Thu, Sep 13, 2007 - Page 15 News List

Iraq War inspires surge of protest art

Young painters and sculptors join the Vietnam generation to produce works following in the footsteps of Picasso

By Peter Beaumont  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The Peace Tower, by Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija, on display at the Whitney Biennial in New York in February, 2006.


It has inspired films, songs and writing. Now the war in Iraq is inspiring fine artists in numbers, perhaps, unprecedented in any war in history.

In studios from London to San Francisco, artists are struggling to interpret images of the world's most highly publicized war, in sculpture and canvasses, photographs and collages. And although artists responded slowly at first, the past 18 months has seen an explosion of art criticizing the conflict.

Last year one of the centerpieces of the Whitney Museum of American Arts Biennial in New York was a recreation of Mark di Suvero's 1966 Peace Tower - a commentary on the Vietnam war - which invited a new generation of artists to contribute panels.

In November, the huge cycle of paintings inspired by the torture scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, by the Colombian figurative painter Fernando Botero, will be seen together for the first time at the American University Museum in Washington. It is one of a number of recent works dealing with Abu Ghraib, including a series of giant photographic reconstructions by the controversial West Coast artist Clinton Fein.

It is a sudden flowering of powerful protest art that has brought together artists of an older generation who can remember Vietnam, and a younger generation that on the whole has shied away from overtly political art. It is not just Di Suvero who provides a link. The American collagist Martha Rosler has reimagined the work that she produced in the 1960s addressing the impact of the war on the home front, while Gerhard Richter, one of Germany's most important living artists, has also tackled the war in a book of collages entitled War Cut.

But it is, perhaps, Botero's paintings, reminiscent in some respects of Francisco de Goya's Disasters of War, that is likely to be the most visible of the works emerging in opposition to the Iraq war.

"It is a testimony," Botero said. "I became obsessed with the paintings, spending 11 months doing nothing but work on them. When the first images emerged of Abu Ghraib I was so shocked that a country that presents itself as the model of human rights could do this. It is like a permanent accusation. In that respect art is both weak and strong."

And although selections from among the cycle of paintings have been shown in New York and Berkeley to good reviews, he is uncertain of the reception something so directly critical of the US will get in Washington, a very different city.

The curator of that exhibition, Jack Rasmussen, admits that he was surprised by the relatively slow response by artists to the war, particularly in Washington. "I think there is a sensitivity among artists to the risk of producing not art but political posters. I think people have felt it is not going to help their career, because it runs counter to prevailing trends in art. But people are now taking the risk."

And while Rasmussen is not convinced that art can effect a change to the political landscape, he agrees with Botero that it is important that today's artists bear witness.

"Art cannot change [the war] but it can bear a testimony. When people stop talking about it, the art is still there." And after the Botero exhibit, Rasmussen has two other exhibitions scheduled for next year - a presidential election year as he points out - that sees artists invited to respond to the war, using Goya's cycle, Disasters of War, as a starting point.

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