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War Artist

In Anglo-Saxon countries we have been acquainted with the phenomenon of the ‘war artist’ since the First World War. These are artists commissioned by the government to depict war operations and conflict areas or to take inspiration from them. Recently, the British government again commissioned artists to accompany the troops to the frontline in Iraq. At The Imperial War Museum in London many of the results are on display, with a heroic, intensely sad, empathic, politically biased, objective, atmospheric or purely aesthetic connotation.
It is, in fact, a strange idea that a government should ask visual artists to go to the front. A hundred years ago, the independent registration of photography was already a far more appropriate and incisive means to make war palpable and visible. In their paintings and drawings, artists are, however, able to raise the subject of the disasters of war in a more contemplative, moralistic tone.

There have always been artists who have taken war as the subject of their art, generally on their own volition. Who has not seen etchings from the harrowing series The disasters of war by Francisco Goya (1746-1828)? Less well known, but no less striking are the series of prints on the suffering of the Thirty Years War by the Frenchman Jacques Callot (1592-1635). His work stands at the beginning of a long line of war paintings, which continues to this day.

One theme that emerges is the role reversal between perpetrator and victim: the senselessness of war is perhaps best illustrated by the total destruction, not only of the other, but also ultimately of the self and the shameful process whereby the victim can, or may be forced to become the perpetrator as well. Callot already makes a rather sugary representation of this theme in his drawing of a soldier who has become a beggar. It is discussed in a more incisive and confronting form in the exhibition of work by Christiaan Bastiaans, which is taking place in our museum until February 21st 2010 under the title Club Mama Gemütlich. Here, this theme returns in his transformation of the phenomenon of child soldiers into sculptures, which he calls Hurt Models. Bastiaans indicates the diffuse transition from perpetrator to victim and back again by referring to incantation rituals, healing processes, the deployment of magical powers and processes of consolation.
At the centre of the exhibition is the film of the same name with Jeanne Moreau in the role of the great consoler, as a symbol of hope amid the suffering. Bastiaans is a ‘war artist’, in the sense that he visits war zones on his own initiative, where he talks to people and takes photographs. He is content to leave it up to others to report the tragic reality of these places to the world. He uses his experiences to make the futility of exclusion, humiliation and destruction visible through his art. For that reason we are showing his work in our museum.

Evert van Straaten
November 2009

Image: J. Callot, Bedelende soldaat