Valentine’s Day at the Imperial War Museum (London)

On Valentine’s day we went to see Lee Miller: A Woman’s War  at the Imperial War Museum and were lucky enough to discover two other worthwhile exhibitions:  Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist – which includes an evolving installation Boardroom – and the new Nick Danziger: Eleven Women Facing War.

The Miller exhibition was thought provoking. Known first as a Vogue model, Miller later moved behind the camera. That she had an excellent eye and was technically accomplished is immediately apparent. Her first WWII photographs were fashion shoots among the ruins of London during the Blitz and features on the lives of women in wartime. Later, she managed to get accreditation as a war correspondent and went to Europe, where she is said to have shed hypochondria and food neuroses overnight in order to rough it alongside and on equal terms with the GIs whose stories she photographed and wrote about. She stayed in Europe to document the aftermath of war, despite exhaustion, debilitation, depression. When she finally returned, she married her lover, the surrealist artist Roland Penrose. They had a son, Antony, who knew nothing of his mother’s wartime career until he found the photographs in the family attic after her death. How depressingly familiar that story is.

The iconic photograph of Miller in Hitler’s bath, taken on the day of his suicide, is a centrepiece – but equally fascinating is the story of her life and work and her association with the surrealist movement. The exhibition continues until 24th April 2016.

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Peter Kennard’s multimedia art is angry, urgent, contemporary. Yet the most effective works for me were paintings. A large series at the entrance to the exhibition represents a row of outsize war medals, but the medallions are replaced by evocative images: shattered heads, for example, or a piece of hessian sacking recording ‘kills’.  A quiet, subtle series suggesting human faces barely emerging from a black background is tucked away on a small corridor at the back of the exhibition. Juvenilia on display shows that Kennard’s interest in these emerging – vanishing? – faces has been there throughout his career. The exhibition runs until 30th May, 2016.

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Nick Danziger’s photos and videos are perhaps the most sobering. They depict situations and conditions still current in Afghanistan, Colombia, Sierra Leone, the Balkans, Israel and Gaza. There is a ten-year-old girl who has sole responsibility for her brothers, aged 7 and 5. On the morning she spoke to Danziger they only had grass for breakfast. She worries about the coming winter, when the grass will be gone. A woman whose husband was killed has lost her leg to a land mine. She worries that her life is a failure because ‘Allah gave me children and I raise them in poverty.’ In the Balkans, women look at photographs of jeans and t-shirts from mass graves and try to identify their husbands’ belongings so that they can know, finally and for sure, that they are dead.

Needless to say that these images have a collective impact. Re-emerging into museum crowds is jarring at the best of times, but there was something particularly disturbing about seeing a very blonde, very Aryan, child swarm across the top of a glass case containing an artist’s impression of what a charred and melted human being might look like after an atomic explosion. Contorted, charcoaled, broken.

‘Oh look,’ the child called to its mother, completely unfazed by the nightmare. ‘It’s a lady!’ Then it jumped down and followed the rest of its family into the crowds moving on to the next hall.

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