Kingston Art Scene: Art and Souvenir

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With Remembrance Day just behind us, and not yet in the throes of the holiday season, this seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on the relationship between art and war (or art and conflict). , or cultural goods and conflicts, depending on how you want to frame the subject). Is there such a relationship, you might ask – indeed, there is. And while art and conflict may seem like uncomfortable bedfellows, they’ve been walking side-by-side for almost as long as the two have existed. Not always at a walk, and not always from the same point of view, but together anyway.


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Historically speaking, we are beginning to see large-scale conflicts in the Mesopotamia region sometime before 4000 BCE, largely due to the establishment of city-states there. With city-states came the need to protect and defend them, and a parallel rise in people of influence and power who ruled and defended the so-called conflicted city-states. One of the earliest examples of portrayal of war is the so-called “Royal Standard of Ur” of Sumer from around 2600 BCE, which has narrative tapes on one side (the “war side”). depicting charioteers and infantry trampling the battle. and capture the opposing forces, strip them of arms and armor. On the other side of the Standard (“peace” side), similar narrative tapes show the collection of the spoils of war by the victors, and a victory banquet in progress in the upper register. Like this object, many of the earliest examples of depictions of conflict show the ruler of the conquering people larger than life and glorify their fighting prowess.

The depiction of the spoils of war collection, which often consisted of the movable material wealth and cultural goods of a defeated people, is significant, as the accumulation of art as spoils of war is just another aspect of the conjunction of art and conflict. . A clear illustration of the practice can be seen in the “Booty of Jerusalem” panel from the Arch of Titus in Rome (c. 81 CE), in which Roman troops looted the Second Temple there, which they then destroyed. (The Second Temple replaced, as you can guess, the First Temple (aka Solomon’s Temple), which the Babylonians plundered and destroyed in 586 BCE.) The spoils of war were sometimes used to enrich the treasures of ‘a conquering people and was also often used to pay troops for their service in war. The practice has been tolerated for centuries, but has also been questioned on moral grounds as early as the Classical Greek period. Nevertheless, the seizure of art as spoils of war has continued into modern times – and probably continues, despite international treaties and policies against the practice – to enrich many of the most prestigious galleries and museums. of the world. One need only look at the Louvre in Paris (the foundation of its vast collections consisting of spoils of war collected by Napoleon’s troops at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century) and the careful examination of many galleries around the world in this regard. which concerns the art of the Nazi war and its possible repatriation to get an idea of ​​the scale of the activity.


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Fortunately, efforts are made to repatriate parts of the art looted from one culture and into the possession of another, but this can be a thorny endeavor for a variety of reasons. For example, how do you return a work of art to a culture or an entity that no longer exists? And is it perhaps in the interest of cultural property to remain in an institution that will know how to take good care of it? The act of repatriation can also be politically motivated, as can the act of destruction of cultural property in times of conflict. Think of the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in the 7th century in 2001 – a way to demoralize local cultures and provoke outrage in the international community. The destruction of cultural property (often works of art, monuments or architecture) to oppress a people and erase cultural memory is a practice that dates back to antiquity and continues today.

Not that the association of art and war is entirely negative – indeed, conflict has been the catalyst for many new types of expression and artistic movements. In particular, many early 20th century avant-garde movements (such as Expressionism, Vorticism, Cubism, etc.) were more effective at capturing and illustrating aspects of modern warfare than were more traditional and staid styles of performance. In fact, it has been suggested that only artists can accurately describe what war really is – visually, emotionally, psychologically, and physically – through the power of imagery that words cannot begin to match. Canadian artist W. Thurston Topham’s impressionist painting “Moonrise over Mametz Wood” from 1916 was described by veterans as a “eerily precise impression of the Somme battlefield in 1916”. In addition, from World War I until World War II, many countries, including Canada, have established official warfare programs. Many notable artists from one country have been sent abroad to record and represent conflicts and have been indelibly marked by the experience. It has been argued, for example, that the art of some members of the Group of Seven in Canada was influenced more by the war-struck landscapes of Europe than by the austerity of Canada’s North, as has so often been said. Canada continues to invite artists to theaters of conflict, which has created moving images of such collaborations.


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While the subject of art and war may seem bleak (and this essay has only scratched the surface of the subject), many beautiful and even humorous objects have resulted from this association. The art produced as a result of war is a testament to the enduring human spirit and the act of creativity, which can help us understand the events and experiences of the past.

Kamille Parkinson received a PhD in Art History from Queen’s University and is currently a writer, burgeoning copywriter and general art historian. You can find her writing on Word Painter Projects on Facebook and contact her at [email protected]

The Vimy Memorial, designed by Walter Allward, in Vimy, France.
The Vimy Memorial, designed by Walter Allward, in Vimy, France. Photo by Kamille Parkinson /Photo provided

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