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April 1997

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[New Statesman - 25 April 1997]

The art of war: is the truth about Bosnia found in the camera's lens or the mind's eye? by Ed Vulliamy.

Among the crowds who have come for a glass of wine before Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is a photograph of a little child wrapped in swaddling, surgical dressings on his ripped, shrapnel-splattered face. The whites of his eyes shine, his glance is cast aside. The expression is piercing, pained, confused; but somehow wise and accusatory. He seems to ask, in his innocence, "Why did you do this to me?" It is a glance from within the tortured soul of Sarajevo, the once-fine city against which the Serbian warlord Ratko Mladic gave this order: "Shell them until they cannot sleep. Don't stop until they are on the edge of madness".

Tom Stoddart took this photograph and most of the others on show at London's Royal Festival Hall. He is the first to admit, as he tells me, that it is "weird to see them all here. Better here, though, than in some gallery. Anyone can come and see them and think."

As memories, these scenes lurk like unquiet waves behind one's shoulder. It can take a lot less than Stoddart's pictures to bring them crashing ashore. Just as well that the foyer ensemble isn't playing Brahms' Requiem.

Some few miles north, in the more conventional surroundings of the Flowers East gallery, hangs a terrifying canvas called Under Siege. It portrays a group of people who are the emblems of this bloody war against the innocent: the refugees - the "deportees" was a better word in Bosnia - painted by the Scotsman Peter Howson, sponsored by the Imperial War Museum and the Times as their official war artist in Bosnia.

A youth holds his hands towards the fiery heavens. A man clasps his daughter to his thigh and holds a Kalashnikov in the other hand - parent-turned-soldier. And there is a family: the father has a haunted expression, looking out from under an overbearing brow; the mother is weary, her face lachrymose and heavy. The child is dumb and doll-like, her face emptied of any feeling but fear - on the edge of madness. Behind them is a landscape of destruction; black smoke billows across the canvas. This is some ghastly flight through no man's land.

With a shudder I remember just such a procession, the night I joined 1,600 Muslims from Sanski Most, bullied from their homes that morning, herded by gunmen and thugs across the mountains, belched out through the no man's land of the battlefield, walking for terrifying hours among severed human bodies to the precarious safety of Muslim Travnik, itself under heavy siege.

Can the painter say more about war than the photographer? Does the authenticity of the photograph supersede the truth in the mind's eye?

It was only during the American civil war that the painter gave way to the photographer as the principal chronicler of war. Although the carnage of the Great War produced some of the finest and most hellish of Britain's war artistry, the inspiration for John Singer Sargent's Gassed was actually a series of photographs of the Front taken at Béthune in 1918. By the time we were in a position to contrast the extraordinary photograph of HMS Antelope blown apart in the South Atlantic during the Falklands war with the puny official drawings of Linda Kitson, the contest - such as it is - seemed to be over. It was Bosnia's war as depicted by camera that made Peter Howson want to go there in the first place.

The representation of war becomes art when it does more than chronicle the historic moment, when it communicates something eternal. Piero della Francesca's religious battle frescos in Arezzo were painted in the 1460s, Goya's Third of May, 1808 centres on the Napoleonic invasion of Madrid, but they tell us more about what Wilfred Owen called "the pity of war" than almost any other images of warfare. The art of war can sometimes explain the nature of war even when we are right in the middle of it. I found that Owen's poetry made sense in Bosnia: I carried his verses wherever I went.

So many people went to Bosnia - lorry drivers, doctors, journalists - that there seems something melodramatic about Howson's agonised decision to return, having pulled out of his first traumatic visit after only four days. Tom Stoddart went back without fuss after being badly wounded. Yet the press's jeering at Howson was repulsive; it was Howson's very sensibility that spawned his achievement in these paintings. For the painter's imagination takes us to places where the photographer is forbidden. The figures in Under Siege stand beneath a blazing sky which recalls the strafed, infernal night-skies of Paul Nash during the second world war. This is immediately a different experience from looking at photography. We rarely saw the sky like that in Bosnia - full of explosions and fires, yes, but not ablaze in this way. We imagined people's lives put to the torch, accompanied by the sound of barked shouting and gunfire - but in the countryside where Howson worked it was usually hidden from us. We would arrive to see the aftermath: the smouldering rafters, charred corpses, refugees or prisoners. And yet we knew what Howson depicts: this land was burning.

The media was (and is) accused of exaggerating the severity of violence in Bosnia. The reality hidden even from Stoddart's camera was infinitely worse than anything that appeared before the public. We often wondered what those rape camps must have been like from the inside, but we were not allowed to "imagine" in print. The camera cannot lie, but it cannot have nightmares either.

The painter, of course, can enter this horrifying nether world. In Two become One, a brutish soldier - one hand raised to strike his victim, the other pinning her on to a rough table - rapes a woman whose legs are splayed horribly around his back. Her eyes are white and roll towards heaven seeking escape; his roll, too, demonically and out of mind. The painter can look through the bloodshot eyes of these men, drunk with death, into their evil core. In The Frontier, a man hangs from a tree beside a front-line hut boarded up against mortar fire. A soldier tends to a cabbage patch. We know those people and places only too well, but in Howson's vision the trees themselves have become menacing.

Paradoxically the imagination has its limits in war, by contrast with reality. This is why Stoddart's photographs rather than Howson's paintings send one back down those accursed but unforgettable streets. Stoddart is not any old snapper. He understood the war and was there for four years. Whereas Howson limits himself - estimably - to violence and pity, Stoddart is concerned with defiance and dignity. There were many outstanding photographers of Bosnia's war, but none with Stoddart's epic sense of empathy with the pride and wretchedness of its victims. His exhibition is not a lament, but a tribute. (It is also art, without question. A still of a nun reading by candlelight is almost a photographic Vermeer.)

The gunners and killers who tortured Sarajevo are always there in his pictures, but they lurk off-camera. The people we see are their victims. In one sequence we are almost granted the gunner's-eye view: the scenes on "sniper alley", where, says Stoddart, "any visiting foreigner could share the fear and witness the bravery, humanity and occasional idiocy of the locals. Each person handled the 40 metre dash differently".

A man clutches his child as he makes to run, his face taut with concentration. A little girl holds her doll and manages a sublime, puckish grin at the camera as she sprints for the life ahead of her. Another man leaps athletically. The dynamics of their bodies, the punctilious application of the women's make-up on sniper alley, the careful pressing of their blouses - these details tell you everything about the human will to survive.

"It was like the miners' strike a thousand times over," recalls Stoddart. "Women come to the fore."

A group of women huddles in the fire shadow of the buildings, awaiting the right moment (as if there ever was one) to run. The twist is that in the line of fire, a woman is already slanting, twiddling her spectacles, looking back at the group. All the time you know these people are being watched through sniper's telescopic sights, as well as by Stoddart's lens.

The theme of Howson's show is "Bosnia and Beyond", and he confronts the deepest cruelty of this war: its aftermath. This matter is personal as well as epic. Before Bosnia, Howson was a successful family man: after, he was a haunted hermit whose marriage shattered.

Of course "aftermath" also means pictures such as Coming Storm, in which mountain conifers descend surreally to a sun-kissed beach on which a girl in a swimsuit dances. She loves life - why shouldn't she? She does not see the battleship-grey cloud gathering overhead, or the man who broods like some Ancient Mariner upon a rock, the storm in his head echoing that above.

Most people would rather forget about Bosnia. That is the easiest way to deal with the fact that our community of democracies betrayed Bosnia's Muslims to the point of near-extinction, and appeased the perpetrators of this foul pogrom. A few want to go even further: the apparently insignificant gang that publishes Living Marxism is gaining a degree of acceptance on the armchair left for its argument that coverage by ITN and myself of Serbian concentration camps was fabricated, giving an inaccurately desolate impression of those satanic places. These people are not just trying to abandon the truth - that's easy - but to poison and slaughter it.

Tom Stoddart says this about his photographs, whose suffering and dignity these revisionists overlook and dismiss: "These pictures are not for now, not even for tomorrow. They're for later. We wouldn't know what we know about Auschwitz now if it hadn't been for the photographers. It was 50 years ago, but we have those images printed on our minds. I took my photographs for 40 or 50 years' time. Sarajevo, I hope, will go back to being a beautiful city. I took these photographs hoping that no one would forget what happened there."

The truth about Bosnia is in the critical ward itself these days. The work of these artists helps to keep the life-support machine switched on.

Ed Vulliamy won many awards for his coverage of the war in former Yugoslavia for the "Guardian".

"Edge of Madness" is at the RFH until 18 May; Peter Howson's "Bosnia and Beyond" is at Flowers East until 25 May.

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