Monday, June 14, 2010

Henry Moore, Steve McQueen, "War and the Body" and "War Horse"

This shadowy photograph shows a sculpture by Henry Moore at the Tate Britain. It is in the permanent collection, not part of their new exhibition of Moore's sculpture. It represents a sculpture based on one of the shelter drawings from World War II, with its flowing robe and awkward pose, it has been pulled from the many drawings he made in the London Underground and other shelters during the Blitz.

There was footage in the Tate show of Moore actually walking through the tube underground stations. He explained that he only drew people afterward and usually sleeping as he did not want to be too invasive. I didn't realize that these famous drawings in the London Underground depicted sleepers on the platforms ( of course they did, if you think about it) and that the people there were in non sanctioned shelters. They just went there in droves. After the fact, the government sanctioned it as a shelter.
Moore commented (and this explains some of the drawings), "the only thing at all like those shelters that I could think of was the hold of a slave ship." You see emaciated cadavers in facing rows and close up couples. Moore found that their gestures while asleep told him a lot about their state of mind. He also found the sight "pathetic, sordid and disheartening." According to the museum though, he "transformed London's poor into heroic figures and the uncertainty of their situation into stoic resignation. "

One of the most fascinating details in the exhibition were his sketches of preliminary ideas for drawings ( he was commissioned by the government to paint the war). In his tiny sketches he drew burning cows, and sheep with airplanes flying overhead. How rarely we see the impact of war on animals.

The heart of the exhibition was the war period. His drawings of miners in the same time frame, commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Board, are equally strong (his father was a miner), suggesting claustrophobia, as well as courage and perseverence under incredibly difficult conditions deep inside of mines.

The framing of Moore by the Tate aside from this section which cut through their efforts like a knife, was to focus on sexuality, surrealism, modernism and materials. The exhibition brochure was organized by medium, a particular stone, a specific wood, etc.
I went through the exhibition with my inlaws who had been to Moore's studio with the artist. He felt that touching the sculpture was crucial to understanding it, but of course in the musuem, the materials were simply an aesthetic reference, not a tactile experience.

The gallery materials gave us no biography (such as his roots in working class England), and only cursory references to his exploration of other art forms such as Egyptian and Meso American (which the museum calls Ancient Mexico  "dominated by sex and religion).  It mentioned the importance of Roger Fry's book Vision and Design, without saying when it was published (1920) and included some wonderful sketches.

Moore's art and his own words trumped their efforts. For example he said " Trunks of trees are very human. To me they have a connection with human life." So from a material, wood became an active spiritual presence.

Steve McQueen's "Queen and Country" at the National Portrait Gallery is a very different type of art about war, also commissioned by the government.  He has been on a long campaign with Royal Mail to get these stamps used on letters. He has created 160 sheets of stamps, each stamp with a single face of someone who has died in Iraq in 168 stamps.

Steve McQueen is part of a long tradition in England, the official war artist. He went to Iraq in 2003 to try to make a piece but was barely able to leave his room. That's when he thought of stamps. But Royal Mail and the Ministry of Defense have been very difficult to deal with in creating the project, he couldn't get the addresses of soldiers who had died. And this article raises the question of how such a project would be received in the US where even photographs of flag draped coffins are censored.

Meanwhile at Blackall Studios, London, there is an important exhibition called "War and the Body." I didn't get to see it although an installation "The War Experience Project," which was shown in Seattle by Rick Lawson was included. Lawson is a veteran who works with veterans on painting military jackets with their own war experience. He hands these jackets together and the result if deeply moving. Furthermore, the artist,
refuses to narrate his experience, saying it is far too traumatic to tell in a sound bite.
Another artist included was Sama Alshaibi, an important Iraqi/Palestinian artist.

The important premise of the exhibition was that war is "embodied", that seems like a pretty straightforward idea. But when you think of the real physicality of all those young people on both sides, as well as children and babies, who are killed in war, it really hits on the essence of why war is insane.

We also saw an amazing play in London called War Horse, which used life size horse puppets made of pieces of flexible cane and leather. They moved with three puppeteers ( head, tail, and heart) of the Handspring Puppet Company, that amazing company from South Africa directed by Brian Jones and Adrian Kohler. The puppeteers manipulate the puppets directly with their hands in an extraordinarily dexterous and gymnastic performance. The emotional life of the horses, expecially the star Joey in the play, are conveyed in its tail, skin, eyes, ears and even the movement of its body in breathing.

We were utterly convinced of their souls and spirits. The theme of the play is the role of horses in World War I, their courage and needless deaths, in the midst of the mindless slaughter of trench warfare. The World War I music was beautifully arranged, and the story of young innocents going to war only to be killed was direct. But the star of the show were the horses, in their movements on stage, galloping, falling, nuzzling the people who cared for them. The poignency was heartbreaking. When the main horse was caught on barb wire we all cried with him.We felt the mindless, stupidity of war.  

The play is based on a book, (Michael Mopurgo, War Horse, 1982, a children's novel written from the perspective of Joey, the main horse in the play). but the memories of the role of horses in World War I are taken from conversations with someone who was part of that War   The other interesting fact is that it was similar to the multimedia approach of William Kentridge, with animations, puppets, music, and real actors, although here all the components were more literal and easily understood. The shadow plays and other techniques were abstracted, but not avant-garde.

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