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June 29 2012

The artistic jingoism of the Bomber Command memorial | Jonathan Jones

This architecturally crass pavilion is like the nervously loud voice of someone trying to shout down opposition

As memories fade, the monuments get bigger — and so do the lies. The second world war ended 67 years ago and slips ever further from the reach of living recollection. Yet the memorial to the airmen of Bomber Command that was dedicated in London's Green Park this week is nothing if not imposing. It is a neoclassical pavilion whose grandiose interior houses a bronze figurative statue group of a bomber crew. The scale and ostentatious style of the monument will make it hard to miss. But is this a work of memory or forgetting?

The architectural crassness of Liam O'Connor's pavilion is like the nervously loud voice of someone trying to shout down opposition. The grandeur of the monument was acclaimed by veterans, who may well see its lavish appearance as some kind of belated compensation for a long delay in commemorating their sacrifice. There is no doubting the scale of that sacrifice. As fiercely patriotic reports on the memorial's royal dedication did not fail to point out, British bomber crews through the second world war suffered a more than 50% casualty rate of young men killed and seriously wounded. Yet the real case for a specially grand monument may be the nature of their deaths: no bodies came home from bombers that went down in flames. So this is their marker.

The monument insists, with no room for doubt, that such heroism deserves to be remembered down the ages. Yet the Victorian critic John Ruskin would surely have smelt a rat – not least because he loathed classical porticoes in Portland stone, but also because he believed architecture to be a moral as much as an aesthetic enterprise. Bad aesthetics betray bad morals. The trouble with this memorial goes beyond mere taste. Some people like bronze statues in Regency arcades; others find a minimalist slab more moving. But the strident style of this memorial reveals a fundamental lack of honesty.

No amount of stone and bronze can ever end the ethical debate about Britain's bombing strategy during the second world war. Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris insisted on an explicit and systematic campaign of "area bombing", that is, the carpet bombing of German cities . His policy rejected the idea of precision raids on industrial targets – which, to be fair, did not work well because bomb-aiming with 1940s technology was not accurate enough – and deliberately sought to weaken morale in Germany. In other words, the job was to bomb civilians. This strategy was not accidental or unconscious. It worried Britain's commanders. Churchill went from encouraging it to – eventually, after Dresden – worrying about it. By that time many thousands of civilians had died horrible deaths in firestorms that left terrible relics of shrivelled, blackened victims in the cellars and streets of cities, including Hamburg and Cologne.

Firestorms were not unfortunate mistakes – the RAF knew how to create them by first dropping incendiaries, then high explosives that turned fires into infernos.

If the memorial in Green Park seems strident and hysterical in design, it is because it wants us to forget this other side of the story. Heroic young men gave their lives and their nerves to fight the air war. But it is empty patriotic bluster to pretend, as this monument does, that no doubts have ever been raised about the results of their courage. Those doubts existed at the time and will always exist.

Did massive air raids on German cities help to end the war more quickly? Or was Harris a cruel and dogmatic zealot whose policy failed to achieve his stated target of defeating Germany from the air? I don't have the answers – these are debates. The most unanswerable question of all is how much violence on civilians could be justified by what was obviously the far greater evil of Nazi policies in occupied Europe. Then again, one criticism of Bomber Command was its failure to bomb the death camps.

The heroism of these men deserves to be remembered – but not in a way that denies the complexity of history. It is getting too late in the day to sentimentalise the second world war. The memory of Britain's bravery needs to be tempered with some historical perspective. This monument is a nasty piece of artistic jingoism that trivialises the most terrible war in human history.

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June 23 2012

Art review

Baltic, Gateshead; Serpentine, London

The story is told of a Chinese peasant invited to the emperor's palace to be rewarded for his loyal service. Would he rather be paid in gold or rice? Seeing the emperor at his chessboard, the peasant chooses rice, requesting one grain for the first square, two for the second, four for the third, and so on. Laughing at the man's stupidity, the emperor agrees but is bankrupted by the 64th square as the multiplying reward now totals more than all the rice in China.

Billions of billions – how can one begin to imagine such numbers, in grains of rice or anything else? Mark Wallinger does not flinch from the task. Each work in this marvellous new show attempts to number the numberless, to make visible some unimaginably vast concept all the way from infinity to eternity: and each work makes a piercing metaphor, often humorous, out of failure.

Stretching out before the visitor to the Baltic is an immense checkerboard floor: 65,536 chessboards, to be precise, laid edge to edge. On each square of each board lies a solitary pebble. Grey, cream, the size of a pawn or perhaps a queen, each stone has some visual affinity with the chess set but each is naturally unique; and the same suddenly seems true of each square. No longer just a black or white box, each square becomes a little kingdom for the pebble it contains; and each pebble acquires its own status by the same token. Everything is made to count, separately and together.

The effect from floor level is generalised, a grey miasma stretching into the distance. But from the viewing gallery above, every square has its special graphic distinction. Mathematics is clearly central to the work – from the simple binary opposition of chessboards to the super-perfect numbers involved – but there is a beautiful order in the spectacle itself: the sheer dizzying quantity of it all held in check, piece by piece, a beach contained in a chessboard.

Just beyond, not incidentally, is the sea itself, twinkling and lapping in Wallinger's new film Construction Site, receiving its UK premiere.

Three workmen are building a scaffolding tower on the shingle, a comic proposition in itself. A pole appears from the right, followed ages later by the builder carrying it. A speedboat breezes through as if to mock this slow and Sisyphean labour. There are mishaps and forgotten buckets, and a seagull bursts into the picture just as an ideal symmetry of structure is achieved. Every moment is surprising, a series of sight gags sustained over more than an hour in a masterpiece of comic timing.

This structure looks like a gigantic drawing, or a freestanding frame. It is eventually in such exact alignment with the sea's horizon that the workmen on the top appear to be walking on water. This is not a cinematic trick – transparency is crucial to everything Wallinger makes – just a simple coincidence of different perspectives.

Space swithers between two and three dimensions, the men seem variously giants or midgets, the sea appears flat as a picture; and time becomes mysterious too. No sooner have they finished than the workmen return to dismantle the structure – unless, perhaps, it was the other way round? A palindrome emerges and repeats itself continually, like the tides, transforming boats and buckets into running gags forever.

Construction Site is a most original combination of contemplation piece and absurdist comedy. Every pun – verbal and visual – is deeply intended. Puns, palindromes, mirror images, anagrams and inversions: these are all pivotal to Wallinger's art, succinct devices for multiplying the nuances of meaning.

His work can be extraordinarily condensed, as in the colossal letter "I" adorning the outside of the Baltic on a banner. The simplest expression of the self, I says everything and nothing, describes everyone and no one. It amounts to a universal self-portrait (one sign fits all) while paradoxically denying the possibility of summing oneself up in an image or a word.

Inside, at the opposite extreme, a slideshow is flashing up photographs of the several thousand marks Wallinger has chalked on brick walls all over London in the past few years. "Mark", says the mark, speaking of its maker as well as itself, sending up the narcissism of tagging as well as the futility of trying to leave one's mark upon London. It is the pun simultaneously multiplied and reduced to the absurd.

It would be hard to overstate the subtlety of these two meditations on self-centredness, each stimulating new thoughts long after one leaves the gallery and both achieved with the simplest possible means. No sleight of hand; the separate elements of Wallinger's works are always exposed, one feels, as a matter of principle. That principle may be moral, aesthetic or intellectual but it is generally all three, as in the most powerful piece in this show.

Just outside the central gallery is a vertiginous stairwell that drops 13 landings, a plunge so abrupt you lose all sense of orientation. With the simple addition of a couple of mirrors, one above and one below, Wallinger extends this continuum to infinity. The bottomless hell below reflects the eternal heaven above, on and on in both directions. Which way is up? The viewer stares into this illusion, entirely aware of the mechanics, but overpowered by its vision of an endless fall and the impossible ascent to heaven.

A forest of iron helmets hangs upside down in the antechamber of Yoko Ono's Serpentine Gallery retrospective, conjuring the dead of two world wars. But in their upturned state, they are as reminiscent of cooking pots as dead soldiers; swords may still be beaten into ploughshares.

On either side two films are screening – an eye slowly blinking, a match gradually burning: pause, think, you might prevent disaster in a blink – and on the wall between them is Ono's famous Vietnam poster. "War Is Over" declares the faded headline; "If You Want It" whispers the tiny subtext. Hers may be a voice of perennial hope, but it is not without qualification.

This show breathes the true air of the 60s. It includes the early films of John and Yoko kissing, John breaking into an infectious slo-mo smile, Yoko suffering the clothes to be snipped from her body by strangers in Cut Piece. It has the glass labyrinth in which the wanderer becomes effectively blind and unable to find the way to the dark box at the centre, its hidden message as condensed as a haiku.

With its delicate calligraphy, translucent screens and fragile objects ceremonially presented on plinths, Ono's aesthetic appears strikingly Japanese. But her meanings are, of course, devoutly universal. For some, this will come across as sentimentality, as in her invitation to the public to smile on screen or leave a wish on a tree. But her sincerity is not in doubt.

Ono's gift is for the epigrammatic object or image; the blood-stained letter, the folded coat hanger doubling as forceps (death or birth), her footprints in step with John Lennon's on a sheet of paper, an overwhelming testimony of loss.

But most affecting of all is the remake of Cut Piece from 2003, when Ono was 70. The audience's reverence and obsession are now as much part of the performance as the artist's endurance. With every snip, they get closer to her fame while she remains resolutely dignified. The performance has turned into a life story.


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Bomber Command memorial – review

Green Park, London SW1

That 55,573 men of the RAF's Bomber Command died in the second world war is one of those statistics that leaves you feeling bewildered and hollow. It is, to give some measure of it, almost as many as the total losses of all American forces in the Vietnam war. Still more bewildering is that hundreds of thousands of civilians, both German and of other nationalities, were killed by their actions. If they had been gunned down by infantry it would count as the greatest ever atrocity by the British military but, owing to a convention that still applies, death descending from above is considered less terrible than death that arrives horizontally.

It is a hard subject to memorialise – to recognise at once the courage and loss of airmen, and the awfulness of the thing they were told to do – the more so as the debate will never end as to whether bombing civilian targets was then the best or only available way of speeding the defeat of the Nazis. This is why it has required so many years since the war – and the enthusiastic support of former Tory party treasurer Lord Ashcroft, and the late Bee Gee Robin Gibb – to get a memorial to Bomber Command built.

There is some question as to whether it should have been built at all, given that there are already eloquent air force memorials at Runnymede and on the Victoria Embankment. There is also a statue of Bomber Command's leader, Bomber Harris, erected after much debate in the Strand. If it had to be built, you might hope for some nuance, some recognition of moral complexity, some regret, some invitation to reflection. Unfortunately the memorial, which the Queen will open on Thursday, offers none of those things.

Its tone is defiant and triumphant, using quotations from Churchill and Pericles to justify the bombings. Its location in central London is explained on the debatable grounds that attacking German cities was the best way of sparing London from further bombing. It is big; bigger than, for example, the memorial to the Battle of Britain on the banks of the Thames. Its style is amnesiac classical, with ranks of Doric columns surmounted by a weirdly puny balustrade, a version of historic architecture that never precisely existed, but is also oblivious to anything that might have happened, culturally or technologically, in the last several decades.

Obliviousness, in fact, is its guiding principle – to history, but also to its setting on the edge of the lush, rolling landscape of Green Park, whose informality and lack of pomp is the opposite of the rigid memorial. By all relevant principles of planning it should not have been built here, as the erosion of the city's most important green stuff is, with good reason, usually opposed. If it had to be built, its architect Liam O'Connor should at least have fulfilled the promise he makes on his website: "We are committed to enhancing the contexts of the locations in which we build by sensitive layout and appropriate architecture." There's not much sign of such things here.

It also has trouble with something less lovely than the park: a concrete underpass that descends in front of it. O'Connor has chosen to make the memorial a symmetrical portico, a form that suggests an axial approach that immediately stubs its toe on the transport engineering. As the underpass was here first, a more responsive kind of architecture might have reconsidered its options and thought of something that worked better, but it is in the nature of this kind of classicism that it is not responsive. Rather, like a stubborn marshal, it directs its relentless symmetries into battle regardless of obstacles. It is an inadvertent echo of the fixed thinking that directed the flattening of German cities.

O'Connor is one of a group of classicising architects who blossom in proximity to royal palaces, where they are suddenly fertilised as by a rich humus by the favour of the Prince of Wales, and he is not the worst. His memorial has some kind of simplicity, at least, which compares favourably to the Gilbert and Sullivan additions recently made to Kensington Palace. But it still reeks of the application of special favours, and the suspension of judgment, that gave us the nearby Queen Mother Gates, still laughable 19 years after they were built.

The result is a work of wishing away, of ignoring time, place and moral difficulty. The possibility of achieving something even slightly like the Vietnam memorial in Washington, which also had to recognise heroism applied to a questionable purpose, was ruled out from the start. There, many veterans expressed a wish for something classical, but once Maya Lin's reflective wall of names was installed, few wished it to be otherwise. I don't want to deny old men, who endured more than we can imagine, the ability to remember. But there could have been better ways than this.


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June 20 2012

Alan Turing: the short, brilliant life and tragic death of an enigma

Codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing's legacy comes to life in a Science Museum exhibition

A German Enigma coding machine on loan from Mick Jagger and a 1950 computer with less calculating power than a smartphone but which was once the fastest in the world, are among the star objects in a new exhibition at the Science Museum devoted to the short, brilliant life and tragic death of the scientist Alan Turing.

"We are in geek heaven," his nephew Sir John Turing said, surrounded by pieces of computing history which are sacred relics to Turing's admirers, including a computer-controlled tortoise that had enchanted the scientist when he saw it at the museum in the 1951 Festival of Britain. "This exhibition is a great tribute to a very remarkable man," Turing said.

"My father was in awe of him, the word genius was often used in speaking of him in the family," he said, "but he also spoke of his eccentricity, of how he cycled to work at Bletchley wearing a gas mask to control his hayfever so the local people he passed dreaded that a gas attack was imminent."

The exhibition, marking the centenary of Turing's birth, tackles both the traumatic personal life and the brilliant science of the man who was a key member of the codebreaking team at Bletchley Park, and devised the Turing Test which is still the measure of artificial intelligence.

Turing was gay, and in 1952 while working at Manchester University, where he had a relationship with a technician called Arnold Murray, he was arrested and charged with gross indecency. He escaped prison only by agreeing to chemical castration through a year's doses of oestrogen – which curator David Rooney said had a devastating effect on him, mentally and physically. In 1954 he was found dead in his bed, a half eaten apple on the table beside him, according to legend laced with the cyanide which killed him.

His mother insisted that his death was accidental, part of an experiment to silver plate a spoon – he had previously gold plated another piece of cutlery by stripping the gold from a pocket watch – with the chemicals found in a pot on the stove. However the coroner's report, also on display, is unequivocal: Turing had consumed the equivalent of a wine glass of poison and the form records bleakly "the brain smelled of bitter almonds".

The death is wreathed with conspiracy theories, but Rooney's explanation for the apple is pragmatic: not an obsession with the poisoned apple in the Disney film of Snow White, as some have claimed, but a very intelligent man who had it ready to bite into to counteract the appalling taste of the cyanide.

His nephew said both the prosecution and death were devastating for the family, but they were delighted by the formal public apology offered in 2009 by then prime minister Gordon Brown.

The campaign for a posthumous pardon is more problematic he said, speaking as a senior partner at the law firm Clifford Chance.

"So many people were condemned properly under the then law for offences which we now see entirely differently. One would not wish to think that Turing won a pardon merely because he is famous, that might be just a step too far. But the suggestion that there might be some reparation by having him appear on the back of a bank note – that might indeed be good."

The exhibition includes the only surviving parts of one of the 200 bombe machines which ran day and night decoding German messages at sites around the country, each weighing a ton and all broken up for scrap after the war. The components were borrowed from the government intelligence centre at GCHQ after tortuous negotiations. Although visitors will not realise it, a short interview filmed at GCHQ is even more exceptional, the only film for public viewing ever permitted inside the Cheltenham complex.

By 1950 when the Pilot Ace computer, on which Turing did key development work, was finally running at the National Physical Laboratory, he had moved to Manchester, impatient at the slow pace of work in the postwar public sector. It is displayed beside a panel of tattered metal, part of a Comet, the first civilian passenger jet, which exploded over the Mediterranean killing all on board: the computer ran the millions of calculations to work out why.

Rooney says the exhibition is also intended to destroy the impression of Turing as a solitary boffin: it includes many of the people he worked with, who regarded him with awe and affection. When he came to see the computer tortoises in 1951 – they responded to light and scuttled back home when the bulb was switched on in their hutches – he also managed to break a game playing computer by recognising the work of a protege and cracking the algorithm on the spot: the computer flashed both "you've won" and "you've lost" messages at him, and then shut itself down in a sulk.

In an interview filmed for the exhibition his last researcher, Professor Bernard Richards of Manchester University, the man he was due to meet on the day of his death, says: "Turing struck me as a genius. He was on a higher plane."

Codebreaker – Alan Turing's life and legacy, free at the Science Museum, London, until June 2013.


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June 13 2012

National Archives publish wartime propaganda in online gallery

Hundreds of images of war art including posters and a portrait of the future queen are released online

Winston Churchill with a jowl or two flatteringly removed, a fierce group of women in pinnies marching out under the banner "Up housewives and at 'em!" to recycle their domestic waste into "planes, guns, tanks, ships & ammunition", and a startling image of the assassination in 1942 of a Nazi officer are among hundreds of images of propaganda and war art from the National Archives in a free Wikimedia online gallery launched this week.

Some were the work of famous artists recruited to help the war effort, including Terence Cuneo, who in 1942 painted the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Holocaust, by a British-trained Czech and Slovak team. Cuneo would go on to become the more tranquil official artist for the 1953 coronation, and coveted by collectors as a painter of railway scenes.

Alongside images of tank warfare and bombers picked out by flames or search lights, and stern-faced military commanders in uniform, there are scores of more domestic scenes, including many connected with the desperate need to increase food production at a time of dire scarcity: a poster offers free transport and accommodation to anyone willing to come and help dig potatoes. Dame Laura Knight, famous as a member of the Newlyn School and as a painter of theatre and ballet scenes, contributed many works, including a lyrical image of a land girl stooping over a plough in a wintry field.

However many of the artists are now barely remembered, and some completely forgotten. A pastel image from 1944, showing the then Princess Elizabeth in uniform but as glamorous as any pin-up, is signed only "Tim".

The archive includes the original artwork for famous propaganda campaigns including Dig For Victory, represented by a heroically patriotic toddler with hoe and shovel, painted by Mary Tunbridge, and an airman being vamped by a sexy blonde over the slogan "Keep mum – she's not so dumb", an image by an unknown artist for the Careless Talk Costs Lives campaign.

The first 330 works launched this week are only the start of a project which will eventually place several thousand images online. Some were drafts or never used, and many of these have pencilled comments by the artists or the War Office: a vivid scene by James Gardner of British bombers attacking a German industrial complex has the withering and heavily underlined note in pencil "bomb racks open from centre and not from side as in your sketch".

Jo Pugh, the education technical officer at the archives, said they wanted to open the extraordinary work of sometimes obscure artists to the widest possible audience. "They are an often overlooked part of Britain's war effort but their themes resonate down the decades," he said.


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January 24 2012

War blossoms into art – in pictures

This Storm Is What We Call Progress is a new exhibition by Israeli-born artist Ori Gersht. The three central works disguise dark and complex themes beneath seductive, beautiful imagery



September 02 2011

Nazis, needlework and my dad

Not many men belong to a stitching group, but Tony Casdagli picked up his enthusiasm for the craft from his father, who kept himself sane by fashioning subversive messages as a PoW

After six months held by the Nazis in a prisoner of war camp, Major Alexis Casdagli was handed a piece of canvas by a fellow inmate. Pinching red and blue thread from a disintegrating pullover belonging to an elderly Cretan general, Casdagli passed the long hours in captivity by painstakingly creating a sampler in cross-stitch. Around decorative swastikas and a banal inscription saying he completed his work in December 1941, the British officer stitched a border of irregular dots and dashes. Over the next four years his work was displayed at the four camps in Germany where he was imprisoned, and his Nazi captors never once deciphered the messages threaded in Morse code: "God Save the King" and "Fuck Hitler".

This subversive needling of the Nazis was a form of defiance that Casdagli, who was not freed from prison until 1945, believed was the duty of every PoW. "It used to give him pleasure when the Germans were doing their rounds," says his son, Tony, of his father's rebellious stitching. It also stopped him going mad. "He would say after the war that the Red Cross saved his life but his embroidery saved his sanity," says Tony. "If you sit down and stitch you can forget about other things, and it's very calming."

Tony should know. The 79-year-old picked up his father's stitching habit after a lifetime at sea serving in the Royal Navy, and from 6 September two of his pieces will feature in a new exhibition opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum called Power of Making. Tony is thrilled, but the relationship between father, son, needlework and suffering is complex and occasionally ambiguous.

The son of a family of Greek cotton merchants with operations in Manchester and Egypt, Tony and his mother, Joyce, were separated from his father when war broke out. During the disastrous allied campaign in Crete, Casdagli was captured. For a month, Joyce had no idea whether he was alive or dead; for a year, Casdagli did not receive any letters or parcels.

Most of Casdagli's confinement was spent in a German castle. Life for a British officer was not as brutal as it was in Japanese camps but it still involved terror, hunger and deprivation. Casdagli scrupulously wrote down and crossed out every day in pencil in a small black notebook. "He was very meticulous," recalls Tony, more than once. Casdagli made lists of everything – every window pane broken in bombing raids, every letter sent and received. He recorded "Improvisations", such as making a "watch stand" from a "broom handle & incendiary bomb" and "Reflections" on hunger: "Unable to remember in which hand to use knife and fork on arrival of first Red Cross parcel."

Most of all, though, Casdagli recorded his anger and frustration in cross-stitch. He had picked up sewing skills from elderly relatives and, when Red Cross parcels began arriving (containing hairbrushes with secret compartments that concealed maps, which the prisoners annotated with intelligence and smuggled out), he acquired materials. He also borrowed more threads from his old Cretan general friend – this time from his pyjamas.

When Tony was 11, he received a stitched letter through the post. "It is 1,581 days since I saw you last but it will not be long now. Do you remember when I fell down the well? Look after Mummy till I get home again," Casdagli laboriously spelled out with finely stitched letters.

In a bleak, claustrophobic part-map and part-diagram, his father created a needlework of "Room 13, Spangenberg castle". The stitching depicted inmates' cells, a few lumps of coal, a sign saying "bath every 14 days", and a menu: "soup, potatoes, wurst, bread, semolina". At the bottom was a Union flag. National flags were forbidden in the camp, so Casdagli sewed a canvas flap over it with "do not open" written on it in German. "Each week the same officer would open the flap and say, 'This is illegal,' and Pa said, 'You're showing it, I'm not showing it.'"

Captured officers played cricket and other games to pass the time, but needlework proved surprisingly popular: Casdagli ran a class for 40 officers. Was his "Fuck Hitler" gesture a great risk? "It would certainly have been torn down and he would've been put in solitary confinement or worse," says Tony. But he does not believe his father would have been executed. Despite seeing a fellow inmate shot in the back for accidentally tripping an alarm, Casdagli stuck to his policy of being unrelentingly unco-operative. One Christmas, a senior British officer struck a deal with his German counterpart that no one would try to escape, in exchange for a comfortable Christmas. Casdagli stayed in bed and refused to eat. "Pa was very cross about that. One of the few duties a PoW had was to make life as uncomfortable as possible for his captors by trying to escape," says Tony.

Among his father's works hanging above the stairs in the London home that Tony shares with his second wife, Sally, is a small, sad piece. It lists the years 1939 to 1943 alongside Joyce's initials and the words: "Any day now." It was to be another two years before Casdagli saw his wife and son again. In April 1945, in an "absolute daze", he was flown back to Britain, given a cursory medical and £10. Then he caught two buses to find his way home. Joyce had gone to pick up Tony from school. "At 12 noon, they arrived, and my cup of happiness was FULL," wrote Casdagli in his diaries.

Sadly, his joy could not so simply erase four traumatic years in captivity. Tony describes his father as "very frustrated" when he returned. His time in prison unsettled him, and soon afterwards he went to Greece to fight in the civil war. He met his second wife there.

Meanwhile, Tony entered the navy, and hardly saw his father. He "half-heartedly" stitched as a teenager, but at sea he was always too busy to do it. When he retired from the navy, however, he and Sally, with their daughter Lucy, moved to Highgate, north London near where his father kept a flat.

Then on holiday in Cornwall, the retired son and his elderly father began stitching together. "We used to sit alongside each other doing it. Pa didn't talk very much, but we would sit and talk a bit while we did it. There were so many questions I should've asked and didn't," says Tony. "I never asked him why he pinched the old general's wool."

Stitching requires discipline and patience, two qualities Tony must have inherited from his father, but the two men developed unique styles. Tony's father created intricate symmetrical patterns. "He didn't have an enormous imagination, Pa. He liked doing things rather than inventing things," says Tony. In contrast, Tony enjoys designing his needlework. Six years ago, the wife of an old naval friend introduced Tony to the Chelsea Women's Cross-stitch group. Tony became the only male member, mentored by Joyce Conwy Evans, whose work is displayed in Canterbury cathedral and the V&A.

Tony is self-deprecating about his work, but not self-conscious. He used to enjoy stitching while waiting at airports, but cannot any longer because his needles are banned airside. "I'd sit and do my needlework after going through the gate, and people would gradually move away from me," he jokes. Now he tends to stitch in the evenings, when Sally is reading. Most of his works get sent to his five children, who live all around the world. Each grandchild receives a special piece; sons get the poem If by Rudyard Kipling. He is currently stitching one for his latest grandchild, Griffin, which depicts the mythical creature with the body of a lion and an eagle's head and wings.

Major Casdagli died in 1996, aged 90. Did he approve of his son taking on his passion? "Towards the end of his life not quite so much, because he thought we were in competition," says Tony. Having said that, Tony and Sally agree he "would be so thrilled" that Tony's work is to be exhibited alongside the creations of professional craftsmen and women in the V&A. Major Casdagli's stitching was born out of suffering, but later it became a particularly fiercely pursued habit. "He did it for defiance to start with, then he did it because he did it," says Tony. "He hated finishing them because it meant he had to do something else. He loved doing something slavishly. He was a great slave."

Power of Making is at the V&A from Tuesday until 2 January 2012, www.vam.ac.uk. A Stitch in Time: God Save the King – Fu*k Hitler! by Captain A Casdagli, available from lulu.com. Tony Casdagli is participating in a free workshop at the V&A. Crafting the Collection: Power of Making, 17 September, 11am-4pm.


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July 09 2011

Statue looted from church in the Blitz returned

A 17th-century statue stolen from a London church in 1941 was spotted at an auction house

A treasured 17th-century statue that was looted from one of London's last-surviving medieval churches during the Blitz has been returned to its rightful owners more than 70 years after it disappeared.

The work, a sculpted and painted likeness of Dr Peter Turner, an eminent 17th-century botanist and physician at London's St Bartholomew's hospital, was stolen from St Olave's church near the Tower of London on the night of 17 April 1941, when bombing severely damaged the church.

Last month, the 1614 statue was finally brought back home to the church, restored in the 1950s, ending a 14-month legal dispute, which exposed the art trade's failure to question the origin of works being sold on.

In 2009, churchwardens received a tip-off from the Museum of London that the statue was about to be sold by Dreweatts, a British auctioneer, on behalf of an anonymous seller for an estimated £70,000.

The church lodged a claim, and Dreweatts withdrew the statue from auction, retaining it until the case was resolved. The seller rejected calls to hand it back, insisting he had acquired it in good faith. The Art Loss Register, which liaises with the police and the art trade to help track down stolen artworks, waived its fees to take up the church's cause. Detective work by the register's lawyer, Christopher A. Marinello, revealed a chain of previous buyers included Paul de Grande, a Belgian ecclesiastical dealer, who had bought the statue from a trader in Holland who, in turn, had named a British dealer, Gray Dench from West Malling, as the original seller. Marinello's research showed that the name was false and the trail led him to Gray Elcombe, who operated as an antique dealer and had been imprisoned for serious crimes.

Marinello said: "I do not believe that de Grande or the Dutch dealer knew that this bust was stolen. The legal issues involved are very complex and will likely be discussed in art law publications in the future. However, both dealers knew that the bust originated from St. Olave's. One simple phone call to St. Olave's would have brought the true history to light."

The Dutch dealer declined to comment, but de Grande told The Observer that he did not ring St Olave's because wartime photographs of its bombed state led him to believe it had been destroyed. In fact, St Olave's stonework was largely reconstructed in the early 1950s.

He detailed its connection to St Olave's to the auction-house - information which, he said, ultimately led to its return.

The statue, which had stood in St Olave's for centuries, surviving the Great Fire of 1666 and watching over the resting place of diarist Samuel Pepys, will undergo conservation work before being reinstalled in the church.


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May 05 2011

Online database of art looted by Nazis points to a more complex history

Hitler's looting of artworks was not exceptional. The quest to find them is really an expression of revulsion at his true crimes

A troubling detail caught my eye in the new online archive of documents relating to art works looted by the Nazis. At the first meeting of the British Committee on the Preservation and Restitution of Works of Art in 1944, the critic Kenneth Clark "drew attention to the reported destruction of churches such as San Francesco at Arezzo", which, he said, "suggested that our bombing was not always accurate".

Clark's warning seems to have fallen on deaf ears – it just hangs there in the document, a footnote to the committee's plans to hound German art thieves and their collaborators. But he was right. British and American bombing strategists paid little attention to the safety of cultural treasures in 1944 and 1945. As a result they destroyed infinitely precious works of art, including an entire fresco cycle by Benozzo Gozzoli in Pisa and masterpieces by Caravaggio and Courbet in German museums.

This archive has not been created to mourn those casualties of war. It is part of a pursuit of Nazi art looters and the collections that benefited from their wholesale seizure of art from Jewish owners, many of whom died in the Holocaust. These documents are intended to help researchers establish provenances and descendants of the rightful owners bring law cases to reclaim family property, often from famous museums. But do the documents actually aid this quest, or point to a more complex history?

At that same meeting in 1944, the British committee took the relevant clauses of the Treaty of Versailles as its model. In fact the war settlement in 1945 would go out of its way to avoid the harsh measures of Versailles. Some might read the documents that show the frustration of the committee's ambitions to reclaim art in liberated Europe as a record of betrayal: "We consider this scheme premature and unworkable," notes an official. But surely it was not so much betrayal as a deliberate avoidance of Versailles-style punitive measures.

Were the Nazis the most destructive art looters in history? The documents here give ample evidence of how brutally they appropriated art. In the bunker, Hitler admired plans for his great art museum as a distraction in his final days. But Napoleon had stolen the treasures of Italy, and some are still in Paris. As for the Rosetta Stone that his troops took from Egypt, the British restored it – to London.

No, it is not the art looting of Hitler's Germany that was exceptional. Hitler's true crimes were genocide and mass murder. The quest for every artwork looted by the Reich is really an expression of revulsion at those crimes.

But how is anyone brought back when a painting by Klimt is legally removed from an Austrian museum, sold for a record price, and hung in a museum in New York? This is what happened to Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I in 2006. This painting of a Jewish collector had shone in Vienna as a glorious reminder of the Jewish character of this city in the golden age of Klimt and Freud. In removing it, and selling it abroad, the campaigners for restitution actually diminished the evidence of Vienna's Jewish heritage in the city itself – a strange victory for truth.


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Archive of artworks stolen by Nazis goes online

Catalogue launched to help historians and families trace art looted during Hitler era

Despite a reputation for reaching for their revolvers at the merest mention of culture, the Nazis were among the most ruthless, avaricious and methodical art collectors ever to cast a greedy eye and thieving hand over other people's property.

"Use every means of transport to get all works of art out of Florence … [save] works of art from English and Americans," ran one of Heinrich Himmler's orders. "In fine get anything away that you can get hold of. Heil Hitler."

That appetite for the most beautiful and precious works of European art saw thousands of pieces stolen from their owners between 1933 and 1945 and entire collections raided, scattered and lost.

The quest to recover them and, where possible, return them to their rightful places has been under way for almost seven decades.

Now, thanks to a deal between some of the world's leading archives and museums, an online catalogue of documents has been created to help families, historians and researchers track down the missing artworks.

Under an agreement signed on Thursday by organisations including Britain's National Archives, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, the US National Archives and Records Administration (Nara) and Germany's Bundesarchiv, the records will be available through a single web portal.

The records include files documenting the systematic expropriation of Jewish property, Adolf Hitler's plans to establish a Führermuseum crammed with looted art in his Austrian hometown of Linz and the interrogation of art dealers.

The British documents, which cover the years 1939 to 1961, also lay out the efforts made to identify the stolen works and reunite them with their owners.

Among them is a report from a British art expert and RAF intelligence officer who was dispatched to Switzerland in 1945. The paper may have faded to yellow, but Douglas Cooper's exasperation with the Swiss authorities remains fresh to this day.

"Until I arrived here five weeks ago, practically nothing had been done," he writes. "And still no steps have been taken by the Swiss government to put the looted pictures in security. This means that it is still possible for any of the present holders to dispose of them."

Cooper concedes that "a new spirit seems to have made its appearance" since his arrival, but appeals for Foreign Office support in ensuring that dispossessed owners do not have to make individual claims through the Swiss courts "because the issue is a moral one".

The National Archives and the Commission for Looted Art in Europe have worked together for two years to catalogue and digitise more than 128,000 pages of information, ranging from seizure orders and inventories to images of looted works and reports of the transfer of stolen pieces to neutral countries.

All the original British government files have been scanned in colour and are searchable by name, place, subject and date.

The aim of the enterprise, according to Oliver Morley, chief executive and keeper of the National Archives, is to provide unprecedented access to the past.

"By digitising and linking archival records online, researchers will be able to piece together the stories of what became of cultural objects, be they books, paintings, sculpture, jewellery or any other stolen artefacts from evidence fragmented across borders and languages," he said.

Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said that while records from the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, the US, and Ukraine were now accessible online, other countries – including Switzerland, Poland and Italy – also held documents that could help families and historians.

"It's been enormously difficult for families to access these records because before you had to physically go to them," she said. "But now they're all digitised and you can search by the name of the victim, the perpetrator, the artist and the artwork. It will dramatically change the possibilities for people, but there's still more to come."


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April 21 2011

Museum to return $44m Klimt painting seized by Nazis

Researchers discover Gustav Klimt's piece, Litzlberg am Attersee, was confiscated during second world war

An Austrian museum has announced plans to return a precious Gustav Klimt painting to the heir of its rightful owner after researchers discovered it was confiscated by Nazis during the second world war.

The painting, Litzlberg am Attersee, currently owned by the modern art museum MdM Salzburg, could be worth as much as €30m ($44m).

Research showed that the Nazis seized the 96-year-old painting from an apartment of a woman named Amalie Redlich in a village near Vienna. Redlich was deported to Poland, where she was killed, Salzburg deputy governor Wilfried Haslauer and the head of the museum, Toni Stooss, told reporters. Her 83-year-old grandson, Georges Jorisch, lives in Montreal, Canada.

The painting was bought by Salzburg art collector and dealer Friedrich Welz who exchanged it in 1944 for a piece from Salzburg's state gallery. It was subsequently taken over by the state gallery's successor, the Salzburger Residenzgalerie, in 1952 and later became part of the inventory of Salzburg's modern art museum.

"This is looted art, there's absolutely no question about that," Haslauer said in comments carried by Austrian radio Oe1.

Redlich's heir is her 83-year-old grandson, Georges Jorisch, who lives in Montreal, Canada, according to Haslauer's spokesman, Thomas Kerschbaum.

Salzburg's government now has to decide whether to proceed with the restitution, as recommended by Haslauer. It is expected do so by this summer, Kerschbaum said.

Jorisch's lawyer, Alfred J. Noll, appeared impressed by the way the matter has been handled so far.

"In no other case have I experienced such openness and objectivity during the discussion of individual points," Noll said in comments also carried by Oe1. He said Stooss met personally with Jorisch.

The likely restitution is a reminder of the return in 2006 of five other Klimt paintings by Vienna's Belvedere gallery to the late Maria Altmann of Los Angeles, niece of a Viennese art patron. Altmann had waged a seven-year fight for their return. An arbitration court had ruled that they were improperly seized by the Nazis who annexed Austria in 1938.

Austria has returned looted works of art held by federal museums to their rightful owners or heirs, most of them Jewish, under a 1998 restitution law.


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January 06 2011

Prefabs out

The Excalibur prefab estate in south London may be scruffy, but it's a precious chapter in the nation's story worth preserving

As history, south London's Catford lacks pzazz. It has none of the raw brutalism of its neighbour, Lewisham, or the old world charm of Peckham. Sandwiched between Hither Green cemetery and the Ravensbourne ditch, it is one long aesthetic groan. But it nurtures in its bosom the largest surviving 1940s prefab estate in Britain, admirably named Excalibur. Lewisham council wants to throw it, like the fabled sword, into the lake of oblivion. This week Excalibur was declared fit only for demolition.

If this was Camden or Kensington or Islington such demolition would be unthinkable. Conservationist armies would rally round this eccentric enclave of 187 houses, complete with dig-for-victory outhouses and a curious tin-roofed church. But then if there were prefabs in those boroughs, they would have been demolished years ago. So is their surviving anywhere into the 21st century a vice or a virtue?

Prefabs were a blind alley of postwar rehousing. Churchill thought it a bright idea to use Spitfire factories to make components for mass-produced houses for people bombed out of their homes. They were bungalows of four rooms around a central service core, put down wherever a site was free, including if necessary a graveyard.

The project was a typical Whitehall cock-up. Five ministries were involved, delays mounted and costs soared. Originally priced at £500 each, which was already more than suburban semis had cost before the war, the prefabs cost £1,300. This meant they rented at 13 shillings, against a local council house at five shillings. Private and civic builders – who in France, Germany and Poland were busily restoring old homes – in Britain were starved of permits and resources, while Londoners squatted in ruins and slept in the underground.

Only 156,000 prefabs were eventually built, but they proved remarkably popular. They were not flats but "a home of our own". And they lasted. Though most were barely insulated wood frames, occupants were able to maintain them and keep them standing long after their official 10-year lives. Excalibur is the largest complete estate to survive, built by PoWs of Rommel's Afrika Korps before they returned to Germany.

This is today an extraordinary place. The demure terraces of south London give way to what might be a shack estate on Canvey Island. Both council tenants and owner-occupiers have decked their facades in fanlights, coaching lanterns and fake rustication. Gardens are crammed with gnomes and some have smart cars parked in front. The estate's champion, Jim Blackender, whose website is a model of community action, has bedecked his home as if expecting the England football team to arrive.

The whole enclave is an anarchic contrast to the anonymity of the system-built deck-access slabs that usually supplanted the prefabs, now being demolished as uninhabitable and impossible to maintain. The tenants of the vast Aylesbury estate across south London scream, "Get us out of here", but their salvation is expensive and endlessly postponed. Yet no ideologues are so dyed-in-the-wool as Britain's public housing officials, who have long regarded the chaotic individualism manifest in the prefab as intolerably antisocial and to be "designed out".

Lewisham council wants Excalibur gone. Residents were recently offered Hobson's choice, of agreeing to demolition and rehousing or the estate being sold to a private developer – and demolished. Even under such pressure only 56% opted for the first choice. The government has meekly listed six of the 187 for preservation, but none is worth preserving on its own. It would be like listing six houses in Belgrave Square. English Heritage has also refused to introduce conservation area control, on the strange grounds that "this would be imposing our view from above". Surely that is its job.

What to preserve is always a balance. This week a more celebrated prefab was in the news, Captain Scott's hut in the Antarctic. The appeal to preserve it in situ has raised more than £3m. Hardly anyone can ever see it. It could have been lifted, lock, stock and barrel, to the Science Museum. But it must be right to protect it where history and circumstance put it, a memorial to an extraordinary moment in world exploration.

So why not Catford? Conservation is enveloped in class. Labour housing ministers such as Yvette Cooper spent millions on consultants trying to demolish 19th-century streets in Merseyside and elsewhere, on the patronising grounds that old buildings were too good for working-class northerners. Much of London's housing was likewise declared unfit for human habitation after the war. From Chelsea through Camden and Shoreditch to the docks, there are terraces, mews and warehouses saved in the nick of time from the bulldozer, offering acceptable homes for rich and poor. Every property, even a prefab, has its price, as those who bought houses in Excalibur attest. Lewisham, like Cooper, is using a bulldozer where a chisel and screwdriver would do.

All historic buildings might be moved to museums to make way for something more profitable, or merely new. We could move old theatres, pubs, council chambers, even Shakespeare's birthplace. The whole of historic Britain could be dumped in a museum. Prefabs have already been moved to the Chiltern Open Air Museum and Avoncroft Museum in Worcestershire, where they look most odd.

We save buildings not just for their beauty. We save them for their visual variety and the memories they evoke in individuals and communities. I suppose the back alleys of Mayfair and the City of London, its churches, parks and squares, all get in the way of development. They serve no profitable purpose that cannot be supplied by a gherkin, a shard or a piazza. Yet we preserve them because we know they enrich the life of the city. They relieve its monotony and protect qualities of surprise and repose that modern design can no longer supply. There are no curved alleys or intimate lanes in today's architecture.

Excalibur is scruffy and working class. It probably offends a Niagara of government regulations. It costs someone's money to maintain and can, I am sure, evoke a pundit to say it is a reminder of a bad past. These arguments were used in the 1970s to fill in Southwark's Grand Surrey Canal with rubble, wiping out a slice of its people's history and an invaluable future amenity. The people of north London apparently merited a canal, but that was too dangerous for south Londoners.

We still find it hard to move forward without snapping the chains of the past. The prefab estate is a small piece of working-class history, no less worthy for not being conventionally beautiful. It is a chapter in the nation's story, when misguided, utopian bureaucrats came face to face with their own incompetence. Yet the result was a building that curiously struck a chord with a group of men and women who had been traumatised. They had lost the castles of their dreams, and now found them again. To walk around Excalibur today is to know this is still true. Like Scott's hut, it is a passing moment made permanent. It should not be demolished.


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Letters: Prefabs, Fabs and mass demolition

The Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage are barking up the wrong tree in trying to "save" the prefab Excalibur estate in Lewisham (Anger over plans to demolish historic prefab estate, 3 January). The Excalibur residents' long struggle is a lesson about how people want to live together. It is not about preserving the fabric of damp, decaying homes well past their habitable lifetimes.

It is not a miracle that these homes have survived for so long. It is almost wholly due to hard work by the tenants and their management organisation. Stability and a supportive community at Excalibur grew from a feeling of "being in control", living in homes which are compact and easy to run, providing dignity and independence at an affordable rent.

Sadly, the pressures on housing in inner London don't encourage building detached bungalows. This has been taken on board by Excalibur residents, who for years have been developing plans to translate their ideals into achievable new homes, fit and decent, as they deserve.

Yes, let's study and respect the prefab history. A few examples to demonstrate one short-term solution, fitted to its time in the immediate devastation of war, would be better placed in a museum.

Caroline Mayow

London

• The campaign to save 9 Madryn Street is as much about stopping the council erasing an entire neighbourhood as about preserving Ringo Starr's birthplace (Comment, 4 January). The Ringo connection is important, and useful – as it grabs headlines – but the real story is the battle to stop a deluded council pursuing a regressive policy of mass demolition.

William Palin

Secretary, Save Britain's Heritage


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November 08 2010

Sculptural witnesses to Nazi lunacy go on display

Modernist sculptures confiscated for being 'degenerate' appear in exhibition after being unearthed on a Berlin building site

For seven decades they lay underground, considered lost for ever after being confiscated by the Nazis from Germany's leading art galleries and labelled "degenerate".

But 10 bronze and terracotta sculptures which have been discovered on a Berlin building site are to go on display tomorrow leading the city's mayor to describe the figures as "witnesses to Nazi lunacy".

Described by experts as gems of classic modernism, the sculptures are mostly of the female form, including a pregnant woman and one of a Weimar actor, Anni Mewes.

That sculpture by Edwin Scharff, along with ones by Otto Baum, Naum Slutzky, Karl Knappe, Marg Moll, Gustav Heinrich Wolff, Otto Freundlich and Emy Roeder, were among 15,000 works gathered from museums across Germany in the 1930s by the Nazi regime and labelled "entartet" – deviant or degenerate.

The label was given to any art considered to clash with Nazi ideals such as nationalism, physical and mental strength and Aryan supremacy.

The works were put on display in a Munich exhibition of degenerate art in 1937, which subsequently toured the country. Following the tour, they were either destroyed or sold.

The rediscovery of the sculptures – in total there were 12, but two were too badly damaged to go on show – was something of an unexpected find.

Excavation work on a site in front of Berlin's town hall ahead of the construction of an underground railway line extension was focusing on recovering 13th-century artefacts when a metal sculpture was unearthed in January. The final one was uncovered last month.

Just how the works ended up in what used to be an office block at what was then 50 Koenigsstrasse, remains a mystery.

But historians are researching the theory that the sculptures were salvaged by Erhard Oewerdieck, a stockbroker who had rented office space on the fourth floor in 1941.

Oewerdieck and his wife Charlotte helped Jewish citizens escape from the city during the war, for which the couple were later honoured by Israel.

Fire destroyed the building following a bombing raid.

Although the sculptures were found in the basement it is likely they had fallen through from a higher floor when the building collapsed. Matthias Wemhoff, director of the Neues museum, where the fire and smoke-stained works are going on display, called the find "unique".

He said: "Never have works of art of this background or value been found during an excavation.

"The discovery emphasises the importance of undertaking archaeological investigations in the city centre."

Over 200 similar excavations have taken place in the German capital since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in a period that has seen the city dug up and rebuilt more than at any other time in its history.

Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, said the exhibition, Degenerate Art from the Bomb Rubble, was a "belated act of defiance" against the Nazis' attempts to destroy the works of art, which he called "witnesses to Nazi lunacy".


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Uncovered: art that the Nazis mocked

Gallery: Art dug up recently in Berlin was part of an exhibition intended by the Nazis to mock modern art



October 30 2010

10 best British war artworks

Broadcaster Jon Snow picks his favourite artistic interpretations of war

1 Jeremy Deller It Is What It Is (2009)

Deller towed this Baghdad taxi round America, provoking debate wherever he went. It was blown up on a Baghdad street dominated by bookshops and it was no accident that the car bombers chose that particular street; they devastated what the insurgents regarded as a hub of decadent western culture. Deller spent six months, accompanied by an Iraqi refugee and a GI, stopping in towns and cities across the US, connecting Americans with the Iraq war. Having starred in the Contemporary Art Museum in Chicago, the taxi has finally arrived in pole position at London's Imperial War Museum.

2 John Piper Interior of Coventry Cathedral (1940)

Piper concentrated on this emblematic casualty of the second world war. The scene he paints in savage technicolour "the morning after the Blitz" stands almost unaltered today. Coventry took the full impact of the German reprisal for the allied bombing of Germany. Along with the loss of life, this was the overnight destruction of a religious icon, a cathedral that had survived the elements for more than half a millennium. Piper was young enough to play a role in the decoration of the Basil Spence building that rose from the ashes.

3 Percy Wyndham Lewis A Battery Shelled (1919)

Only by executing this painting after the first world war's end did Wyndham Lewis get away with it. Richard Nevinson had already been censored for his attempt to depict the true human cost of war by showing two dead Tommies lying unburied above a trench. Lewis deploys the remnants of both cubism and futurism in his portrayal of the devastation of targeted attack. He had served in the artillery in 1916 and so had first-hand knowledge of his subject matter. He shows a dead gunner being buried following an attack on an artillery battery.

4 Stanley Spencer Resurrection (1927)

This climactic piece sits above the altar at Sandham memorial chapel, Burghclere. It's a vast mural that ranges from reunited friends in heaven to the bodies of dead horses on a battlefield littered with crosses, and a tiny figure of Christ. Upon securing the commission Spencer cried: "What ho, Giotto!" He did not exaggerate. Had he painted this, and the other murals alongside, in a Wren church in the City, instead of in this remote Hampshire village, it might have become one of the most visited spots in Great Britain.

5 John Keane Mickey Mouse at the Front (1991)

Keane was the official British war artist on the front line in the Gulf war. Here, he paints the incongruities of war. He has something of Spencer's eye for detail – a shopping trolley full of rocket- propelled grenades, a bedraggled and brutally mangled palm tree and the bizarre appearance of Mickey Mouse. The awkward juxtaposition of American imagery (almost certainly carried to war as a mascot) imposed on a backdrop of a foreign land of which the invader probably knew little and cared less - it's perhaps one instance of war art as anti-war.

6 Steve McQueen Queen and Country (2007)

A completely brilliant three-dimensional tribute to the British soldiers who died in the Iraq war. It's an individual sheet of stamps intended for postal circulation (but poignantly refused by the Post Office) stored on individual, wooden- framed plates in an oak, coffin-shaped cabinet. To the naked eye, they appear like any other run of stamps, but down each side a short statement of age, rank and place of death sets them apart from the norm. One feels this piece will stand the test of time.

7 Henry Moore Tube Shelter Perspective (1941)

Moore spent many hours during the Blitz down in the Aldwych station on London's Piccadilly line. This was the sanctuary for hundreds of Londoners sheltering from the bombing above. Executed in pencil, ink wax and watercolour, this is an eerie work of ghostly pale shades. The sleeping bodies have the look of a regiment of corpses. It was exhibited above ground, along the road at the National Gallery, taking up space on walls vacated by the collection of old masters that had been carted off to Cheshire salt mines for safe keeping.

8 John Singer Sargent Gassed (1919)

One of the single most arresting images of the first world war. Blinded by gas, a column of soldiers stumbles across the battlefield. Yet in the far distance of this enormous canvas you can see other men playing football. It provides an intriguing insight into something Spencer worked on, the intermingling of the horror of war with the normality of life. Sargent went to France in the closing months of the war and was commissioned to paint this for a Hall of Remembrance. It hangs to this day on permanent display in a section of the Imperial War Museum set aside for that purpose.

9 Paul Nash We Are Making a New World (1918)

The fruitlessness and desolation of war is summed up in this painting. It remains one of the most important works of the first world war art. The portrayal of sheer havoc expressed through broken trees, devastated roadways, an absence of houses and all life. Nash was spared by falling into a trench and sustaining an ankle injury that necessitated his being invalided out. But not before writing, in letters home to his mother in England, harrowing accounts of what he had seen.

10 Richard Nevinson Column on the March (1915)

A sensational picture displaying the power of Nevinson's groundbreaking futurist commitment. He depicts a phalanx of French soldiers marching to war as one unbroken spiky metallic war machine. Utterly brilliant, but, poor man, he believed the first world war would be the making of futurism. He regarded it as potentially the greatest arena for the futurist movement until he ended up working the trenches for the ambulance brigade. He suffered a nervous breakdown and although he painted more wonderful stuff, his dream of futurism was significantly tempered and he with it.

Jon Snow's The Art of War is on Channel 4 on Wednesday (as part of The Genius of British Art series). An accompanying lecture is at the National Gallery on Friday at 6.30pm (nationalgallery.org.uk)


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August 05 2010

Hiroshima anniversary marked by exhibition

Exhibition's harrowing portraits act as grim reminder of the continuing legacy of the events of 6 August 1945

At 8.15am on 6 August 1945 the lives of Setsuko Morita, her husband, Noboru, and those of everyone they knew changed forever. They were school pupils in Hiroshima, both freed from study to work in the fields on Japan's wartime food production, at the moment the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on their city.

Their portraits are among those of 65 survivors in a London exhibition opening tomorrow, including those of a woman and her baby who are third and fourth-generation Hibakusha – literally bomb-affected people – and a man who was just a foetus in his mother's womb on August 6 1945 and who is too embarrassed to use his survivor's card. It is the first time the portraits have been seen outside Japan.

The Moritas, explained Setsuko, are quiet people who married when they were 18 but "were never fortunate enough to have the blessing of children" – almost certainly as a result of injuries she suffered that day. They have come to London driven by the same urge which created the exhibition – to bear witness to what happened so that it will never happen again.

Setsuko Morita managed to stagger home after the bombing with 25% burns, through roads where every building was gone, crowded with people bearing terrible injuries, pleading for water. Her parents treated her for a week with three buckets of sterilised water and baby powder until they finally got her to a doctor. She overheard a conversation in which her mother said it would be better if she died, while her father argued that her life might still be worth living.

Noboru, meanwhile, spent the next three months working in his school, just beside his family home, which became a hospital, morgue, crematorium and cemetery. He watched many people die in what had been his classroom, begging for water. He spent most of every day searching for wells and springs because the mains had been destroyed and the river was choked with wreckage and bodies.

The portraits are by Professor Hideo Ohya, a renowned artist in Japan, and by colleagues and postgraduate students at Hiroshima city university. A postwar baby, it was only when he moved from Tokyo to head the art faculty that he realised how limited his understanding of the fate of the city had been. As he began to meet survivors he realised that the youngest were approaching old age and there would soon be no first-hand witnesses. Gradually members of the university staff came forward, volunteering to have their own portraits included. Many in the city have hidden their status as a badge of shame that still attracts fear of contamination.

The exhibition has come to London through Paul Stafford of Kingston university, who found them almost unbearably moving even though none show obvious disfigurement. He saw the portraits as a way of fostering links between the two institutions.

The Brunei gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies in Russell Square, which has a Japanese garden on the roof where a private ceremony will be held to mark the exact time of the atomic bomb explosion, proved the perfect space for the exhibition.

Like many of those portrayed, Noboru Morita looks remarkably calm and cheerful – but that is one of the side effects he bears. He has been on anti-depressants for 20 years to calm his growing dread of cancers and other long-term effects suffered by many of the survivors. He felt angry for years, baffled and even resentful of his own survival, never speaking of them but deeply affected by the scenes he witnessed.

His wife, in her portrait as in life, looks tranquil and immaculate. Only when she pushes back her sleeves do the streaks of white scars along the outside of one arm and the inside of the other show.

The Light - portraits of the Hibakusha, Brunei Gallery, London, free, until 8 October

Portrait profiles

A mother holding her baby symbolises the generations affected by the Hiroshimo bombing. Born in 2007 and aged just one in this portrait, the boy is a third-generation atomic bomb survivor on his father's side and a fourth-generation survivor on his mother's.

"Children are the lights that connect us to the future, they are hope and the joy of being alive. I hope peace will last, for the sake of our children," his mother says. His grandmother and great-grandparents are also part of the project.

Painted by Hideo Ohya, professor of art at Hiroshimo city university and creator of the project, Setsuko Morita was 13 at the time of the bombing. On returning home her parents tended to her burns with rationed ointment. She married fellow survivor, Noboru, at the age of 18 and believes strongly in speaking about her experiences. She has re-counted them at schools in Japan and New York.

Walking with his mother towards the family field, Noboru Morita was 13 when the atomic bomb exploded. Noboru helped to care for the injured at the refuge set up at the school behind his half-demolished home.

He moved away after marrying Setsuko but returned to the city at the age of 55. Keeping his survivor status a secret for many years he has, through the encouragement of his wife, gradually become able to speak about his experiences.

Ami Sedghi


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June 25 2010

Piet Mondrian's forgotten years

The Dutch artist's spell in London in the late 1930s is often overlooked – but he was busy making new paintings, new friends and developing his passion for Disney's Snow White

The Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) is regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. His characteristic canvases, made up of bold grids of vertical and horizontal black lines interspersed with a narrow range of coloured rectangles and squares, influenced generations of artists as well as designers and advertisers.

When he died in New York in 1944, aged 72, his uncompromising abstraction, regarded as the pinnacle of avant-garde art, was renowned in both America and Europe. Since then his paintings have sold for millions. Recently, a painting dated 1922 from Yves Saint Laurent's collection went for £17m. However, the two years that Mondrian lived in London between 1938 and 1940 is less celebrated. While it was known that he spent time in the capital, living among some of the great artists and architects of the day, this period has been largely overlooked. Previously, scholars viewed his time in London as unproductive and thoroughly miserable, but in fact Mondrian was busy making new paintings, socialising with new friends as well as developing a private passion for Walt Disney.

He came to London from Paris in September 1938, accompanied by friend and fellow artist Winifred Nicholson, primarily to escape the threat of a German invasion. With the help of artists Naum Gabo and Ben Nicholson he was quickly settled into a Hampstead flat (there is now a blue plaque marking the spot), receiving gifts of furniture and clothes (including a much-appreciated pair of slippers from Gabo). He soon transformed his living space into a Mondrian-style space – painting over the brown walls and minimal furniture in a brilliant white, "with the odd patch of red" – as if creating a 3D version of his paintings.

From here he laboriously and painstakingly worked on new canvases, "greatly influenced by different surroundings" – that of the empty wide streets and imposing residential blocks in Belsize Park and Hampstead, as well as ancient tourist sites such as the Tower of London. He sent postcards of these new places to his brother Carel, telling him excitedly of his progress in his new city. As well as these architectural curiosities, Mondrian sent his brother a whole series of uncharacteristically lighthearted postcards of Disney's Snow White (which he had seen with his brother in Paris in early 1938), most written in the playful personae of several of the dwarves in the film. It shows a very different side to the usually sombre artist.

In one he writes how the "landlord has had my room cleaned by Snow White and the squirrel has whitewashed the walls with his tail". He signs the card "Sleepy" (he calls Carel "Sneezy"). In another he writes that the "dwarves don't have enough time to help me themselves but send squirrels and birds" – a reference to the artists who had helped him.

He never mentioned his quirky passion for Snow White to his London friends but had had, as he wrote, "a record with the music of the dwarves on it, and quite often play it". He told his brother that he had seen the plaster versions – garden gnomes – in London shops.

These jovial, colourful figures were not the only visual interest that Mondrian took beyond his painting. He had a fascination for women's shoes – the brighter the colour the better. Joan and Robin Ody, who lived nearby, became good friends of the artist. Joan remembers many evenings with the "dear old man", during which she regularly darned his socks. Mondrian would be a witness at their wedding in July 1940, and gave the couple one of his paintings as a wedding present.

While Mondrian's personal life remained notoriously private, he often enjoyed the company of women. As the legendary New York art dealer Sidney Janis put it, "girls floated around him". He went shopping for painter's smocks with Miriam Gabo (Naum's wife) and danced with Peggy Guggenheim and Virginia Pevsner in the London jazz clubs. Mondrian's love of jazz and dancing was well-known, but Miriam Gabo remembered that he "was a terrible dancer … Virginia hated it and I hated it. We had to take turns dancing with him."

Not everyone immediately warmed to the artist, and his cool exterior was famous. The author and peace activist Margaret Gardiner remembered seeing him at a party and noticed how he "stood very stiffly, with straight arms pressed close to his sides as though defending himself against some dangerous intrusion. [He was] … a Dutch puritan, akin to the stern Arnolfini."

Mondrian preferred discussing art with his male friends, his closest being the artist John Cecil Stephenson, who lived nearby in Mall Studios. As well as regularly meeting and talking about art, Stephenson would often drive Mondrian into town, so he could visit the London sights, see exhibitions and meet friends.

In this brief period, Mondrian was asked to show his work in key London galleries, and he exhibited several new paintings, including one in Guggenheim's short-lived gallery on Cork Street.

Despite his successes, Joan Ody remembers that Mondrian was, above all else, terrified of the Nazi invasion. He had good cause: two of his paintings had been shown in Hitler's Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937, and Mondrian was effectively on a blacklist. He wrote to a friend: "The great danger for us is about our work; might the Nazis come in; what then?" He told Stephenson that he "expects himself a prisoner". Added to this, in 1940 Germany had invaded the Netherlands, where two of his brothers lived.

Keen to leave the capital, in the summer of 1940 he managed to arrange an American visa and a ship to New York. But his progress was hampered by the start of the London blitz on 7 September; on one evening a bomb very nearly killed him as he sat in his bedroom. Luckily, his blackout shutters were closed and he escaped the full force of the glass. By now he was desperate to leave, and after several anxious weeks of heavy bombing, Robin Ody drove him to Liverpool, where he boarded his ship and sailed away to start another new life. In New York, he was similarly inspired by a vibrant new city, and went on to paint perhaps his most famous work, Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942–1943), building on the work he had started in London.

• Composition With Yellow, Blue and Red (1937–1942) is on view at Tate Modern; Trafalgar Square (1939–1943) is at Moma, New York. The exhibition De Stijl and Mondrian opens at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, in December 2010.


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June 23 2010

Nurse being kissed in iconic wartime picture dies, aged 91

Edith Shain was photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt in Times Square in 1945 being kissed by a sailor

A nurse who was photographed being kissed in Times Square in New York to celebrate the end of the second world war in 1945 has died, aged 91.

The iconic VJ Day picture of Edith Shain by Alfred Eisenstaedt was published in Life magazine.

The identity of the nurse in the photograph was not known until the late 1970s when Shain wrote to Eisenstaedt to say that she was the woman in the picture. It was taken on 14 August 1945 when she had been working at Doctor's Hospital in New York.

The identity of the sailor who kissed her remains unresolved.

The photograph made its mark on Shain's life, as her subsequent celebrity led to invitations to war-related events such a wreath layings, parades and other memorial ceremonies.

Her son Justin Decker said in a statement: "My mom was always willing take on new challenges, and caring for the world war 2 veterans energised her to take another chance to make a difference."

Shain, who died at her home in Los Angeles on Sunday, leaves three sons, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.


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May 27 2010

The stuff of nightmares

Painted with the kind of conviction that scorns humanity, is this key work of Renaissance art actually a harbinger of fascism?

Is this the scariest painting in the world? The Battle of Issus by Albrecht Altdorfer – known in German simply as the Alexanderschlacht or Alexander battle – is a wonder. It has something about it of an object in a cabinet of curiosities: as if it were contrived specifically to induce feelings of puzzlement, perplexity and unease.

In a landscape created with hypnotic spatial conviction, yet located in a spiralling, outer-space vista of blue and silver sky and sea, a world at once real and bizarrely transformed, illuminated by both sun and moon, and with a classical inscription hanging uncannily in the heavens, two vast armies fight for the future of the world. Uncountable legions fill the rocky plain beneath towering mountains.

It is the quintessence of German Renaissance art: every mountain a colossus, every ray of sun an apocalyptic beam of fire from heaven, every cloud a glimpse of the infinite. This is war as unholy spectacle, but where is the humanity? Where is the pity?

"Seriously, old man," says Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man, looking down from Vienna's big wheel at the crowds below, "would you really care if one of those dots stopped moving?" The multitudes who mass the Alexanderschlacht do not make us care – we do not mind if they stop moving. Indeed, they are not moving: this is a stilled vision, a frozen prophecy.

It was painted in 1529 as part of a cycle of history paintings commissioned by the duke of Bavaria: today these works hang together in their own room in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, dominated by the entrancing horror and beauty of Altdorfer's masterpiece. Connoisseurs of culture wars may note that it portrays a classic confrontation between east and west, when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian king Darius in 333BC.

The reason it frightens me is that it feasts so magnificently on the inhuman slaughter it portrays. This is war seen by a boy knocking over an array of toy soldiers, or an apocalyptic preacher – the myriad vulnerable bodies are just part of the dazzlement of it all. From the Alte Pinakothek – truly one of Europe's richest art collections – you can walk through Munich to the House of German Art, built for Adolf Hitler, today a benign contemporary venue. Hitler made Munich his art capital. As it happened, he also showed as little humanity as this painting does when told of vast casualties in the war he created. Anti-war paintings tend to focus on the intimate horror of close-combat; in seeing soldiers and their victims from a distance as ants, this painting anticipates the worst of 20th-century fascism.


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