Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Art of War

Somehow LACMA keeps acquiring in these tough times. The museum has added Sandow Birk's 2007 The Depravities of War, a suite of ten monumental (48 by 96 inch) woodcuts of the Iraq war. Birk's starting point is Jacques Callot's Miseries of War, alleged by Wikipedia to be the first anti-war works of art in the West. Callot produced "small" and "large" Miseries, though size is relative: the large etchings, from 1633, are barely 7 inches wide. It's believed that Goya based his Disasters of War on Callot's Miseries. Like Callot and Goya, Birk includes a grandiose title page (above). Among other novelties, Birk made use of Kinko's copy machines, and these prints are likely to be the first in LACMA's collection made in Maui. (More at LACMA's site.)
The art history of the Iraq war will have to start with the notorious hooded prisoner on a box. It put the grimmest possible spin on the notion of a "vernacular photograph." In order to transmute this digital image into so-called art, Richard Serra went analog. He devised a creamy, black-and-white abstraction (almost a Franz Kline). Then, in a nod to the zeitgeist, Serra distributed it as a free digital file (Stop Bush, 2004).
Birk's Humiliation plays the B&W analog game itself. You don't get more analog than a 21st-century woodcut. Birk demotes the hooded wraith to a black-comic bit player. (Callot etched scores of Judd Apatow-worthy freaks and geeks from the commedia dell'arte). Birk's engagement is not in doubt: the image is as hellish as a Goya madhouse. We quickly grow accustomed to the depravities of war or anything else. Birk grants the viewer the space to draw conclusions.
War in the Middle East is also the theme of four pages LACMA has recently bought, originally from a lavish Shiraz Shahnama manuscript, c. 1560. (Left, small detail from The Battle between Bahram Chubina and Sava Shah.) The pages present war as lyrical, colorful, sexy, and wise. Artist(s) and patron(s) remain a mystery — other pages from the same book are in the British Museum and at Harvard.

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