Disability, Art and War

By Ana Carden-Coyne

In 2014, an art exhibition for the Centenary of the First World War opened at Manchester Art Gallery in the UK. I was one of its three curators, with David Morris (Senior Curator, Whitworth Art Gallery) and Tim Wilcox (Head of Exhibitions, Manchester Art Gallery). Over three years in the making, and involving intense weekly meetings and a large team of behind-the-scenes procurers, conservators, technicians, among others, The Sensory War, 1914-2014 opened on October 10th, 2014. It explored how artists over the last century had communicated the impact of war on the human sensory experience, the mind, the body and the environment.

The exhibition came at a heady time in Britain, with politicians inciting a debate about the meaning of the war and the way it should be interpreted now. Prime Minster David Cameron spoke of celebrating rather than commemorating the war, while his Education Secretary, Michael Gove MP made public jibes about leftist and unpatriotic views of the futility of the war. In this climate of politicizing the centenary, we, as curator, did not aim to intervene but perhaps that was the result: a quieter, more reflective tone was struck in our exhibition spaces. The feedback from audiences revealed it as a thought-provoking and solemn engagement with the visual artists who communicated the impact not just WW1 but many other subsequent wars.

The exhibition had several themes. First was a section entitled ‘Militarizing the Body, Manufacturing War’, leading to a section on women’s war effort in ‘Female Factories’. Second was ‘Aerial Warfare and the Sensation of Flight’. Third, ‘Pain and Succour’ on the battlefield and in the hospitals. This section focused on plight of the wounded, such as in the painter-doctor Henry Lamb’s Advanced Dressing Station on the Struma, 1916 (1920). Lamb depicted a tender moment of a stretcher-bearer giving a sip of water to a wounded man on a stretcher, a tender portrait of male caregiving painted not with the clinical distance of the doctor, but the empathy of the humanitarian. Other sections were Embodied Ruins: Natural and Material Environments; Bombing, Burning and Distant War; Chemical War and the Toxic Imaginary; Ghostlands: Loss, Memory and Resilience. 

Illustration: (c) Minoo Emami Art
Illustration: (c) Minoo Emami Art

One important section was devoted to Shocking the Senses, which explored the way French, German and British artists attempted to visualise the psychological wounds that modern war imposed upon both soldiers and civilians.
The centerpiece of the curatorial design of the first floor, however, was in an open section that tackled the issue of physical disability. In Rupture and Rehabilitation: Disability and the Wounds of War, we turned to the issue of the sensory trauma of vulnerable flesh, and attempts at repair. One large wall was devoted to the 12 magnificent plates of Cologne artist Heinrich Hoerle’s Cripple Portfolio (1920 or Die Krüppelmappe), never exhibited in the UK previously. The folio includes 6 plates depicting the struggles of disabled ex-servicemen, and 6 plates that explore hallucinations and erotic dreams, inspired by Dadaism. It is extraordinary to think that the able-bodied Hoerle, an ex-soldier himself, wanted to delve into the daily hardships and sexual fantasies of his disabled compatriots. I don’t know of any other set of works like this, produced either then or subsequently. It was a passionate attempt to give voice to the war disabled while seeking a degree of personal freedom through fantasy.

One work stands out for its representation of intimate suffering. The work entitled The Couple frames the disabled soldier’s personal loss as a shared loss between husband and wife, a pain held like a fragile baby within the family. Hoerle’s tender portrait is a universal message about the impact of the war on relationships. Indeed, at least one third of all German soldiers were married, and varying between 50-70% of servicemen in other European countries. Couples were affected by separation, infidelity, emotional estrangement, and impoverishment, which saw rises in divorce rates in all combatant countries; in Germany it had doubled by 1921. What Hoerle shows is the couple’s shared experience of living with disability in the aftermath of war.

By 1930, Hoerle shifted to the machine aesthetic populated by prosthetics. Hence we decided to flank the wall of Cripple’s Portfolio with a very special and brightly coloured painting. Three Invalids (Drei Invaliden, 1930) makes a dramatic contrast to the lithographic prints. Hoerle interrogates the fantastic promise of the superhuman cyborg – half man, half machine. Prosthetic culture and the rehabilitation discourse of overcoming disability assumed to replaced lost limbs with new form of machine-made masculinity. Hoerle amplifies the automaton’s dehumanized coldness in order to craft an aesthetic politics of resistance.

Illustration: "Identification" (c) Minoo Emami Art
Illustration: "Identification" (c) Minoo Emami Art

Facial wounds also featured in the exhibition. Herbert Cole’s medical illustration of patient Private Harper (Pioneer Battalion, New Zealand Expeditionary Force, 1919) is a rare example of an indigenous colonial soldier drawn into the European conflict. The Native Contingent and Pioneer Battalion was raised in 1915 with around 2227 Maori and 458 Pacific Islanders, and eventually suffered over 1,000 casualties. Most of the plastic and dental reconstruction patients at Sidcup Hospital, where Cole completed the work, were white soldiers from Britain and the Empire; there were sections for Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, serving under Harold Delf Gillies.

Cole’s illustration inflects the longer history of colonising indigenous lands and peoples: the massacres, disease epidemics, musket wounds, the land dispossession and the wars of resistance that fractured indigenous societies. Today, colonialism casts its long shadow over contemporary conflicts, such as in the Congo. Richard Mosse’s Infra series used the ‘Aerochrome’ film once deployed by the military for camouflage detection to startling effect. The Untitled 2011 portrait of a mutilated militia boy-soldier is suffused with a pink, bloody, tinge. The film stock intensifies the soldier’s open wound. His face has healed at the impact point and his arm has been amputated, revealing what happens in the absence of modern methods of facial and prosthetic reconstruction.

One of the most powerful contemporary works on colonialism and war was by Algerian-born artist Kader Attia. We see the long history of exploiting black men to fight in white men’s wars, called The Debt (2013). Appropriating images from colonial French Africa, Attia’s dual-slide projections meander through the two world wars, juxtaposing photographs of weapons, mutilated African soldiers, prosthetics, surgical casts and medical equipment. Attia uses this iconographic record of disability to evoke the haunting legacy of the colonial past.

There were over 237 art works in this exhibition, and I have only selected a few here. What we set out to show was that artists have sensitively and poignantly found a way to express the impact of war and that audiences continue to be profoundly affected by these representations of war disability.

See links:

Professor Ana Carden-Coyne, Centre for the Cultural History of War, University of Manchester: a.cc@manchester.ac.uk
Ana is author of The Politics of Wounds: Military Patients and Medical Power in the First World War (OUP, 2014); Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism and the First World War (OUP, 2009); Gender and Conflict Since 1914: Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Palgrave 2012).

Recommended Citation:
Ana Carden-Coyne (2017): Disability, Art and War. In: Public Disability History 2 (2017) 14.

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