2014 saw the 100th anniversary of World War I, the ‘war to end all wars’. It obviously didn’t work, but World War I was still an iconic conflict. It was the first ‘modern war’, saw a sea-change in artistic and philosophic ideas about war, and inspired poets, authors and painters across Europe, from Wilfred Owen to Michael Morpurgo. On November 11 the Ards Arts Collective joined their voices to that choir in the Reflections on the Great War exhibition at Ards Arts Centre.
Running until November 29, Reflections of the Great War showcases a variety of different artistic reactions to the impact of war. It is fascinating to see how the different artists interpreted the exhibitions theme in their various mediums. Like any exhibition, if course, some of the pieces resonant more with a particular viewer.
For me, the most powerful pieces included Sara Brown’s monotype portraits of nurses and munitions workers, ‘Strands of Memory’ by Sandra Maze, ‘Entanglement’ by Sally Houston, and ‘Life in the Trenches’ by Lois Allen Bell. All very different pieces, by very different artists, but sharing a clarity of concept that doesn’t just capture, but commands the imagination.
Brown’s monotypes are simultaneous unsentimental and oddly ghostly. Wrought in whites and smudged shadows, they are more roughed in impressions than portraits. Yet they still manage to capture the weariness of the ‘veiled warriors’ and, I think, something of their kindness as well. It is an easy piece of work to read into. Perhaps not something I would want to mount on my wall, but it would be an absolutely gorgeous illustration in a book.
‘Strands of Memory’ by Maze seems like more of a nightmare, or perhaps a horror and trauma blurred memory of one of the soldiers who fought in the war. Inspired by it two sharply defined young soldiers hold at bay the smudged, washed out shadows of war. It is a powerfully evocative piece, and one that merits a good long look.
My personal favourite of the exhibition, however, is ‘Entanglement’. In it, Houston picks out a shattered snapshot of war in wax and graphite. From a distance, when you first enter the gallery, the piece looks impressionistic. My first notion, based on the mustard yellow background and blooming black clouds was that it was something to do with chemical warfare (and perhaps it was). It was only when I approached the piece that I realised the wild smears and curved lines were the briar knots of barbed wire. It is technically accomplished and visually powerful, as well as aesthetically attractive.
That leaves Bell’s acrylic on wood ‘Life in the Trenches’. In it Bell manages to capture an almost childlike simplicity – conjuring a child’s chalk drawing on a door – without sacrificing technique or impact. It captures the experience of the trenches, with one side depicting a soldier wiling away the long hours with a guitar and the other a soldier (possibly the same one) with gun in hand as he goes over the top.
Some of the other pieces in the exhibition were well-done, but lacked the impact of these pieces. Maureen Matthews batik on canvas pieces are well done, and visually interesting with their sharp edged silhouetttes, but the colourful backgrounds didn’t quite work. ‘Flying the Nest’ by Barbara Craig was another really well done, and conceptually interesting piece. A found object homage to the executed deserters, the glass and paper nest woven nest is beautiful and intriguing. It drew me back as a viewer more than once. In the end, however, it lacked the immediate impact of the pieces that stuck with me after I’d left the gallery. It is lovely though.
Reflections on the Great War is open until 28 November and is well worth a visit.