John Keane, Gulf War Artist

Soon after the start of the Gulf War on 2 August 1990, painter and photographer John Keane was invited by the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London to be Britain’s official war artist for this new conflict, forged in the disintegration of the Cold War. At first refused accreditation by a suspicious Ministry of Defence, due to his record of painting an unflattering portrait of war, the 36-year-old Keane eventually travelled to Iraq, where he was embedded with the British army. The artist later spent five days in Kuwait, in the aftermath of the US-led liberation that brought the Gulf War to an end on 28 February 1991.

While stationed in the region, Keane took photographs and made a video diary that captured the daily lives of citizens, soldiers, medical staff and journalists against the backdrop of major military operations and the machinery of war. Keane later recalled, “My aim was just to be a sponge – absorb and record as much as possible. I didn’t know how I might react. The whole experience was very alien and disturbing. Like a dream that I awoke from on my return.” Alongside the more traditional subject matter for a war artist, Keane also photographed items such as an abandoned shopping trolley containing rocket warheads on the streets of Kuwait City, palm trees bent over like tortured humans, and a smiling child giving a V sign in front of a marauding tank, revealing his keen sense of irony and eye for seemingly innocuous and easily-overlooking details that in their quotidian mundanity reveal the strangeness of war.

 Upon his return to the UK, Keane used this photographic material as the basis for a series of paintings that aimed not only to address the conflict, but also reflected on the media coverage of events. Paintings such as the series Scenes on the Road to Hell – so named after photos taken on Basra, Highway 80, which became known as the “Highway of Death” after the Allied forces attacked retreating Iraqi troops in the last days of the war – brought together material from several images to tease out their disturbing and ominous nature. Through the application of lurid colours, smudged and dripping, Keane distorted the scenes and created a visual world has been compared both to Goya’s epic print series The Disasters of War and The Scream by Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch.

John Keane’s Gulf War pictures were first exhibited in London in 1992, where they were met with surprise at their apparently subversive content. The painting Mickey Mouse at the Front became a particular subject of discussion and more than some outrage. At the centre of the painting, the famous Disney cartoon character sits grinning on a Kuwaiti beach covered with excrement, surrounded by the decimated palm trees and rocket-filled shopping trolley, and in front of bombed-out city ruins. While The Sun newspaper branded it “sick”, and vilified Keane for his perceived slight to the families of dead soldiers, the scene was a realist tableau, composed from Keane’s photographic images and visual memories from his time in Iraq and Kuwait.

Keane, John, b.1954; Mickey Mouse at the Front

Since his Gulf War project, John Keane has continued to travel to conflict zones and to engage with traumatic subject matter, producing paintings that record campaigns against illegal logging in the Amazon, life in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Chechen War and the rise of Islamist terrorism, and the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. The artist understands the Gulf War as the bridge between Cold War and War on Terror, “the opening salvo on a war that is still going on, being waged with greater ferocity than we could ever have imagined.”

You can see John Keane’s Gulf War photographs on the Imperial War Museums website, while his paintings are displayed on Keane’s website.

Images: All images by John Keane. Top – Photographs from The Gulf War 1990–1991, part of the John Keane Collection, Imperial War Museums; Middle – Scenes on the Road to Hell 1, 1991. PVA on paper, 150 x 85 cm; Bottom – Mickey Mouse at the Front, 1991. Oil on canvas, 173 x 198cm. All images courtesy John Keane and Imperial War Museums.

Protecting Britain’s Art in a Nuclear War

A recent revelation has revived press interest in the UK government’s plans to save the nation’s art collection in the event of nuclear war.

The plans were first drafted in the early 1960s, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Operation Methodical was drawn up to protect paintings including Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Monet’s Water Lilies and The Hay Wain by Constable. It was intended that the artworks would be stored in a slate quarry in north Wales which had previously housed treasures from London’s National Gallery during World War II.

Now newly declassified government documents have revealed that the plans were updated in the early 1980s. At that time the disintegration of the USSR was provoking fears that nations on either side of the iron curtain may try to pre-empt the end of the Cold War.

By this time, however, the quarry had reopened as a mine and government officials instead considered alternative sites in north Wales. The plans were met with scepticism by some in the Ministry of Defence, who questioned “the policy of using scarce resources to protect ‘things’ rather than people.”

The full report on the latest revelations was published by Bloomberg.

Art treasures from the National Gallery are moved to Manod Quarry slate caverns in Merionethshire, Wales, September 1942. Photograph: Fred Ramage/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive via Getty Images.

Recommended: Cold War Bunkers – East and West

Recently the public got its first glance inside Albania’s most important Cold War era bunker, located just outside the Albanian capital of Tirana. Built 100m below ground between 1972 and 1978, the top secret complex boasts 106 rooms over five storeys. It also features a bedroom with red satin sheets for former communist dictator Enver Hoxha, as the bunker was intended to house the government in the event of a nuclear attack by the West.

Such was Hoxha’s paranoia that over the course of his 40-year rule he built some 700,000 bunkers across Albania. A team of enterprising students is currently planning to convert those along the coastline into a series of “bunker-and-bed” hostels for adventurous tourists.

Bunkers and nuclear shelters abound across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, from Bunker-42 next to Taganskaya metro station in central Moscow to Military Installation D-0 in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Underground bunkers were also built in both halves of Germany, with the Government Bunker (Regierungsbunker) south of Bonn intended to house the West Germany government, while Bunker 17/5001, in a forest north of Berlin, was set to protect the East German government of Erich Honecker.

Chairman Mao built a series of nuclear bunkers, including beneath a mountain in Ruichang in the 1960s. Bunkers under mountains also proved popular in the United States, with a number of massive military complexes built in the 1950s. These include the “underground Pentagon” at the Raven Rock Mountain Complex in Pennsylvania and the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado.

ESPIONART has previously reported on Ottawa’s so-called Diefenbunker. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, nuclear paranoia resulted in bunkers springing up across the United Kingdom, from York Cold War Bunker, now managed by English Heritage, to the secret network of Cold War bunkers underneath Birmingham. Groups such as Subterranea Britannica are dedicated to recording and photographing these locations while across the world they are being reimagined as museums, hotels and restaurants.

So next time you’re looking for a day or evening out with a difference, it’s worth checking where the nearest Cold War bunker is to you. You may be standing directly above it.

Image: Bunker-42 na Taganke, Moscow

Exhibition of the Month: Post Pop: East Meets West

The Saatchi Gallery in London seeks to build on its successful exhibitions of recent Russian and Chinese art – including 2008’s The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art and 2012’s Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960–80s – with a show that combines the two.

While the title of Post Pop: East Meets West suggests the two sides of the former iron curtain joining in a shared appreciation of Pop Art, the selection of works indicates instead the movement of Pop from east to west, with Russian and Chinese artists taking inspiration from and seeking to improve upon art emanating from the United States and the UK.

Pop Art’s satirical exploitation and subversion of familiar visual references to reveal uncomfortable truths about the world in which we live found a second life in communist regimes. The same techniques were adopted by artists to reveal the banality and absurdity of state propaganda and Socialist Realism, from the Sots Art of Komar & Melamid to the Political Pop of Wang Guangyi.

This focus on Pop Art’s legacy means the movement’s heyday of the 1960s and its most familiar names are absent. Instead the exhibition’s chronology runs from the seventies to the present day. Of the 250 works by 110 artists the UK offering is dominated by the YBAs, although Yinka Shonibare is a welcome deviation from the classic east/west bipolarity; the US works are more conventionally Pop, as Jeff Koons and Keith Haring rub shoulders with Paul McCarthy and Cindy Sherman; the Chinese section is more eclectic, from a marble sculpture by man of the moment Ai Weiwei to a human hair installation by Gu Wenda; while art from the former USSR ranges from the big names of the Nonconformist art movement to contemporary collectives AES+F and Blue Noses.

The exhibition suggests a similar obsession with celebrity and commodification in both east and west, but it neglects to go deeper into the political significance of the art, instead offering something of a curiosity cabinet of Pop’s diverse manifestations.

According to The Telegraph is looks “like a bonkers art-department store“. If you’re in London you can go along and decide for yourself until 23 February 2015.

Images: Top – Leonid Sokov, Two Profiles (Stalin and Marilyn), 1989. Bronze, photographic print; Bottom – Wang Guangyi, Great Criticism: Benelton (大批判), 1992. Oil on canvas © Wang Guangyi, 1992

Painting the Assassination of JFK

The assassination of US President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963 had a profound effect on the history of the Cold War. At once suspicions abounded that the murder was the result of a conspiracy, a theory that is still held to by the majority of American citizens. The news that Kennedy’s suspected killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a communist who had defected to the Soviet Union for three years prior to the shooting increased fears that the Cold War had claimed its most prized victim. The feelings of shock and loss that consumed the American public were eloquently expressed by philosopher Hannah Arendt in the New York Review of Books.

Considering the momentousness of Kennedy’s assassination, it is surprising that there is only one known contemporary painting of the event. Lincoln Convertible was created by British pop artist, Gerald Laing, at a time when he was living and working in New York City. The painting was considered so controversial in the aftermath of Kennedy’s murder that Laing’s dealer refused to exhibit it and it was kept in storage for 30 years. The 3m-long painting incorporates footage of the assassination from the famous Zapruder film, depicting the president and his wife, Jackie, travelling in their Lincoln car just prior to the attack.

Gerald-Laing-Lincoln-Convertible

To mark the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death the painting is currently on display at Tate Britain in London.

Image: Gerald Laing, Lincoln Convertible, 1964. Gerald Laing Estate, Kinkell. Courtesy of the Gerald Laing Estate © ACS, 2013.

What & Where: Oxford’s Military Murals

What: Murals by servicemen of the United States Air Force
Where: RAF Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire, UK (now closed)

Mural_SPI_by_John_GeruntinoOxford Archaeology recently announced the launch of a project to record the Cold War paintings on the internal walls of former airbase, RAF Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. The majority of the artwork was created by American servicemen, who were stationed there between 1950 and 1991. The soldiers were part of a strategically-placed US Air Force presence in Britain to enable a fast response by American fighter aircraft should the Cold War suddenly turn hot.

An official scheme called ‘Project Warrior’ from the 1980s encouraged the airmen to produce art to prevent boredom and improve their integration. With subject matter ranging from patriotic symbols and pop culture to menacing comments on current political concerns, the variously sardonic and humourous murals at RAF Upper Heyford show both positive and negative responses to military action.

A sample of the work can be seen on the RAF Upper Heyford memorial website.

John Geruntino, mural in hallway of LE Building, RAF Upper Heyford, 1986–1991

What & Where: Brixton’s Nuclear Dawn

What: Nuclear Dawn mural by Brian Barnes and Dale McCrea
Where: Carlton Mansions, 387 Coldhabour Lane, Brixton, London SW9 8QD, UK

For over 30 years, inhabitants in one corner of London have experienced a daily reminder of the fear and paranoia of the Cold War. The eye-catching mural, Nuclear Dawn, was painted between 1980 and 1981 by local resident Dale McCrea and English mural artist Brian Barnes, as a potent call for nuclear disarmament and a warning against the potential repercussions of escalating international tensions.

130826 Nuclear Dawn

Measuring 25 square metres, the mural depicts a giant skeleton striding across the city of London. Swathed in the flags of the United States, Great Britain and the USSR, the figure drops nuclear missiles from his hand. In the background, a vast mushroom cloud swirls around to form a map of the world and screaming faces. From one side a human arm releases a peace dove, which upon reaching the skeleton is transformed into the symbol of the CND. Meanwhile, in the bottom right corner, eminent politicians including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan shelter in a nuclear bunker below the Houses of Parliament. Despite its political message, the mural received funding from bodies including the local council and the Arts Council.

The London Mural Preservation Society provides the most thorough account of the mural’s history, and is also leading a Facebook campaign for the mural’s preservation and restoration.