“The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes,” said French philosopher and writer Simone Weil, and this idea runs throughout the recently opened exhibition Ravaged, at the M – Museum in Leuven, Belgium, one of many events taking place throughout Europe this year to mark the centenary of the First World War. Focusing on how conflict impacts art and culture, the exhibition poses questions on the violation not just of a people’s physical safety but of their history and identity.
The small city of Leuven, now with a thriving food and arts scene and esteemed university, is a fitting home for this show, as well as being a significant starting point for remembering the Great War. In August 1914, and despite Belgium’s internationally recognised neutral status, Leuven was subjected to five days of harrowing destruction at the hands of the German army as they marched through the country on their way to invade France. The Germans claimed that Belgian snipers attacked them, an assertion that has never been substantiated, but, whether as an act of revenge or to provide proof to the world of German might, the occupying force burnt Leuven to the ground and executed thousands of civilians. Twenty thousand buildings were destroyed, including the city’s historic and renowned university library. The action sent waves of horror around the globe and was likened to the burning of the Royal Library in Alexandria. Leuven’s past, its internationally important heritage and seat of knowledge was in flames.
Now, one hundred years later, Ravaged opens with a stark black and white photograph of the smouldering shell of the library, commissioned by the local council at the time to document the destruction of Leuven. Opposite, Mars Destroying the Arts (Michiel Sweerts) portraying a remorseless soldier plundering a violin, paintings and sculpture is a reminder that the ravaging of art and culture has happened throughout history, and continues to take place right now. We need think only of Timbuktu, Baghdad and Syria.
The exhibition tackles a huge, emotive subject, art and war, and includes Old Masters dating from the fifteenth century up to contemporary art from the last ten years, with two new commissions. In order to take on such a large area the show is divided into five sections: destroyed cities, ruins, iconoclasm, art and propaganda and art theft. Each section builds on the fundamental premise that art and culture is central to a people, to society as a whole, and dragging it into the arena of war and violence has a lasting and irreversible impact.
One of the most emotive pieces in the show is Lamia Joreige’s, Beirut, Autopsy of a City, (2010). The artist is a native of Beirut, and the piece illustrates her constant fear that the city would be destroyed. The Lebanese capital has no official history, so she has created a speculative timeline of photographs, drawings, film and text where the past and present merge into one appalling truth – human creativity and identity is pointlessly destroyed by war.
Staying with Beirut, Mona Hatoum (a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Beirut, and is now living in London) shows the physical experience of war in Bunker. Reminiscent of the smouldering hotels and tower blocks that we’re so used to seeing on our TV screens, the installation is a series of thirteen blackened structures, pocked with bullet holes, scarred by grenades, a reminder that this bunker isn’t a safe haven, but dangerously hostile.
In fact, throughout Ravaged we’re reminded of the physical: the crushed cities of Sodom and Troy, vast landscapes of devastation; Turner’s chaotic merging of form with shades of charred orange and ochre in The Burning of Constantinople; the deliberate taking down of icons and monuments in Eisenstein’s October; Hubert Robert’s dream-like painting of the ruined chapel at the Sorbonne. Yet, whilst harrowing, many of these works acknowledge that there can be beauty in battle, that the aesthetics of war have informed and inspired artists through the centuries. Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has taken this one step further by using gunpowder as pigment for his drawing Black Fireworks, Project for Hiroshima (2008). Here, the notion of creation out of destruction, or good out of evil is touched upon but never fully explored in the wider context of Ravage.
Indeed, the only nod to peace in the whole exhibition is in the imposing tapestry based on a design by Floris Jespers (back in Belgium for the first time, having been archived in the Hoover Institution at Stanford) which was given to the Americans as thanks for re-building the library in Leuven after the destruction of the original. The piece, in the colours of the star spangled banner, glorifies American generosity as Liberty saves Leuven from total annihilation. Dominating the work is a hand cupping two doves, a breath of hope amongst despair that seems to be missing elsewhere in the show. Maybe that’s the point – we haven’t learnt anything from the war that was meant to end all wars. There’s some irreverence, particularly in the Art and Propaganda section as we see, with the benefit of hindsight, how art was commandeered for political ideas and rhetoric, on both sides. Fernando Bryce in his piece To The Civilised World, (2014) one of the two brand new works for this show, has taken original newspapers, postcards and pamphlets related to the destruction of the library and Reims Cathedral and re-drawn them. In so doing, he, just as the media, has re-written history and makes us ask – which side is right? And, further, is war ever right, ever justified?
The truth, particularly in war, is often about perspective. In the final rooms of Ravaged, art and theft is examined. Napoleon, Stalin and Hitler all stole artworks and proudly showed them off as the spoils of their power. And yet English colonials pillaged artefacts from throughout the world, many of which remain in the UK as ‘internationally’ important.
We end where we began, in a library, and Emily Jacir’s ex libris. In Palestine, 1948, thirty thousand books were looted by the Israelis, with six thousand taken to a library in Jerusalem and marked AP – Abandoned Property. Jacir has photographed these books with her camera phone, and the last room is an installation, presented on shelves as if in a library, of the images: the stamps and personal notes inside the cover; the inscriptions, the names and addresses handwritten by the owner. These personal effects form a powerful collection – an insight into a people, who they are and what they’ve lost.
Although there are certain areas that Ravaged could explore more fully, perhaps with greater emphasis on emotionally engaging pieces, we are left with a strong message on how arts and culture is woven into the fabric of our past, informing who we are. And that’s something worth fighting for.