Architecture of War at Imperial War Museum, London

Despite the name this is an art exhibition, not an architecture exhibition, but its interest lies in the subject matter of the paintings rather than perhaps the paintings themselves. For instance, the names of the paintings on show give as good an introduction as to what to expect as any picture could, including Thai-Burma Railway Thailand; Reading a Blue Print for the Manufacture of a Naval Gun; Untitled 1985 (Death and the Bulldozer); and The Terrible Boredom of Waiting for Action.

The first room looks at Building For War and is dominated by bold industrial images, mainly from the 1940s, such as Pitchforth’s Casting an Ingot, 1941 and Graham Sutherland’s Breech-blocks in the Shop at the Gun-Testing Range, 1940 – the former stands out with its close up of a furnace and three men in protective gear trying to control its power. While in contrast the first image in the room shows the loss of power through war with the emaciated bodies of prisoners of war building the Thai-Burma railway in Thailand.

John Mennie war painting Thailand

Thai-Burma Railway Thailand, John Mennie, 1943

The second room looks at Destruction and we see destroyed buildings in London after the Blitz such as St Stephen’s Walbrook and another bombed out church, this time on the Somme in WW1 being reused as a dugout. But the most emotive image in the room is Liberation (Henry Carr, 1944) where civilians wander in a dazed state through a ruined city, as though they haven’t been out in the open in months, while soldiers carry on as normal, lighting a fire, relaxing, getting on with their work as this is nothing new to them, its what war is all about and they’ve seen it all before.

Liberation image of civilians and soldiers in bombed out city

Liberation, Henry Carr, 1944

There are more modern images on display as well including Paul Seabright’s photograph depicting the crumbling spaces of a former Taliban barracks in Afghanistan. Seabright was commissioned by IWM to record landscapes in the aftermath of war and Room 1, 2002, is part of this commission. And Anthony Davies’ No Surrender 1, 1986, shows the view through the window of his Belfast home where he lived on the heavily defended border between Catholic and Protestant areas.

But this is primarily an exhibition of art from the two world wars and it is a very interesting insight into these wars – from the mundane such as Sir Duncan Oppenheim’s The Terrible Boredom of Waiting for Action, 1940 to the poignant look at life in a makeshift hut floating above floodwater in Ban Phon as Philip Meninsky spent three years in captivity working on the Thai-Burma Railway.

The Imperial War Museum is still in the process of renovation to be re-opened properly next year with re-vamped First World War Galleries and what’s on display at the moment is a little hit and miss, but this was definitely worth going to see – and its kinda fun being in a bit of a building site too, if you don’t mind some banging and drilling now and again.

Architecture of War
Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ

Until 5 May 2014
FREE Entry
http://www.iwm.org.uk/exhibitions/iwm-london/architecture-of-war

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