Terry Grimley meets John Keane, an artist dedicated to exploring conflict in paint.
When I inadvertently let slip the term “official war artist” in front of a German acquaintance years ago, he more or less fell about laughing.
Nothing could be more stereotypically British, he seemed to think, than officially-sanctioned war art. And thinking about the highly unofficial war art of, say, George Grosz or Otto Dix, you could see his point.
Nevertheless, some of our best 20th century artists, such as Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Henry Moore, occupied the role in the two world wars, creating work which is a lasting part of our artistic and social history.
And in the post-Cold War reality of renewed colonial-style wars, the official war artist is back with us again.
Turner Prizewinner Steve McQueen, whose powerful work Queen and Country has just arrived on tour at Wolverhampton Art Gallery (see review on facing page), took on the role during the war in Iraq in 2003. He was following in the footsteps of the painter John Keane, who was signed up by the Imperial War Museum to cover the first Gulf War in 1991.
Keane was at the Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry, last week to talk about his paintings of Angola, commissioned by Christian Aid in 2006, which are included in the touring exhibition Children in Conflict.
This began at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in November 2007 and I reviewed it there at the time.
Conflict of one kind or another has been a consistent theme in Keane’s work, from Northern Ireland to the Middle East, though he likes to point out that he does do the odd portrait commission, most recently of Channel 4’s Jon Snow.
His latest one-man show at Flowers Gallery in London in March and April was called Intelligent Design.
“I subtitled it ‘More paintings about war and religion’,” he explains.
“It had everything in it from Charles Darwin to the Iraq War.
‘‘The paintings were like Rorschach ink blots, images that suggest what you want to see.
‘‘That translates into the perception that people have about seeing what they want to see, or what they’ve been conditioned to see, and that becomes religious in a sense.”
Birmingham playwright David Edgar wrote an essay to accompany the exhibition, having bought a painting from Keane’s previous show, Fifty Seven Hours in the House of Culture.
This was a series of paintings about the three-day Moscow theatre siege in 2002 when a group of female Chechan terrorists held an audience hostage.
The siege ended with all of the terrorists and 130 theatregoers dead.
“I was doing my other project for Christian Aid in the Middle East when it happened,” Keane recalls.
“I was fascinated by people going to a theatre and being taken hostage, having gone to a place where they sought refuge from real life – in particular because the show they were watching was a musical.
“There was a video running, and it shows a bunch of characters in military uniforms on stage, and suddenly a terrorist, also dressed in military uniform, appears from the wings and fires a gun into the ceiling.
‘‘You can see the audience thinking is this part of the show, and it only slowly begins to dawn on them.
‘‘It’s that collision of art and life, in an extraordinarily brutal form which led to nearly three days of captivity from which more than 100 of them never emerged alive.”
Keane reveals that he is in the “slow process” of creating an opera about the siege, for which he has recruited the composer Pete Wyer.
“I got the idea while I was doing the paintings that it should be an opera. Bryony Lavery has written the libretto and she brought on board the director Phyllida Lloyd. We have some support from the National Theatre and English National Opera, and we are looking to get it to the next stage.”
Why have war and other forms of political conflict become such dominant themes in Keane’s work?
“The catalyst for me, I suppose, was the Falklands war.
‘‘I was in my mid-20s when that happened. I was quite shocked by it, having for most of my life had the luxury of living in a peaceful country – apart from Northern Ireland.
“It gradually dawned on me that this is the daily reality for people all over the world.
‘‘I wanted to go and observe this and try to understand it. I suppose what I’m interested in is why people want to kill each other.”
The answer, he concludes, is that they believe themselves to be under threat, and do not necessarily wait to be attacked before retaliating.
“The show I did about Northern Ireland was called The Other Cheek? It’s a long time ago, but when I was there I met members of Sinn Fein, the UDA and British soldiers, and it was a phrase used by all of them: ‘What do you expect us to do – turn the other cheek?’ In other words, ‘I’m being aggressive because I’m being threatened’. There was a kind of irony, because Northern Ireland is so religiously driven, that they used this biblical phrase.”
It’s also evident, though, that Keane is interested in the process of painting. At the time of the Gulf War he was working in a rough expressionist style which fitted with the kind of figurative painting that was fashionable in the 1980s. Since then his work has changed considerably, with the introduction of photography and inkjet painting alongside paint.
He has evolved a rich figurative language which occasionally reminds me of Peter Doig, a painter who briefly held the distinction of commanding the highest auction price for a living artist.
But unlike Doig, Keane does not seem to cut it with the art establishment.
It is difficult not to feel that this has something to do with political painting being somehow perceived as belonging in a separate category.
“In that sense I feel that I’m in a box of my own,” he agrees. “I do feel quite marginalised, which to be honest angers me. ‘I’ve been working now for the last 30 years but I can’t say I’m grateful to any of the major arts institutions for support.
‘‘You won’t find my work at the Tate or in the Arts Council or British Council collections. I have a good commercial gallery in London who are very supportive, and I’ve been with them for 25 years.
‘‘There’s the odd commission from organisations like Christian Aid or Greenpeace and I’m happy to work with them on particular projects, but otherwise I just carry on.”
* Children in Conflict is at the Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry, until September 13 (Mon-Sat 10am-5.30pm, Sun 12 noon-5pm; admission free).