By Archie Martine
This room shows different crises throughout history, starting with the Black Death in the 1340s. As we move through the room we come to the depiction of the slave trade from the 16th to 19th century. These paintings show the same event in history but were painted during different times alluding to the struggle that still exists in fighting racism. The next crisis we come to are the two world wars in the 20th century. These two paintings are painted during the time and portray the first-hand experience of war. Moving to a more modern-day crisis we get to climate change and the effect of rising sea levels. The last theme of the room is the current Coronavirus pandemic which seeks to illustrate not only the strength of the NHS but also the crises we face on a household level.
Gilles li Muisit, Illustration from manuscript, 1340s
This is one of the earliest known images of the plague. Created in 1349, during the time of the Black Death, it shows people carrying coffins of those who died of the illness in Tournai, a city in what is now Belgium.
This doesn’t depict the physical symptoms of the plague but instead depicts the social devastation.
Arnold Böcklin, Plague, 1898, Tempera on wood, Kuntsmuseum, Basel
Plague is an 1898 painting in tempera by the Swiss symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin, held in the Kuntsmuseum in Basel. It exemplifies the artist's obsession with nightmares of war, pestilence and death. The painting shows death riding on a bat-like winged creature, who travels through the street of a medieval European town.
Plague is rendered mostly using shades of pale green, a colour often associated with decomposition. The other predominant tones are black and dull browns; for example, in the clothes worn by the figures shown in the mid and background as they dive for safety before Death's path. The red cloth of the woman shown in the mid-foreground is the only vivid colour seen; she lies across the corpse of a woman who was cut down also.
J M W Turner, The Slave Ship (1840)
90.8 cm x 122.6 cm, Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
At first sight Slave Ship seems to depict a beautiful sunset over a tumultuous sea, a Turner tactic to lull you in. A stark counterpoint to the horrors and barbarity that are the real subject. For this is a political picture, campaigning powerfully and successfully for the abolition of slavery.
As we look closely we can see people in the foreground attempting to stay afloat in the treacherous waters. These are in fact slaves that the captain of the ship has thrown overboard due to the incoming storm. However, there is a sense of nature inflicting retribution on the captain and his ship as we see the storm engulf the ship in the background.
Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014
In late spring of 2014, Creative Time presented the first large-scale public project by Kara Walker, one of the most important artists of our era. Sited in the sprawling industrial relics of Brooklyn's legendary Domino Sugar Factory, Walker's physically and conceptually expansive installation - a massive sugar-coated sphinx-like woman - responded to the building and its history.
Measuring approximately seventy-five and a half feet long a thirty-five and half feet high, the sculpture is white, made out of bleached sugar. Wealthy Westerners throughout the ages would source their sugar from African countries. Walker was taken with the history of the slave trade in America and Walker’s sphinx shows up our assumptions: She has “black” features but is white? Has she been bleached, or is she a spectre of history, the female embodiment of all the human labour that went into making her?
The World Wars
Jacob Lawrence: Beachhead, 1947
40.3 x 51 cm, Tempera on composition board, Whitney Museum
Jacob Lawrence’s War Series describes first-hand the sense of regimentation, community, and displacement that the artist experienced during his service in the United States Coast Guard during World War II. Lawrence served his first year in St. Augustine, Florida, in a racially segregated regiment where he was first given the rank of Steward’s Mate, the only one available to black Americans at the time. He befriended a commander who shared his interest in art, however, and he went on to serve in an integrated regiment as Coast Guard Artist, documenting the war in Italy, England, Egypt, and India. Those works are lost, but in 1946 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to paint the War Series. The fourteen panels of the series present a narrative which progresses from Shipping Out to Victory. In the panels, Lawrence adopted the silhouetted figures, prominent eyes, and simplified, overlapping profiles that are typical of Egyptian wall painting. And like the ancient painters, he transformed groups of figures into surface patterns, eschewing modelling and perspective in favour of the immediacy of bold, abstracted forms. In their alternation between vertical and horizontal formats, single figures and groups, and intense action and contemplation, the fourteen panels of the War Series testify to Lawrence’s belief that one cannot “tell a story in a single painting.”
C. R. W. Nevinson, Paths of Glory, 1917
45.7 x 60.9 cm, Oil on Canvas, Imperial War museum
Many war artists offered harsh but realistic visual depictions of the death and destruction that resulted from combat. For example, when we look at C.R.W. Nevinson’s stark painting, Paths of Glory, irony comes to the forefront. Though the piece has an idealistic-sounding title, we shudder at the sight of two dead soldiers lying in the battlefield mud. We cannot identify with, or even identify these soldiers at all. Their faces are obscured and their bodies merge with the murky earth, suggesting the loss of identity and the waste of young lives. The brownish grey mud almost threatens to rise up and swallow the entire scene.
Yuri Kozyrev - NOOR for Fondation Carmignac (Cape Kamenny, Yamal Peninsula, Russia, May 2018)
Photograph, Saatchi Gallery exhibition, 2019
Yuri Kozyrev travelled the route of the Russian maritime ports of the Arctic, accompanying the last remaining Nomadic people of the region, the Nenets, during their seasonal movement known as transhumance. This was interrupted for the first time in the Nenets' history in 2018, because of the melting of the permafrost, and Kozyrev skirted the coast of the Barents Sea in the north of the country, and travelled aboard the Montchegorsk, the first container ship to use the Northern Sea route unassisted. He encountered people who had been made ill by nickel mining in Norilsk, and then travelled to Murmansk, where the first floating nuclear power plant is under secret construction.
Kadir van Lohuizen started his journey on the Norwegian island of Spitzberg in the Svalbard archipelago. He then followed the Northwest Passage, which is now the shortest route between Europe and Asia thanks to the melting ice. In Greenland, he met scientists who have recently discovered the existence of frozen rivers beneath the icecap, which are directly contributing to the planet's rising water levels.
Climate change has led to ever-increasing routes through the Arctic region. The forces of tourism, militarisation, exploitation of gas and mineral resources, and the opening of trade routes mean that the Arctic is today the site of clashes between countries and multinationals who are locked in a chaotic competition for control of these zones, which have taken on strategic importance in the history of humankind due to the effects of global warming.
The photographs in 'Arctic: New Frontier' by Yuri Kozyrev and Kadir van Lohuizen are an alarming testimony to the speed of transformation in the region and the upheavals that are taking place on a global scale.
Virgil Abloh, Sinking, 2019
Carpenters Workshop Gallery, Venice Art Biennale
For Carpenters Workshop Gallery's exhibit at Venice Art Biennale, designer Virgil Abloh presented furniture items chopped off at different points so they look like they are sinking into the floor.
Abloh intended the pieces to encourage viewers to think about the issue of rising sea-levels, with Venice already prone to flooding, and the effect of climate change on the planet.
Climate Change Poem
Rising seas, scorching lands;
One billion lost, without identity.
A real truth.
By S Sampson (Harrow School beak)
Eme Freethinker, 2020
Street art, Berlin, Germany
A German street artist who goes by the name of Eme Freethinker displays a modern household crisis brought about by Covid-19.
She sums this up perfectly by using Gollum from Lord of the Rings. This clever use of the ring obsessed character replaces the traditional ring with a loo roll, such a simple but very effective way of getting their point across.
Street art, Pontefract, England
British artist Rachel List has shown the effects of the coronavirus crisis by replacing the S in NHS with the superman emblem. Showing everyone how important the NHS have been in saving lives and depicting them as modern day heroes.