Start reading up on the history of Leuven and you’ll quickly realise this city is a survivor, with the scars of two world wars to prove it. Buildings like the university library, which I touched on in my previous post, have their own stories to tell, but it’s one of the newest additions to the city that has taken up the theme of conflict and explored it through art. Enter the M Museum Leuven and its Ravaged exhibition (referred to as Ravage in Flemish), ripping through scenes of destruction dating from the 15th to the 21st century.
It’s not just contemporary conflicts that have been addressed in the artworks here – many of the older paintings deal with famous war-torn locations from the Bible or from legends. What you will find is that the exhibition can jump from traditional to modern in the blink of an eye, but you’ll soon get used to this as you walk through each gallery room. The architecture and action depicted in an oil painting (Simon Devlieger’s The Burning of Troy, 1631) may be wildly different to the blackened high-rises of Beirut in a 21st century installation (Mona Hatoum’s Bunker, 2011), but they both have an emotional pull on the viewer and a heightened sense of tension.
Whilst today we may feel a little desensitised to war, after being bombarded with reports on the news on a seemingly daily basis, I think it’s worth reflecting on what war can do to communities. I’ve picked out four of the strongest pieces in the exhibition that really say something about its concerns, as explained in the accompanying guide: ‘the ravaged city, the ruins, deliberate destruction, propaganda and art as war booty’.
Michael Sweerts – Mars Destroying the Arts (1650-52)
This painting is particularly important in the light of what happened to Leuven’s university library, which burned down in WWI and again in WWII. The Germans were seen as especially cruel for destroying a symbol of education and culture. Looking at what Sweerts has created, it’s easy to pick out the elements of the arts, from the violin and sheet music to the marble statue, all in the path of Mars and his sword. Sweerts was a Flemish artist who was born in Brussels, so it’s very apt that his work should be included here in Leuven.
Samuel Colman – The Edge of Doom (1836-38)
There’s nothing like an apocalyptic scene to grab your audience, and this artist seems to have specialised in them. According to the Brooklyn Museum, which leant the painting, Colman added an inscription from The Tempest to really drive home his interpretation of Shakespeare’s vision of horror at the end of the world. It included the phrase ‘Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And like the baseless fabric of a vision, Leave not a rack behind’ . Colman’s piece shows civilised society and the arts falling into a fiery blaze, looking a lot like the 19th century equivalent of a disaster movie trailer.
Cai Guo-Quiang – Black Fireworks: Project for Hiroshima (2008)
A vast outside art project by Cai Guo-Quiang, involving 1,200 black fireworks being lit to remember the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima in 1945, led to the artist’s series of gunpowder drawings. He used gunpowder as a medium, scattering it over paper to give an impression of buildings and explosions, before setting it alight and letting the reaction become the artwork itself. The museum has a great video showing him in the studio with his assistants, assembling and lighting the piece.
Fernando Bryce – To the Civilised World (2013-2014)
Interestingly, Bryce has spent the bulk of his career making ink drawings about propaganda, covering his home country of Peru and also Mexico, Cuba and Spain (you can read more about him in this feature by ArtMag). In this case, M Museum actually asked Bryce to view their archives of original WWI propaganda, after which he created this incredible series. Initially I didn’t even realise these were drawings at all – it’s only when you get up close that you see the clever artistry that’s gone into this piece. Newspaper articles, leaflets and posters all make an appearance.
Ravaged is a really thought-provoking and intelligent exhibition showcasing art from around the world and across the centuries, united by the theme of conflict. It opened my eyes to the different ways we understand and digest that conflict, and also introduced me to some brilliant modern artists I’d never otherwise have come across. I’d thoroughly recommend catching Ravaged at the M Museum when you’re in the area, as the topic is something many of us can relate to, albeit from different angles.
Visiting Notes: The exhibition runs until 1st September 2014. Depending on how long you’re able to spend in the museum, you can choose between the large (90 minute) or small (60 minute) audio tour for this exhibition. If you have plenty of time, don’t forget to take a look at the iPads in every room to find extra notes on each artwork. To read more about how the works were chosen by the curator, see Flanders Today.
Disclaimer: This trip was planned with the assistance of Visit Flanders and input from Tourism Leuven. To find further information about travelling to Brussels, please see www.visitflanders.co.uk for more details.