The Sensory War @Manchester Art Gallery

Review by Sacha Waldron | 04 Dec 2014

A real gem in the WW1 creative commemorations this year comes from The Sensory War, on show at Manchester Art Gallery until February 2015. This group exhibition focuses on military conflict and explores how artists have communicated these often horrific impacts on the body, mind, environment and human senses over the last 100 years. A lot of the work is difficult to take in; you want to look away but are somehow continually drawn back in. There is a reason to look and remember, yet a reason to look away. A significant number of works – and there is a lot to see here – are taken from Manchester City Art Gallery’s own collection. Former director Lawrence Haward started to collect war art just after his appointment in 1914 and until his retirement, remarkably, in 1945; a career spanning two world wars. 

The exhibition starts with an exploration of the transformative nature of war on society and on the types of new experiences both men and women were exposed to. A whole generation of young men were introduced to a thrilling new world of adventure; to travel, to fly. Eric Ravilious renders these experiences in blues and greens, capturing the lights of early morning and twilight – the shapes menacing, the mood not. These atmospheric watercolours are in the same style as his earlier 1930s renders of greenhouses, pot plants, country lanes. The only difference is that the moths of nature have now become the Tiger Moths of the war-time skies.

Though most of the work comprises painting and drawing, photography takes up much of the middle section of the show. A key image comes from the iconic Marine Wedding series by Nina Berman. Here we see Marine Sgt. Tyler Ziegel, who had been seriously injured by a suicide bomber in Iraq, losing most of his facial features, standing beside his wife on their wedding day. Both of their expressions are inscrutable, albeit for different reasons. We learn from the panel that Ziegel and his wife divorced soon after this image was taken and Tyler later died from alcohol and heroin poisoning.

Striking works, being shown for the first time in the UK, come from the ‘hibakusha,’ a name which refers to the survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The word literally translates as ‘exploded-affected people’ and these works were made in the 1970s. Blank ash landscapes populated by the – now sparse – lights of houses are shown against a backdrop of menacing red and black mountains in Lights blinking on in the atomic desert, from Gisaku Tanaka. Elsewhere, ragged people, their features just shapes and ideas, are shown caught among mauve swirls of poison. In a way a photograph can never achieve, these drawings provoke the imagination to imagine every burn, every sickness, confusion and future memory of the bomb. 

Until 22 Feb, Mon-Sun 10am-5pm (closed 24-26 Dec, 31 Dec and 1 Jan), free