, there is a greater emphasis on recording and historical fact. The IWM fine art collection is also concerned with the artist’s voice and imagination.”
By employing a thematic hang, grouping paintings concerning a number of conflicts together rather than taking the viewer through a linear timeline from the First World War to contemporary conflicts, Brenard explains that she has sought to make connections across the collection by bringing together historic and contemporary voices of artists.
“When selecting works, I had to keep redressing the balance. The works for above were more obvious than images from below which tended to be modest and quieter, more intimate approaches to the subject such as Francis Dodd’s drawing of a cramped submarine control room. Brenard explained that a further element became apparent as she worked with the pieces she was selecting from IWM’s fine art collection. None of the contemporary pieces on display are made by artists who might describe themselves primarily as ‘war artists’. Instead, works concerning more recent conflicts are by practitioners who have applied their established practice to the field of warfare.
Alison Wilding for example is primarily a sculptor expressing her ideas through installations exploring form and materiality. In a series of watercolours, she explores the physicality of the drone, painted in this most delicate of media, and in so doing Brenard suggests, she asks the viewer to consider the inventive destructiveness of man and our vulnerability. For here the viewer is positioned immediately in the weapon’s flight path.
This philosophical approach chimes with Brenard’s own deeply considered curation. “We can’t put war in a box”, she says, “its part of life and part of what we do as humans and as such, the exhibition doesn’t shy away from addressing complexities of contemporary conflicts.”
Bashar Alhroub’s video piece of a Souk in Palestine is projected onto the gallery ceiling. We are not only placed on the ground, but we are ‘below’ in a position of vulnerability, looking up at the objects lying on the wire netting thrown from above by the Jewish settler community neighbouring a Palestinian Souk in the historic centre of Hebron - the only divided city in the West Bank.
In direct contrast to the first painting in the display, which offered us the freedom of the privileged aerial view, here I read the impossibility of a wider perspective in occupied Palestine. The gaze here in this, the final work in the exhibition, is not only foreshortened, it is obscured, veiled – there is no view, let alone the possibility of an aerial one.