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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Afghanistan War Art

On the move, Andrew Miller. The artist captures a rather serene moment with the troops from Camp Bastion.
Ready to Take Off, Andrew Miller
Directly or indirectly, artists have been a part of every conflict inflicted upon mankind for the past two or three hundred years. Originally art-ists painted their battle scenes in their studios based upon maps and firsthand accounts. Eventual, during the 19th-century, sketchbooks and their owners began showing up among the troops in combat in an effort to capture as sket-ches the heat of battle for re-ference in future paintings what was, in essence, propa-ganda art paid for by rulers and nations glorifying warfare as a means of extending political and military hegemony over weaker neighbors. However, starting with the American Civil War and throughout the entire 20th-century, the translucent, artistic veneer of patriotic fervor began to wear thin as the realities of highly efficient death and destruction began filtering back to the civilian homeland. Even the most primitive motion pictures of WW I and Vietnam as seen in 1960s television coverage, could not disguise such horrors under the guise of patriotism. The elimination of the national draft was one result, relegating warfare to professional soldiers. Patriotism became secondary. Regional wars became more common. Men and women were enticed to fight, not to defend their homeland, but to protect other people's homelands and the vital resources they contained.
Tarin Kot, Ben Quilty
John Oddie, 2012, Ben Quilty
Today, the most recent war art comes from Afghanistan, and can be seen in two different types. The first type is to be found in the traditional work of combat artists such as British Marine veteran Andrew Miller (top). (Many war artists are veterans.) As in the past, war art is created both during and after actual battles. And despite their best efforts to portray the gritty essence of combat, much such art still retains subtle vestiges of glorified patriotic, propaganda. The second type of war art is of more recent vintage. In fact, until WW II, it was virtually non-existent. Although such art lacks the power and drama of actual combat, it is often, in its own way, even more horrifying than that meat grinding images of the war zone (above). In fact it has changed the nature of both art and war. Australian artist, Ben Quilty refers to his art as "After Afghanistan."
Official artist to the Royal Marines, Andrew Miller, at home
in his studio.
As artists, Royal Marine veteran, Andrew Miller and the Australian artist, Ben Quilty, are polar opposites. Stylistically, Miller's work is realistic, though imbued with a contemporary spontaneity giving it the combat immediacy of "been there, done that." Ben Quilty (below) paints with a wildly brash expressionist style. He is an anti-war activist who, having spent some time in the Afghanistan war zone as a civilian artist, is no stranger to the dangers of war. The experience only made him more vehemently anti-war. Quilty paints the psychological victims of Afghanistan, those who survived--the physically and emotionally wounded--who, unlike some of their friends, remain alive. Believe me, they're not pretty pictures.
Australian anti-war artist, Ben Quilty.
Kate Porter drawing,
2011, Ben Quilty
In his painted portraits, the soldiers have laid bare their inner self. They bring forth experiences that have been buried; their dissociation from the reality of what occurred; experiences they have repressed; the post-traumatic stress--whatever you wish to call it--are brought to the surface and examined. These paintings represent suppressed emotions, an affirming act of life over death. As an artist, Quilty intimately understands this process. How-ever, there is a strong feeling that there is something missing; that the range of concerns is lacking something. That something is a nar-rative. While there is an overarching text narrative--soldiers painted “after Afghanistan”--the individual paintings have titles such as Sergeant P, Troy Park, Trooper M, and Trooper Daniel Westcott. These paintings could almost be of any human being who has been a soldier.
Ben Quilty's "After Afghanistan" war portraits.
Andrew Miller's war art is more intense than that of Ben Quilty's. As his combat portraits (below) indicate, Miller paints war in the present tense; while Quilty paints the aftermath. Given the suicide rate among returning veterans, Quilty's version of the war is hardly less lethal, in its own way, than Miller's. Death in Miller's war is often instantaneous; while Quilty depicts not so much death but the ongoing agony of dying. In the end, the result is the same, only the degree of suffering is different.

The effect of war is etched on to the faces of soldiers who
have been at war in Afghanistan.
STRIKING! Andrew Miller

Blown Bushmaster, Ben Quilty


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