Britain at War
Exhibition: January 15 to March 3, 2017
Artist Talk: February 22 at 7 p.m.
Opening Reception: February 25, 4-6 p.m.
A year before the US entered World War II, New York’s Museum of Modern Art staged an exhibition of British War Artists titled Britain at War. The War Artists were painters, printmakers, and photographers enlisted by the British government to depict scenes on the frontlines and at home. During both World Wars, Britain actively sought to employ its artists to “enliven the idealism” of the nation, “enoble the scene of [its] common suffering," and “provide visual imagery of their great cause and peril.” This effort to keep the arts from being sacrificed during wartime austerity was part of a larger effort to preserve the nation’s civility in the midst of conflict.
I have titled a series of photo collages after the 1941 exhibition, the works derived from a single photo that appears in the show’s catalog. This image of a British soldier is one of a group of portraits depicting citizen-soldiers in typological fashion: men and women, old and young, fulfill the roles of sailor, nurse, and pilot, each wearing welcoming and diligent expressions.
Construction of the artworks combined model making, photography, and collage. First, individual elements of the source image were constructed as small-scale sculptures. Then these sculptures were photographed under different light sources, and the photographs printed. Finally, the prints were cut and pasted in an arrangement that matched the source, reconstructing the original photograph.
Seventy-six years after MOMA’s Britain At War, it is easy to dismiss the exhibition as a quaint rallying of Allied forces. However, it is worthwhile to consider Britain’s concern for civility in time of war within the contemporary contexts of our current War on Terror, whose interrogation and intelligence-gathering techniques at home and abroad have threatened our own civility; and the racial rhetoric of our president-elect, whose proposed immigration policies have echoed the discourse that preceded the criminal treatment of Jews and Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.
Considering Britain’s War Artist program also begs the question: could such a program exist in the United States today? How would contemporary artists respond to the needs of their government in time of armed conflict?
My engagement of MOMA’s exhibition continues an ongoing aspect of my work: the mining of visual artifacts of the Second World War. While past works explored architectural expressions of totalitarian and utopian ideals, Britain At War brings me closer to my family’s relation to war. With parents who grew up in Germany during WWII, and brothers who served in Iraq, this remade image of a British soldier serves as cypher and surrogate for those lost to, and lost within, the defense of their country.
Nils Schirrmacher reconstructs historical photographs using a process that combines sculpture, photography, and collage. While scouring books for photographic sources, he seeks proximity to the moment when representations of the past instill a sense of meaning, and history heeds the call of present day. Mr. Schirrmacher received a BFA in sculpture from the California College of the Arts, and an MFA from UC Irvine. He is a native Angelino.