The Disasters of War – Don McCullin at Tate Britain

 

“catalogues the brutality and fatal consequences of war in such a stark, confrontational and unflinching manner”

“There are many scenes of savagery and suffering”

“another dismembered carcass, this time impaled upon a tree-trunk”

These quotes could be applied to the Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain which I attended as a member of an OCA study visit. Room after room displaying the horrors of war and scenes of absolute inhumanity.

In fact, they are from the art critic Alistair Sooke and do not relate to the McCullin exhibition. In a BBC article he considers what is the most powerful work of war art from the last two centuries. He concludes that

“nothing quite matches the originality and truth-telling ferocity of the Disasters of War, a series of 80 aquatint etchings, complete with caustic captions, by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)” (Sooke 2014).

 

 

Plate 37: Esto es peor. (This is worse.)                                         

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plate 39: Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (Great deeds! Against the dead!)

(Francisco Goya [Public domain])

 

 

Some people have questioned the display of McCullin’s work in a public art gallery such as Tate Britain.

“I don’t have a particular issue with being exposed to the terrible side of human nature, seen in the right context this can be edifying as much as it is alienating. In this case however the horror of much of the subject matter is made more still uncomfortable and harder to bear by the handling of the work and the context it is being viewed in. It’s an old quandary, but what does it mean to view an image of someone blown apart by a land mine, presented as a work of art, and then to shortly afterwards to exit through the gift shop and buy a similar image on a postcard.” (Bush 2019)

I agree with the sentiments concerning the gift shop, although such merchandising seems ubiquitous, nearly all the exhibitions I have been to recently seem to have the same arrangement. But what about the claim that the handling of the work and its context make the horror of it harder to bear? This seems to relate to the printing, framing and display of the work, presented in a ‘fine art’ fashion, emphasised by these images being displayed in an art gallery, the Tate. Does the display of the work in such a fashion elevate it to a status it does not deserve, or does it detract from the subject matter?

The photographs were originally taken for publication in newspapers and magazines, mostly accompanied by articles or explanatory text placing them into a certain context. Does experiencing them in a gallery change the way in which we view them? In a way yes, it is bound to – apart from anything else the size of the prints on the gallery walls is much greater than when originally published in The Observer. In addition, the gallery images are printed in exactly the way McCullin wanted them to be (he printed them all himself) rather than being subject to the vagaries of the newspaper printing processes of the time. So the experience of viewing them is different, but not necessarily inferior, in fact in some ways it is vastly superior.

But does the display of such images in a fine art setting affect how we view them. Again I think the answer to this is yes, it must do. It is a very different experience to shuffle around an exhibition room with scores of others rather than the solitary practice of viewing them in a magazine. The images themselves are elevated to a different setting on the gallery wall – you want to study them in detail, consider the message, the composition, how they have been printed. But does the setting – Tate Britain – make the horror of the images harder to bear. Art galleries have long depicted images of war and suffering, I doubt that anyone would query the display of Picasso’s Guernica in a gallery or Paul Nash’s The Menin Road. I wonder if this has something to do with the images being photographs rather than any other art form. Is it because of the realism of the photographs in displaying the horrors that brings it closer to home for the viewer and therefore less suited to display in an art gallery? Or could it be the sheer number of images of suffering that are on display that induces a sense of ‘compassion fatigue’?

On many occasions McCullin has denied that he regards his images as art or himself as an artist but has acknowledged Goya as an influence in his own work. But the mere fact that he has such an exhibition at Tate Britain suggests that influential others regard his work as an art form.

To me, the discussion around whether the images are suitable for display and the quality of the exhibition should not solely be about how the images are shown or experienced. Would similar comments about the “handling of the work and the context it is being viewed in” have been made had the exhibition at the Tate been Goya’s 80 etchings in Disasters of War. Somehow I doubt it.

To go back to Alistair Sooke’s article, he quotes the art historian Juliet Wilson-Bareau commenting on Goya’s etchings

“I have lived with these prints, which many people consider too shocking, absolutely unbearable, and I find in them – besides the heartbreak and outrage at the unspeakable violence and damage – a great well of compassion for all victims of the suffering and abuses they depict, which goes to the very heart of our humanity.”

This, I think, is how we should judge McCullin’s work do we find in them that “great well of compassion for all victims”?

I think that the answer to that is ‘yes in some of them’. For me, I think that his image of a grieving Turkish family does that, as does his image of the shell-shocked GI in Vietnam.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other images he more displays the reality of everyday life in conflict zones such as his early photos from Berlin. Some display the horrors of war in a similar fashion to Goya’s – but don’t necessarily convey the same effect of compassion with the victim.

Does the way in which McCullin’s images are displayed and the fact that they are in an exhibition at Tate Britain influence how we view them – definitely. In some ways positively, in others less so.

Does the exhibition have flaws – yes. Should it have been put on – definitely.

 

Bibliography

Bush, L. (2019) Nihilistic Photojournalism? Don McCullin at Tate Britain. At: http://www.disphotic.com/nihilistic-photojournalism-don-mccullin-at-tate/ (Accessed on 28 May 2019)

Sooke, A. (2014) ‘Goya’s Disasters of War: The truth about war laid bare’ In: BBC 17 July 2014 [online] At: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140717-the-greatest-war-art-ever (Accessed on 28 May 2019)