Facing History: Leon Golub & Hrair Sarkissian at Tate Modern

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The Facing History display at Tate Modern brings together two bodies of work that confront the violence and atrocities of contemporary war and civil society.

The art in this room is stunning. It’s eye-catching and incredibly emotive. And what’s interesting is that even though neither of the artists on display are household names to rival the likes of Picasso and Monet (who are in nearby rooms), this was one of the busiest displays in the gallery when I visited as people passing through were stopped in their tracks and caught up in the pieces on the walls.

On one wall is Vietnam II, 1973, one of a series of three large paintings made in the early 1970s by American artist Leon Golub. It’s a huge painting, and a very provocative one.

Golub was involved with the anti-Vietnam War protest movement in the States for many years and drew from the heavy war coverage on the news and in the papers for his imagery and subject matter.

But Golub also wanted to avoid making the pieces too specific to the Vietnam War. He wanted them to be more timeless, to reflect the horrors of war generally.

With this in mind, it’s probably not a surprise that Golub said that Guernica was a key source of inspiration for him, describing Picasso’s masterpiece as “the visual metaphor of a newspaper, a super photograph or comic strip. It is ‘read’ urgently and the viewer is assaulted by the tumult and violence.”

And though it may not be able to stand alongside the Picasso in terms of technical achievement, it certainly has that feel of anger and horror that Guernica evokes.

Hrair Sarkissian Execution Squares

Opposite is a series of photographs by Hrair Sarkissian of Syria, the country of his birth.

These photos of Syrian cities are all empty streets and early morning sunlight, advertising hoards against collapsing architecture, mosques and abandoned construction sites…

Initially you think you’re looking at a series of quiet, reflective studies of the urban landscape in modern Syria, its faded glory and the clash between the old and the new.

But these photos are deceptive in their beauty and peacefulness as that’s not what you are looking at, at all.

The series is called Execution Squares and these are photos of squares in Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia of places where executions for civil crimes are carried out. Suddenly the peaceful silence in the photos becomes a terrible one.

These photos really are incredible work, and risky for the artist too.

Hrair Sarkissian Execution Squares (2)

Hrair took these photographs early in the morning when the streets were quiet, around the time when executions are carried out. Those to be executed are usually brought to the squares at 4.30am, but their bodies are left until 9am, in public view, as a warning to others.

Indeed Hrair said that his first personal experience of an execution was as a child when he passed one of these squares on his journey to school and saw three bodies hanging in the street.

Execution Squares is an incredible series of photos and so current given the traumatic and deadly civil war that now ravages the country. I found them sinister and terrifying. It’s the silence in the photos, what is not shown, that scares you.

Credit must also be given to Jessica Morgan who curated the room. Not only did she manage to hang these bold pieces in a small room in such a way as to not seem cluttered, but by separating the signage from the pieces, in particular Hrair Sarkissian’s work, it allowed unsuspecting visitors to make assumptions about what they’re seeing before the horrible truth is revealed.

Tate Modern, London

Image Credits:

1. Leon Golub Vietnam II 1973 © DACS, London and VAGA, New York 2004

2 & 3. Hrair Sarkissian Execution Squares © Hrair Sarkissian

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