Major exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery draws on five senses to bring home conflict

By Mark Sheerin | 13 October 2014

Exhibition review: The Sensory War 1914-2014, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, until February 22 2015

Still of a black and white aerial reconnaissance film showing two blasted vehicles on a desert road
Omer Fast, 5,000 Feet is the Best 2012, Video projection production still© Omer Fast
As galleries around the world scrambled for loan art work in relation to war, Manchester Art Gallery had something of a home advantage. Many of the Nevinsons, Nashs, Kenningtons and Sheppersons, which anchor this show to the Great War, were already in the permanent collection.

Yet Curators Ana Carden-Coyne, David Morris and Tim Wilcox have still reached out far and wide, with a dense selection of work spanning the 100 years since 1914. The aim is a sensory take on warfare, and the team have made efforts to bring home the inhumanity of war in what they hope is a synaesthetic way.

Nevinson signed on as an ambulance driver and the experience was enough to cure him of most of his Futurist gung-ho. But the movement’s harsh geometry proves perfect for a painter in search of a style to convey a shell explosion. His result is an apex and innumerable lines of force. Sonic effect as visual trickery.

But war offered thrills as well as spills. War artists were among the first to fly and experience the visual world in the way no previous generation could. In a succinct conveyance of the daring and danger, Nevinson has included his white-knuckled right hand, gripping the side of the plane as it banks at 4,000 ft.

Black and white print of a female welder in an aircraft factory
CRW Nevinson, Making Aircraft: Acetylene Welder 1917, Lithograph, Manchester City Galleries© out of copyright
The resulting feeling of vertigo is key to a show which builds a case for war being, first and foremost, an assault on the senses. You may also find yourself wincing at a wound-dressing station painted by Henry Tonks or, if in a sensitive mood, welling up at the same subject painted by Henry Lamb.

But what The Sensory War hints at is that war is a drum beat which can always be heard beating in some part of the world. The munitions factories of World War I were first to bring these rhythms back to the home front. Today we have rolling news.

The beat is also there in David Bomberg’s study for Sappers at Work: a Canadian Tunnelling Company and, again, in work by Heinrich Hoerle. His Three Invalids shows three soldiers from the first mechanised war, rendered even more machine-like by their prosthetic limbs.

The latter was painted in 1930 and The Sensory War is strong on the lives of the wounded and the disabled who return from conflict. No media gloss can make disability look like a picnic. Art at least can render a small compassionate service.

Painting of uniformed WWI sservicemen at a dressing station near the front
Henry Lamb, Advanced Dressing Station on the Struma, 1916, Oil on canvas, Manchester City Galleries© the Estate of Henry Lamb
Nina Berman is a documentary photographer who in 2006 was asked by a very glossy magazine to shoot a wedding portrait of a Marine and his young bride. But results were not what the publication had in mind, since the uniformed serviceman was disfigured beyond all recognition.

The smell of fear comes off this photo even before you learn that this marriage did not end well. There is more horror nearby, however, with the drawings known collectively as Hibakusha, by the victims of Hiroshima. It is their first showing in the UK.

When an untrained artist struggles to depict a horror which most of us would struggle to imagine, it makes for very awkward viewing indeed. There is something venerable and sacred about these little seen works. They will get you closer than you ever want to be to the realities of nuclear war.

We hear from more witnesses in Dinh Q Lê’s three-channel video piece about the war in Vietnam. This time it is the children of agricultural workers who were forced to face up to airborne attack by USAF helicopters. Archive footage, in the immersive environment of a screening room, is possibly the most visceral aspect of a visceral show.

The film work in this show is strong, with two more darkened spaces given over to work by Omer Fast and Katie Davies. The first is a surreal documentary about a drone attack on US soil, the second a still and saddening record of crowds in Wootton Basset waiting for the arrival of a military hearse.

You wonder if at one time the paintings of Nevinson, Tonks and Nash would themselves have packed the audiovisual punch of these recent pieces of video art. It is interesting that all three films deal with conflict at one remove.

Embedded video art would surely be too much, too sensory. But this show is still a must-see, and a do-not-avert-your-gaze.

  • Open 10am-5pm daily (9pm Thursday). Admission free. 

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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