Earlier this month, #TheCultureHour spoke to artist Deenagh Miller on her Images of War series. These paintings depict horrific scenes of modern warfare taken from real press clippings, and the artist describes them as being her most important work to date. Now, in preparation for the Images of War exhibition in the Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institution this November, Deenagh talks to us in more depth on the series.
When did you begin painting your Images of War?
I began painting images of war 2001 when the 9/11 Atrocities happened and again in 2003 when Iraq was invaded. Since then the theme has kind of gathered momentum and there are now 50 paintings on the subject. I can’t leave it alone and I can’t do it all the time, in between I return to works of landscape or imagination.
What motivated you to depict a subject that most would happily shy away from?
It was seeing, hearing and reading the news of recent wars; – Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza and Syria that motivated me to see if making paintings from the photographs taken by war photographers would work. It also leaves me open to the criticism of not having been to a war zone, but it’s not necessary to have been to a war zone to be aware of what happens there … neither had Lady Butler, an eminent 19thC war artist. If criticism is made, I can answer it, and it isn’t going to deter me. War both repels and attracts me – the cruel violence, injustice and suffering it causes horrifies me, but it also brings out other qualities, – great acts of sacrifice, courage and bravery, as well as simple acts of kindness, generosity and compassion made by ordinary people, nurses and doctors and often soldiers.
Would you describe yourself as a “war artist”?
I would have difficulty describing myself as a war artist. I’ve never wanted to be a war artist, or go to a war zone, but one aspect in particular interests and fascinates me. Perhaps it’s morbid, but given that humans can be empathetic creatures, when I read, hear or see the news I have wondered what it feels like to be a victim of war, – injured, bereaved, homeless, stateless, with nothing. There can only be one answer, it must feel awful and indescribably unjust, particularly to women and children. Soldiers too suffer dreadful injuries, death, and the loss of comrades. But with few exceptions, most politicians, although deeply involved in making decisions about war, rarely have direct experience of it.
All of these images come from real photographs, many depicting exceptionally distressing content, how do you choose which pictures to paint?
Since 2001 I have collected pictures from newspapers, magazines, and the internet. These vary widely and can be of scenes of dramatic action and movement, soldiers firing weapons, scenes after a bomb has just exploded, people fleeing, then there are mundane moments like families waiting around for deliveries of food and water or of children just talking to soldiers, nurses and doctors with the wounded, scenes of cruelty and torture as in Abu Ghraib, people on both sides of a conflict mourning and burying their dead. I am very grateful to the photographers who took the pictures in the first place, their work has been profoundly inspirational, and without them the paintings wouldn’t have been made.
The choice of a particular image for a painting is based on having previously worked from photographs and is largely intuitive, in that I tend to know almost immediately which one would make a painting, but it doesn’t always work and images I might initially reject have often been successful. The most challenging images come from the internet and are ones newspapers won’t publish – like the two of a baby, shot in the womb, delivered by caesarean, so you see where the bullet went in and where it came out.
Do you find it challenging working so extensively with images such as these?
The process of painting them was sometimes very emotional – looking closely, particularly into the faces of children in physical or emotional pain is not easy, nor is looking at the expressions of bereaved parents or soldiers caught up in the horror or war. At times I had to suspend my feelings while painting all of them, treating it as I would an everyday subject like a still life, except I knew it wasn’t.
This kind of leads to something I’ve always been perplexed by, – the question raised about what any of us should or could do, given how much we can and do know about war going on somewhere in the world. I don’t choose images from any particular side in a conflict. In terms of innocent people suffering, the situation is invariably the same on both sides. However, there are difficult issues, like when one side has a greater number of victims than another. Then there is genocide, of one side seeking to completely annihilate the other, a subject I hope to tackle soon.
I hope the paintings, which are about the consequences of war, provoke the viewer to ask questions about the reasons we go to war.
You can see Deenagh Miller’s Images of War series as part of an exhibition on War and Peace at alongside Brian Goodsell at The Jenyns Room at the Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institution 12-24th November 2015.
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