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----------------------------------------------- CAPTIVE Imperial War Museum, London 2 July 2005 - 5 February 2006 http://london.iwm.org.uk/server/show/ConWebDoc.2852 Reviewed for H-Museum by Prof. Dr. Antoine Capet, University of Rouen E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org The Imperial War Museum authorities like to recall that they have the second largest collection of British art in the country. The difficulty - common to most museums - is of course lack of wall space to display their collections; hence the mounting of temporary theme exhibitions. At the moment, parallel with the very successful Lawrence of Arabia exhibition which features all sorts of items,(1) the Imperial War Museum runs a very interesting exhibition of drawings and paintings devoted to what is sometimes called "the forgotten army",(2) i.e. the troops sent to defend British possessions in South East Asia, notably Burma, and to reconquer them after what Churchill termed "the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history" - the fall of Singapore to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. That "capitulation" produced tens of thousands of prisoners of war, including Official War Artists who had accompanied the British military - and this provides the core theme of the exhibition, even though the preliminary troop movements and actual fighting are also represented. The small entrance hall reminds the visitor of the historical context, with two wall texts recalling the background of Japanese expansion until July 1942 and the special position of artists in war and captivity in the Far East. In fact, the works shown tend to illustrate war in the Far East generally, with remarkable later pictures by Leslie Cole (1910-1977) : " 'Scorched Earth' : Devastated Rubber Plantations" (1946),(3) which powerfully reminds the viewer of Paul Nash (especially in "Oppy Wood, 1917") and other landscape artists of the First World War, and James Morris (1908-1989) : "Yokohama : The southern Part of the Town showing the blitzed Area, now covered with Shacks and Bomb Craters" (December 1945). Still, the central theme is announced in a subtle way - by showing drawings of American soldiers on USS Mount Vernon made in December 1941 by Ronald Searle (b. 1920), that is before he was taken prisoner, thus introducing his name to the visitor; and through very precisely dated drawings by him which show the duration of the captivity he and his comrades had to suffer : "Allied Planes dropping Pamphlets announcing the End of the War over Changi Gaol Camp, Singapore, 28 August 1945" and "Allied Planes parachuting Food Supplies to Changi Gaol, 31 August 1945". But the visitor has to wait until he sees the sketches of the notorious Changi camp by Ronald Searle - first, he enters a room with pictures of the "general" war in the Far East. The Battle of Arakan (1943) is well documented, with several drawings by Anthony Gross (1905-1984). Leslie Cole is present again, this time with pictures of liberated prisoners in 1945. Hong Kong (which fell on Christmas Day, 1941) is not neglected, with Leonard Rosoman (b. 1913) documenting the British re-occupation of the devastated city in 1945 from the deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable. But once again, the main theme is not absent from the room, since a showcase has Ronald Searle's materials used in captivity: his pencil-case, his tin of ink sticks and watercolours, with brushes and pencils. A very useful wall text explains how materials were procured by the War Artists in the Far East - a difficult process when everything had to come all the way from London, but an even more difficult one for the prisoners of war, who not only had their sole source of supply of commercial materials suddenly cut off, but also actually had to hide their materials and activity since they were not allowed to draw what they saw in Japanese camps. Man is of course a resourceful creature - and plants were used for their tinctorial properties, as well as blood, an old device to provide red "ink". The wonder, naturally, is that so many drawings were made in such adverse circumstances and survived to tell the story of these prisoners. The next room, with an introductory wall text entitled "Battlelines", continues the story of the fighting, with other paintings by Cole, Gross, Rosoman and Searle (with a recollection drawn in 1945 of the "Arrival of the Japanese Forces in Singapore, 16 February 1942"), and a new name, Thomas Hennell (1903-1946), who participated in the campaign of re-conquest on HMS Hunter (documented in watercolours). Apart from Searle, the artists shown in the first three rooms had not been prisoners of war - only the fourth room is entirely devoted to them. That room, with background information on the life of these men "In Captivity" is of course the pièce de résistance of the exhibition, with eight sub-themes, each with its own wall text. One starts with the "Selarang" incident, with which probably only few visitors will be familiar, thus deserving a substantial reminder : "In August 1942 the prisoners of war in Singapore were requested by the Japanese administration to sign a 'non-escape' declaration. This met with widespread initial refusal. Prisoners numbering approximately 15,400 were then concentrated into the 8-acre site of Selerang Barracks where negotiations continued for three days. Several artists drew the overcrowded barracks square where inadequate facilities soon resulted in the threat of disease. The request to sign was converted into an order and the prisoners then signed the declarations, believing that agreement 'under duress' was not valid." The incident is recalled by none less than Ronald Searle's own declaration : "The Notorious Form, Singapore, 5 September 1942" with his name and details entered in his own hand. Two new names are introduced on that occasion : Charles Thrale (d. 1981, "The No-Escape Incident" - Indian ink on packing card) and Philip Meninsky (b. 1919, "The Square at Selerang"). Facing these drawings, the visitor can hear Stanley Gimson's recollections of the incident on a handset which also has various memories related by some of his fellow artists: Chalker, Gross, Meninsky, Rosoman. Next to the handset, a wall is devoted to "Travelling North", with an explanatory text : "From April 1942, groups of prisoners began to be sent out from Singapore to work on military projects in occupied territories and in Japan. Some travelled by sea but the majority went first by train to the staging post at Ban Pong in Thailand before dispersal to work camps. The journey took four days, transported in metal rice-trucks and munitions wagons, thirty men in each truck." Again, we have documentary sketches by Searle, Meninsky and Thrale - but no doubt the most powerful one is by Leo Rawlings (1918-1990) : "Appalling Conditions of Ammunition Trucks in which British and Allied Troops had to travel", which is reminiscent ot the notorious "cattle trucks" which transported the deportees in German-occupied Europe at the same period, and of which Rawlings could have had no knowledge when he drew the scene. The next stage, "Beyond the Railhead" ("On arrival at the staging post near Bangkok, the next phase of the journey was often on foot, marching along newly-established tracks to increasingly distant work camps along the railway trace. Where possible, river transport was used as an effective alternative to difficult overland travel") takes us to a gloomy world in which everything is pictured in shades of grey or brown, the drawing with the highest emotional appeal being "The Road back from a Construction Camp. Unloading the Sick and the Dead at Chungkai Base Hospital" by Jack Chalker (b. 1918). Then comes the episode later made known to world cinema audiences by the famous Hollywood film, _Bridge on the River Kwai_(4) : "Constructing the Thai-Burma Railway" ("The hills and jungle terrain dividing Thailand from Burma dramatically increased the engineering difficulties of the project. With little access for heavy machinery, prisoner labour became the primary means of moving construction materials. The route of the railway followed the Kwae Noi (Little Kwai) river where possible, necessitating the construction, in total, of fourteen kilometres of bridgeworks and viaducts. Prisoners also worked to shift rubble when explosives were used to make railway cuttings"). The brown wash picture by Leo Rawlings, "Bridge Building", of a gang of half-naked men carrying a hefty log on their shoulders across the river under the wooden trestles forming the base of the bridge, was naturally chosen by the exhibition's curator (Angela Weight) to illustrate the advertising material distributed in the museum. One cannot help wondering whether Pierre Boulle, the author of the book,(5) and later David Lean, the director of the film, had actually seen Rawlings's drawing, which now looks like an advertising vignette for the film - so influenced are we by the power of the cinema. The analogy with the European concentration camps, first suggested as we saw with Rawlings's trucks, is fully developed in the next sub-theme, "Working Conditions" ("The completion of the railway for moving Japanese reinforcements and supplies to Burma was a major military priority. In 1943 the planned completion date was brought forward by several months, putting pressure on an increasingly malnourished workforce. The new timetable meant that work had to be completed during monsoon conditions and that the daily sick parade still had to provide manpower. In May 1943 cholera broke out, killing many prisoners in the remote up-river camps where medical facilities were few"). The two artists represented in the section, Searle and Thrale, have made drawings which strongly remind the visitor of scenes of the liberation of the camps in Poland and Germany in 1945. In "Sick and Dying - Cholera Lines, Tarsau Camp, 15 September 1943. Two Months after Illness" (Searle) one can count the ribs of the victims, exactly as if they were out of Auschwitz or Belsen, and in "The Aussie who did not want to die. Died of Malnutrition two Days later" and "Another Pal, August 1943. Died of Cholera two Hours later" (Thrale) the hollow abdomen of the Aussie and the emaciated face of the Pal are equally reminiscent of the unbearable standards in inhumanity set for us Europeans by Nazi barbarity. The syndrome of "the forgotten army" is also - alas - one of "the forgotten barbarity", this time in the Burmese jungle. In this respect, the most powerful sub-caption is the whole exhibition is no doubt that added in Searle's handwriting at the bottom of "In the Jungle - Fit Parade for Work, Thai-Burma Railway. Men with Malaria, Ulcers, Beri-beri and Dysentery" : "[drawn by early morning light before going to work on the railway. He was dead when I came back at night]". Curiously, the next panel, "Medical Conditions", almost comes as a relief. No demented Dr Mengele here - simply British surgeons who had to do with makeshift equipment : Meninsky illustrates a "Table Knife adapted for Skin Grafting" and Stanley Gimson (d. 2003) has a magnificent chiaroscuro rendering of an "Appendectomy, Chungkai New Medical Centre, 1944", during which the lighting is provided by paraffin lamps hung on horizontal bamboo rods. Still, a wall board tells us that Meninsky's drawings of medical conditions in the camps were used as evidence in war crimes prosecutions. Naturally, a sub-section is devoted to "Changi" : "The well-established British military compound in the Changi area of Singapore was utilised by the Japanese to house many thousand Allied prisoners of war following the fall of Singapore. Accommodation was in solidly-built barracks and the existing infrastructure provided a basis for cooking and sanitation. Fuel wood for cooking was hauled to the compound using prisoner labour. Prisoners were later moved from the camp to Changi Gaol, the distinctive prison architecture becoming a symbol of their captivity." One theme which recurs in most drawings is the "human tractor", i.e. the log waggon dragged by a gang of prisoners, most visible on Ronald Searle's "Changi Gaol, Singapore, from the Outside with a Log-hauling Party, May 1944". The picture by Thrale, "Entrance to Changi Gaol" has the added interest that the red paint used for it was, we are told, "bartered from a Malayan". With this we are back to the initial discussion on materials - and "First days in Changi Gaol - Mass Cell No. C.1B for two hundred Men, May 1944" by Searle magnificently illustrates the point, since it has a blue hue which is due to the fact that it was drawn on retrieved paper: a palimpsest in the ancient style or simply using the back of an image blurred, but visible through the thin, transparent paper? Likewise, in the "Portraits" sub-section, we have a "Self-portrait" by Thrale (July 1944) drawn with the following: "pencil, medicine sediment, clay, dye, blood". The final sub-section in the room, "Camp Conditions", is of particular interest for the two showcases which illustrate the theme. One has theatre posters and programmes produced in the camps, 1943-44, side by side with MS of poems written by prisoners, 1942-45, like "VJ Day Khanbury" by John Durnford, later (1984) published in _A Form of Consolation : Poems, 1942-1945_. Incidentally, John Durnford, who also wrote a collection of poems entitled _Branch Line to Burma_ (1958), had his portrait drawn by Ashley Old in 1944. The other is devoted to Ronald Searle, with "my prison badges worn through time in jungle and prison", now part of the Ronald Searle Collection, Department of Documents, Imperial War Museum. There are also hand-drawn Christmas cards and theatre programmes designed by him. The most interesting item is no doubt _Exile_, a typewritten series of nine volumes produced by prisoners of war and illustrated by Ronald Searle relating their experience in Japanese captivity. This is a primary source of the first order for the modern historian of the prisoners of the "forgotten war". The final exhibition room is entirely occupied by the work of a young artist, Paul Ryan (b. 1968), "Drawing for Survival". As a panel explains, "On a two week visit funded by the Imperial War Museum in May and June 2005, Paul Ryan visited sites in Thailand where the experiences of Far East prisoners of war are commemorated", and a wall composition, a sort of vertical double glasscase displays 58 small sketchbooks, opened to show drawings, portraits and ephemera like museum tickets derived from his visit.(6) On the facing wall, there is a large mural inspired by a Japanese survivor's story of a neighbour's hand burnt off by the flash at Nagasaki. Appropriately enough, the other semi-abstract composition in the room, "Tit for Tat", which shows a rose (as in a cathedral or fireworks display) and a portion of railway track is drawn in Rotring ink on Japanese tissue. "Drawing for Survival" completes the visit - and even though the continuity in the theme of the exhibition is magnificently encapsulated in that title, overtly or subliminally, it is likely that the existential and artistic leap between Burma 1943 and Burma 2005 will be too much for the general public. But who is the public for that fascinating exhibition anyway? For reasons of personal convenience, I went to see it three times, on different days. The rooms were invariably almost empty, while the rest of the museum bustled with activity, full of school parties or families with young children. It cannot be due to financial reasons, as admission is free. It cannot be location on the second floor, as the Lawrence (paying) exhibition next door to it was attracting the crowds. The subject matter, "the bridge on the River Kwai" in folk memory, is prima facie attractive considering the continued interest in the Second World War in Britain. Why then were there no school teachers taking their pupils to see it, no parents or grandparents with children as in other parts of the building? This raises fundamental questions for the museum community, and my conjecture would be that the main obstacle is that little enjoyment or little intellectual profit can be derived from a visit without prior preparation. In a world of "instant access" to everything, with the illusion of "instant culture" - often instant "non-culture", of course - one cannot blame overworked teachers for eschewing the difficulty, for considering that it would be too much to ask them to run the risk of being seen as "spoiling the pleasure" of their pupils by "imposing" background contextual material upon them before they visited this type of exhibition, so rich in historical and artistic potential for the imaginative educationist. Since they are fully aware that prior preparation is a precondition, they prefer not to take their charges to such exhibition. All the better for interested individuals, who can attentively look at the pictures and showcases in peace and quiet - if only for this reason, H-Museum subscribers present in London before 5 February are strongly encouraged to go and form an opinion for themselves. NOTES (1) See H-Museum review on: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=h-museum&month=0601&week=a&msg=wQpbTULkwJYQJCF%2bxEQ5hA&user=&pw= (2) Books on the subject alternatively use the phrase "the forgotten army" (e.g. Yates, Roy. _The forgotten Army_. Neston : Infinity Junction, 2001) or "the forgotten war" (cf. Latimer, Jon. _Burma: The forgotten War_. London : John Murray, 2004). The National Army Museum, Chelsea, London, has a special section devoted to "The forgotten War". (3) Most of the works mentioned are visible on the Imperial War Museum site ("IWM Collections" button): http://collections.iwm.org.uk/ (4) _The Bridge on the River Kwai_. Directed by David Lean, 1957. (5) Boulle, Pierre. _Le pont de la rivière Kwaï_: roman. Paris : R. Julliard, 1952 (_The Bridge on the River Kwai_. Translated from the French by Xan Fielding. London : Secker & Warburg, 1954). (6) The sketches are visible on www.paulryan.co.uk ====================== Imperial War Museum Lambeth Road London SE1 6HZ Admission free Open daily: 10.00am - 6.00pm Email: email@example.com General enquiries: +44 (0)207 416 5320 / 5321 Fax: +44 (0)207 416 5374 ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Copyright (c) 2006 by H-MUSEUM (H-Net), all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed if permission is granted by the author and H-Museum. Please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org --- H-MUSEUM H-Net Network for Museums and Museum Studies E-Mail: email@example.com WWW: http://www.h-museum.net