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On Violence and Beauty. Reflections on War

This display explores how war has been represented in four key objects from around the world and across history. Examining how art has portrayed both the myth and reality of war, the show features three ancient objects juxtaposed with the first digital artwork acquired by the Museum.

The oldest depiction in the display is the ancient Egyptian Battlefield Palette, a double-sided relief carving made around 3300 BC. Although it does not illustrate a specific event or battle, it shows a violent scene of war casualties and the desire to defeat chaos and restore order.

Alongside the Battlefield Palette sits an Assyrian relief, made around 645 BC for King Ashurbanipal’s North Palace in the city of Nineveh. Part of a larger series of reliefs that depict a specific battle between the Assyrians and the kingdom of Elam, the panel shows an Assyrian general on the battlefield about to execute an Elamite officer named Ituni. It is inscribed with cuneiform text and illustrates the complete submission of Ituni after he witnesses the devastation around him.

A Greek amphora depicting a mythical scene from the Trojan War is the final ancient object in the show. Made around 530 BC, it shows the intimacy of mythical warrior Achilles killing Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons. According to the story, when Achilles kills Penthesilea, their eyes meet and, too late, they fall in love.

Iranian artist Farideh Lashai (1944–2013) was fascinated with Goya’s famous print series The Disasters of War and the idea that atrocities committed during wartime are repeated throughout history. Goya’s prints were made in response to the Peninsular War that was fought in Spain between 1808 and 1814. The series shows the victims of the war as individuals, sometimes in horrific detail. This was a turning point in the depiction of war and conflict in art – his realist prints contrast starkly with the glorification of war in the ancient world.

The Lashai work on display was made 2012–2013. It is a digital video installation called When I Count, There Are Only You...But When I Look, There Is Only a Shadow. In it, the figures are removed from Goya’s etchings, and the works are displayed as a grid of 80 prints. A projection moves across the grid, returning the figures to the prints briefly before they disappear again as the projection continues. The whole piece is accompanied by a Chopin nocturne, highlighting the inherent contradictions in the relationship between the ugliness of war and the beauty of art.

Together these objects trace the depiction of war in art through time, and give cause for reflection on humanity’s seeming desire for peace in the face of the ever-present spectre of war.

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