CRW Nevinson’s, Making Aircraft; Acetylene Welding, 1917.
CRW Nevinson’s, Making Aircraft; Acetylene Welding, 1917. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 693).

Kathryn Butler, a CDP student at the IWM and Open University, discusses her reactions to the 'Sensory War 1914-2014' exhibition.

During a recent trip to the Manchester City Art Gallery, I was intrigued to see the results of several great individuals and institutions working together as part of this year’s First World War Centenary commemorations. Sensory War 1914-2014 was co-curated by Dr Ana Carden Coyne, a director at the Centre of the Cultural History of War at the University of Manchester, where I studied for my MA. The centre works closely with IWM North in Salford, and many works on display were from the IWM collections.

Sensory War explored how the devastating military technologies of the First World War created a re-configuration of sensory experience and perception, whilst also considering its legacy in the portrayal of war by artists in the century since. Works weren’t presented chronologically; rather they were arranged under an engaging series of themes:

Militarising Bodies, Manufacturing War; Female Factories; Aerial Warfare the Sensation of Flight; Pain Succour; Rupture Rehabilitation; Embodied Ruins; Shocking the Senses; Bombing, Burning Distant War; Chemical War the Toxic Imaginary and Ghostlands: Loss, Memory Resilience.

The results of such an arrangement were profound and moving. By joining thematic threads between different conflicts, the exhibition avoided depicting the First World War as a discreet entity, and instead encouraged us to see its reverberation through history. Displayed under the heading Rupture and Rehabilitation, Medical illustrator Herbert R Cole’s detailed and delicate portraits confront us with the horrific facial damage sustained by many servicemen during the First World War, whilst also showing evidence of the fledgling medical discipline of plastic surgery.[1]Alongside these works were Timothy Greenfield-Saunders’ photographic portraits from his 2006 series “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq”. Here we see the leap in the development of plastic surgery and prosthetics, but are confronted with devastating effects that modern warfare continues to wreak.

The exhibition also placed emphasis on the new sensory experiences created by war, not simply the pain and damage wrought by its destructive capabilities. The Female Factories section showed the liberation represented by the exhilarating industrial settings women were exposed to during First World War, for example in CRW Nevinson’s, Making Aircraft; Acetylene Welding, 1917 (above).

‘Sensory War’ managed to negotiate an extremely complex array of styles, themes, methods and subjects. That complexity was entirely justified; it worked. I am reminded of sentiments expressed in a previous blog post by Anna Maguire, a fellow Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student: ‘The overwhelming feeling I was I left with was of a need to recognise that narratives and commemorations of war need to be complex, if they are to reflect more thoroughly the realities of war.’

I am using the IWM archives to support my research on the impact of counterinsurgency warfare on British servicemen. Whilst the connection is not immediately apparent, this exhibition left me with much to reflect on in terms of the potential for war to disrupt sensory and physical experience and how this can be represented and understood.