Aside from my portrait practice, war and conflict has been the subject of much of my recent artwork. The unchecked march of ISIS in the middle east first prompted me to address this subject. The preparation for the coming war against China reinforced my interest. The political climate that was feeding this frenzy was the inspiration behind my painting “Alleged Assault on Pax by Mars”. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine I felt a compulsion to work full time on “Men Wrestling” and “The Disasters of War”. Even though I was neglecting more commercial work, I felt it was important to make a statement with these paintings.
What was the point?
The Israel-Hamas war has left me feeling empty. The brutality of it has shocked me, and I have been appalled by people’s reactions to it. I have no desire to pick up my paintbrushes and say anything about this war. Other than it disgusts me. Man disgusts me. We are no more than beasts. So in this dark mood I heard an interview with legendary war photographer Don McCullin, where he spoke about how depressed he was with the present conflict.
‘I am slightly depressed in a way, because I think everything I’ve done concerning international conflict, everything I have contributed to showing how awful it is, I think has been a waste of time really.’
‘I’ve looked at so many wars, I’ve been in so many wars, and nothing has changed.’
He summed up exactly how I was thinking, and got me wondering if art really can make a difference. Producing my anti-war paintings may be no more than a cathartic experience for me. If that is the case, what really is the point in painting them?
I think I will just concentrate on painting portraits from now on.
I’ve been reluctant to write about this painting, for fear of how it will be viewed by potential portrait customers. I haven’t even offered it to any exhibitions. But as you read this, millions of lives have been ruined or lost by a pointless conflict, so who am I to fret over losing a few commissions. So here we go. After finishing my painting Men Wrestling, I still felt compelled to say something about the barbarity and viscousness of events unfolding in Ukraine. It’s too easy to feel detached from it all, viewing it as a spectacle rather than the existential crisis it is. That was exactly what I wanted to convey with Men Wrestling – world leaders looking on as the two naked wrestlers (representing Russia and Ukraine) are embraced in a fight to the death. For my next painting I wanted to show the cruel horror of it all.
Goya – The Disasters of War
Los desastres de la guerra is a series of 82 prints created between 1810-1820 by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746–1828). These etchings are viewed as a visual protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising, and the subsequent Peninsular War of 1808–1814. They were not published during the artist’s lifetime; they are considered a graphic representation of the atrocities of war. As such, they were the perfect source material and inspiration for the painting I wanted to create.
Composing the painting
Creating a painting like this is a bit like directing a play. You have your story and actors, and much of the time you are arranging them on the stage to describe a particular scene. Below is a video (apologies for the very bad exposure) where I talk about the painting at quite an early stage. I explain how I saw a certain dignity in the brutalised figures Goya had hanging from trees, with similarities to some depictions of Christ descending from the Cross.
Putin and Prigozhin
From the beginning I wanted the main actors occupying centre stage to be Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin. At the time I painted this, Prigozhin was alive and still a trusted ally of the president, with his Wagner group taking the lead in the assault on Bakhmut. That costly assault gave Russia its only gain since the early days of the war. During this battle, Wagner mercenaries were accused of castrating Ukrainian prisoners (read the story here).
This central section also draws some inspiration from The Flaying of Marsyas – a late work by Titian which shows the killing by flaying or skinning alive of Marsyas, a satyr. Marsyas is hung from a tree like a butcher’s carcass, much like the brutalised figures in Goya’s etchings, and also like the captured soldiers in my painting. I wanted to capture something of the inhuman and bestial behaviour of the invading Russian troops; behaviour that most people could not believe would be happening in Europe in the 21st Century.
A picnic at an execution
It took me a while to fill the space in the bottom left. I tried out various figures, but in the end settled for someone having a picnic in front of this awful scene.
I had in mind the wealthy Muscovites dining in their expensive restaurants, thinking themselves isolated from the “special operation” happening in a foreign land; they might see it as their evening entertainment on TV. But they are still tainted by it. As are we all.
I will be exhibiting this painting along with The Gleaners at S. B. Art Gallery in London, from the 27th-29th October
I had a difficult conversation about this painting at the recent Cluster Contemporary Art Fair. A Ukrainian woman approached me and asked me to explain it. I don’t think she was happy with what I said. First, I should make clear that I see only one aggressor in this war in Ukraine, and I admire the dignity and bravery of the Ukrainian people. But that is not what this painting is about.
Clearly I was mocking Putin, naked on his golden throne with rickety wooden legs. And having Macron with Boris Johnson wearing theatrical costumes is obviously questioning their motivation for their actions on the world stage. Biden cheering on from a distance is a comment on the US’s stance in this war. No, what puzzled this woman was the relevance of the naked men wrestling.
Many visitors who saw this painting at Cluster Contemporary spotted the reference to old photos of wrestlers by Eadweard Muybridge, and also to Francis Bacon’s Two Figures, which had used the Muybridge photos as a reference.
This is not a noble painting about Ukrainian heroism. Instead it is a grubby little story about you and me: it’s about everyone cheering their chosen sides from the safety of their living room; it is about how a primal conflict to the death by two warring races has become an exciting spectacle for the rest of the world; it is about my shame in feeling any excitement at missiles raining down on Russian tanks and troops; it is about my sadness over what we have become.
War and Peace, Alleged Assault on Pax by Mars (after Rubens)
In 1630, the artist Peter Paul Rubens presented King Charles I with the painting “Minerva Protects Pax from Mars – Peace and War”. Rubens had been sent to England as the peace envoy of Philip IV of Spain (England and Spain had been at war for five years), and his painting depicted Minerva protecting Pax from an assault by Mars, allowing the other figures in the painting to enjoy the spoils of peace. There was a clear message – peace brings prosperity. A peace treaty was signed later that year. My own interpretation is not quite so optimistic.