Herbert Art Gallery: Caught in the Crossfire

To take a breather from books and computer screens I visited Herbert Art Gallery once more to wander around their current show titled, ‘Caught in the Crossfire: Artistic responses to Conflict, Peace and Reconciliation’. The exhibition begins with an obvious starting point, that of the city of Coventry and the tragic events that occurred here during World War II. Indeed, the reason for the Herbert to develop its collection in this way, by introducing the space with Coventry, offers the city’s direct experience of the destruction that war could wreak but also the city’s response to the bombing, which shows us that hope and forgiveness can emerge from the most horrific of situations. Herbert is based in Coventry so not only highlights the immense damages we suffered but how we overcome them with acts of peace and reconciliation.

I was particularly inspired by Matthew Picton’s sculptures of the twinned cities Coventry and Dresden which experienced similar fatalities during the Second World War. As I wasn’t aware of the entirety of the impact the city of Dresden felt, I was keen to learn more and inevitable drew comparisons between the two cities. The sculpture titled, ‘Dresden 1945’ is based on a map of the city from 1945 and uses burnt and partially destroyed musical score of Wagner’s Ring of the Niblung, which itself was born out of revolution and influenced by ideological and destructive fantasies. The sculpture bears silent testament to the former inhabitants of Dresden and the vanished life within it. Much of the city was destroyed by fire as the Prussians used oil-filled incendiary bombs, which is reflected through the artist’s choice to burn the papers in which the sculpture is formed. Half of the city’s most built up area was destroyed and many of its finest palaces were lost entirely, although the Frauenkirche (Dresden’s landmark church) survived, similarly to Coventry Cathedral.  The Frauenkirche has been rebuilt and Dresden lives on in its third incarnation, bearing witness to the remarkable ability of humanity to pick it up and start again anew. The sculpture symbolises the destruction the city felt but also hope and strength as the city has revived.

The sculpture, ‘Coventry 1945’ is placed beside ‘Dresden 1945’ in the exhibition, reflecting how the cities were twinned and experienced the similar fates caused by the Nazi’s. ‘Coventry 1945’ is also based on a map of the city taken from 1945 and again has been burnt in accordance with damage depicted on maps that showed the damaged areas of the city in WW2. Coventry suffered perhaps the most extensive bombing of any British city being attacked on a number of occasions. Whilst Coventry did not suffer to quite the extent of Dresden, where tens of thousands died in the firestorm that completely engulfed the city, Coventry did lose much of its medieval core and industries. Unlike Dresden, the Coventry Cathedral was left a ruin to commemorate the war showing the people of Coventry’s ability to forgive and make peace with the enemy.

Both sculptures were utterly inspiring and visually grasping. The use of burnt paper symbolizing the city’s damages I thought was a clever technique whilst the precision and thought in the details is awe-inspiring. It brings to visual terms very effectively two cities which experienced immense destruction of Second World War yet revived and made peace.

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