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War of images

Painters, sculptors and artisans throughout history have served the victor’s vision, and today we admire these pieces of untruths as great specimens of art

War of images
Ijazul Hassan, The Mai Lai Massacre, 1974.

“The language of war”, Toni Morrison reminds us, “has historically been noble, summoning the elevating quality of warrior discourse: the eloquence of grief for the dead; courage and the honour of vengeance. That heroic language, rendered by Homer, Shakespeare, in sagas and by statesmen, is rivalled for beauty and force only by religious language, with which it frequently merges.”

Apart from words, there is another language of war — of images. Its earliest examples in the history of art are from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece: ‘Scenes of War’ from the royal standard of Ur (ca. 2600 B.C.), ‘Victory Stele of Naram-Sin’ from Akkad (2254-2218 BC), lime stone relief ‘Ashurnasirpal II at War’ from Assyria (ca. 875-860 BC.), Egyptian frescos and stone carvings showing the conquests of Pharaohs, paintings on Greek vessels about combats of heroes and mortals.

Victory stele of Naram-Sin, from Susa, Iran. Louvre, Paris .

Victory stele of Naram-Sin, from Susa, Iran. Louvre, Paris .

The history of art or of humanity is intrinsically the history of conflicts. Battles fought to acquire lands, establish empires, annihilate religious opponents, exterminate other races are recorded from ancient to medieval and modern periods — in the form of paintings, sculptures, miniatures, tapestries and ordinary objects of daily usage.

However, what a student of art comes across in museums, private collections, books, and on the Internet is the victor’s version. A battle lost is hardly mentioned, let alone documented in images. Even in works celebrating the winner, there is an ingredient of exaggeration, highlighting a one-sided contest. Painters, sculptors and artisans served to consolidate a lie, and today we admire these pieces of untruths as great specimens of art. Mughal miniature paintings of emperors killing enemies are exquisite examples of the genre. Roman sculptures lauding the victories of emperors are superb pieces of art. In every society and period, one finds works which instead of presenting an impartial view preserved the preference of the powerful — a lord, king, Raja, duke or dictator.

In a sense, those artists were not much different from present day TV anchors, newscasters, cameramen, journalists and press photographers. In the time of war, they are eager to provide information through news items (rightly called stories in the lingo of journalism!) and footage — primarily to project one country’s account, to authenticate and justify claims for invading other territories and to boost the morale of its citizens.

Remember the propaganda on the US media before the invasion of Iraq. There were pictures of First Gulf War with starving children, of jubilant crowds in Baghdad and Tripoli after the Allied forces ousted despots like Saddam Hussain and Muammar Gaddafi, and assumed control of Iraq and Libya.

Soon after the 1965 war, a number of artists from Lahore including Khalid Iqbal, Colin David and Ijazul Hassan were invited to visit the frontier of Chawinda sector, but they were not inspired to paint the famous tankfight. Mainly, because dealing with the immediate is impossible in art.

These are part of our collective visual memory without a trace of a visual of a soldier fighting on the other side. In this age of images, a picture is even more than a million words. No one remembers tomes written on Vietnam War, but many recall the photograph of a naked girl, the 9-year old Kim Phuc with other kids fleeing Napalm bomb. With the invention of photography, it was possible to document multiple versions of a gruesome act such as war but, intriguingly, we never saw a picture shot by a Vietcong resisting American attack; or, for that matter, a photo by a soldier fighting against Allied forces in the Middle East.

There may be some, but these are lost, like the narratives and lives of those who were defeated. Photographs are usually considered factual, but in most cases, especially in a war these are illusory.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937.

Turn to television of a country and you will see one version of war by its local media. The more information you get on TV, in print, on social media, the more you are uncertain about the reality of war. War is not the saga of a triumphant state or a defeated nation; it is the story of destruction and death that unfolds across societies, religions and races.

Once we are on the verge of war, the sane voices talking about its potential for devastation disappear in the mist of rhetoric. Creative people, however, have the capacity and capability to move away from the hysteria of the moment and search for truth. One such individual is Anselm Kiefer, a German painter, who has been invoking World War II and German history in his paintings. In his work, there is no celebration of his nation’s army, nor is there negation of an enemy but it is all about an essential view of war. Scorched fields, burnt trees, devastated settlements, destroyed structures may refer to a specific area or occurrence but these are about the cruel nature of war. Similar to ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso, a painting, from 1937, that “was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque country town in northern Spain, by Nazi Germany”.

Rashid Rana: ‘This Picture is Not at Rest’ 2003 (detail).

Rashid Rana: ‘This Picture is Not at Rest’ 2003 (detail).

In Picasso and Kiefer, and many others, it is not the depiction of an actual site, description of an incident or incorporation of a national narrative, but the atrocities of war, whether it was fought on home ground or in far off lands (Picasso made paintings about the Korean War too). Today, looking at these works, we hardly think about World War II, Franco’s Spain, or American Marines in Korea. We appreciate these visuals because images last longer than the protagonists who generated them. Hence, the ‘Stele of Naram-Sin’ from five thousand years ago or the relief of Ashurnasirpal II still amuse us whereas the characters in these art works vanished centuries ago.

In the context of Pakistani art, we still have to deal with war, be it of 1965, 1971, War on Terror, or other wars in our age. How to convert it into art is a difficult task. Soon after the 1965 war, a number of artists from Lahore including Khalid Iqbal, Colin David and Ijazul Hassan were invited to visit the frontier of Chawinda sector, but they were not inspired to paint the famous tankfight. Mainly, because dealing with the immediate is impossible in art.

Yet Ijazul Hassan, Rashid Rana, Adeela Suleman and several others have addressed aspects of war in their creations. ‘The Mai Lai Massacre’ (1974) of Hassan refers to atrocities of war, namely the “mass murder of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians by US troops in SơnTịnh District, South Vietnam, on 16 March 1968”. Likewise, Rana’s ‘This Picture is Not at Rest’ (2003), a scenic view composed as a mirror image, is punctured with soldiers landing at an ideal, peaceful setting, and firing, whereas pictures of war, burnt houses and explosions are inserted in the hilly view; thus, reminding of the War on Terror. Suleman constructed ‘Mubarizun No More’ (2013), borrowing imagery from the past, of headless warriors still in combat with each other.

This and other such works can be read as apt elegies of our age and ideas.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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