New display at the British Museum examines the relationship between conflict and art
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New display at the British Museum examines the relationship between conflict and art
Assyrian Fragment 645–635 BC © the Trustees of the British Museum.

LONDON.- Documenting history through art is a longstanding tradition, and the British’s Museum new Asahi Shimbun Display examines the relationship between conflict and art in a focussed way, through four specially chosen objects. The Asahi Shimbun Display On violence and beauty: reflections on war includes objects from 5,000 years ago to the present day. The British Museum’s first acquisition of a video artwork by the Iranian artist Farideh Lashai (d. 2013) is also on display. The video installation offers a contemporary perspective on Goya’s iconic work The Disasters of War which he made between 1810 and 1820 in response to the Peninsular War. The British Museum recently loaned this work to the Prado Museum where, as ‘The invited work’, it was placed in juxtaposition with paintings and etchings by Goya.

The display begins with some of the oldest representations of war – from Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia – each of which include highly stylised depictions of conflict, commissioned to articulate the ruling elites’ views of warfare, emphasising heroism and conquest.

The earliest object on display is the Battlefield Palette made in Egypt around 3300 – 3100 BC, probably intended for display in temples and most likely associated with early rituals related to power. Not intended to illustrate a specific event or battle, the palette reflects a desire to defeat chaos and restore order and the complete subjugation of enemies.

The two other Ancient objects, an Assyrian relief and a Greek amphora are more specific. The relief is part of a larger sequence depicting a battle between the Assyrian army and the kingdom of Elam in southwest Iran. In this scene the Elamite army have been defeated, and an Assyrian soldier is about to execute an Elamite general, Ituni. Having witnessed the devastation around him, Ituni cuts his bow in an act of submission and prepares for his fate. In cuneiform script are the dramatic words that tell the story: ‘Ituni….saw the mighty battle and with his iron dagger, cut with his own hands (his) bow, the ornament of his hands.’

The Greek amphora highlights a moment of combat during the Trojan War when the Greek hero Achilles kills Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons – an imaginary tribe of fierce women warriors. Achilles is masked by his helmet, while Penthesilea's face is exposed to emphasize her vulnerability. Her spear passes harmlessly across Achilles’ chest, while he pierces her throat and draws blood. As a definition of Greek masculinity, the vessel was used at all-male drinking parties, illustrating an appetite for this type of imagery among the Greek middle class. According to a later version of the story the two warriors fell in love when their eyes met during combat, tragically too late.

Bringing the story to the present day, artist Farideh Lashai lived through the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the bombardment of Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). At the end of her life Lashai watched the unfolding of the ‘Arab Spring’ that began in Tunisia in 2011. Like so many artists, Lashai was fascinated by Goya’s Disasters and, as her daughter Maneli Keykavoussi described: ‘She wanted to do something with those images and make an account of people and what was happening to them. For her it was historical repetition of Disasters of War and just the time and the locale of the atrocities change. As if human beings do not change and do not learn.’

In her work When I Count, There Are Only You...But When I Look, There Is Only a Shadow, Lashai delicately appropriated Goya’s etchings; she removed the figures from their backgrounds, placing them in a projection. As the light moves across the grid of 80 prints, for a second or two, the viewer sees each image as Goya intended, replete with torture and agony, before a desolate landscape takes its place. These haunting empty landscapes invite us to consider how a place can hold the memory of atrocities perpetrated within it.

Warfare can be traced back to at least 13,000 years ago and the Asahi Shimbun Display On violence and beauty: reflections on war focuses on four objects from across centuries that depict this particular aspect of human history. The Asahi Shimbun Displays allow an opportunity to consider the ways in which humans document their lived experiences and the significance these have in shaping our understanding of the cultures and times that came before us.

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