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armed with art danchev display sign

Sign at Danchev display in Main Library 

You may have noticed a new display in the Main Library – you’ll be able to see a selection of items from our new Danchev Collection on the theme of ‘Art and war’ here until 12th February.

Professor Alex Danchev was keenly aware of the complex relationship between art and ethics, and therefore between art and war. In On art and war and terror, he explores the notion of “the artist as moralist,” capable of using art to make us more aware of ourselves and the realities of our world. “Armed with art,” says Danchev, “we are more alert and less deceived.” (p. 4).

This stance towards art features in many of Danchev’s own writings, and the interactions between art and war form a substantial theme within the books he owned.

Danchev’s collection is rich in modern history and politics, with numerous volumes exploring the wars, policies, and politicians which have defined the 20th and early 21st century.

books included in Danchev display

Books in the display together with snippets from copies of Danchev’s own notes and writing

The intersection where history, politics, art and war all meet within Professor Danchev’s collection is well illustrated in the art of John Keane.

In 2014, John Keane was invited to be the artist in residence at the School of International Relations at St Andrews. Keane’s work is suffused with social and political commentary, frequently dealing with war as a topic. Thanks to the donated Danchev collection, we are able to add a range of Keane’s exhibition catalogues to our shelves, none of which we had previously held. Through these catalogues, we can now get an insight into how this artist explores warfare in art.

Keane was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in 1991 to be the official British war artist of the Gulf War, and his work on the subject is captured in Gulf. Through Keane’s physical presence in the war zone and reference photos he took there, his paintings allow the observer the immediacy of looking through his eyes. In several paintings the artist’s shadow is visible in the foreground, attesting to his (and our) presence and involvement, not merely observation.

Amongst his other subjects are the Troubles – The other cheek? : paintings of Northern Ireland – and Jewish-Arab relations in the Middle East – The inconvenience of history : paintings from Gaza and the West Bank. Both these collections contain striking explorations into the relationships between place and people, and the presence of children in environments of war.

For his exhibition Fifty seven hours in the house of culture on the subject of the 2002 Dubrovka Theatre siege, Keane used stills from a documentary as the basis for his paintings, where the figures of both perpetrators and victims speak to us through subtitles. In Guantanamerica, Keane used digital manipulation of low resolution images to explore the dehumanisation of those detained at Guantánamo Bay. The result is a series of works where people are reduced to anonymous orange blurs, evocative of human heat signatures as well as the famous orange detainee uniforms.

In Saving the Bloody Planet, a project undertaken in connection with a Greenpeace campaign protesting illegal logging, Keane explores a different kind of war – that of humans against the environment. His animated and colourful paintings of local children and wildlife in the Amazon are accompanied by revealing notes about their medium: “oil on illegal wood”, “inkjet and illegal woodblock on paper.” Here the illegally felled wood itself is employed to carry images of the lives put at risk by the deforestation.

Keane has said “art should be about revelation not concealment”. His most recent exhibition – If you knew me. If you knew yourself. You would not kill me. – was created following a trip to Rwanda with postgraduate students of Peace and Conflict Studies at St Andrews. “The title,” Keane writes on his website, “came from a banner draped across the altar in one of the churches I visited where around 5000 people had been massacred.”

The art of John Keane confronts us with striking and thought-provoking images, whilst often working with abstraction and blurring, such that our own imagination is left to complete the details. The immediacy of his art helps to bridge the gap in space and in time between us and the events depicted. Danchev describes his book On Art and War and Terror as “an experiment in thinking otherwise, in being other-wise.” (p.4) Keane’s art, too, invites us to think a little differently, to look in a new way.

Alex Danchev had high hopes for the role – and the power – of art. “Hope for what? Hope that there is, or will be, an audience of sentient spectators, viewers, readers, absorbed in the work: a community, a moral community, for whom it stands up and who will stand up for it.” (On Art and War and Terror, p. 3)

Liz Antell, Library Trainee

Armed with art: Professor Alex Danchev and the art of John Keane
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