John Keane was the official artist for the Imperial War Museum, sent to cover the Gulf War 20 years ago. He was embedded with the British army, but he also spent five days in Kuwait City at the end of the war. He records that “the stench of death” was everywhere as bodies lay rotting.
Keane had left his sketchbook behind. He took photographs and made a video diary instead, from which he later developed a series of paintings including “Welcome to the New World Order”, “Mickey Mouse at the Front” and “Scenes on the Road to Hell”. All are paintings that draw you into a deep questioning of war, why it is fought, and what it entails.
“Scenes on the Road to Hell” is based on Keane’s photographs: a Kuwaiti girl in an orange dress making a victory sign and holding a photo of the Emir; children on top of a tank “celebrating victory shortly after Kuwait’s liberation”; crushed vehicles of the retreating Iraqi army which Keane says were bursting with “consumer items from Kuwait City, bicycles and plates and a child’s toy”.
The road to Basra, Highway 80, later became known as the “Highway of Death” after retreating Iraqi troops in Saddam’s conscript army were continuously bombed by US and Allied forces on 26 February 1991. Keane says of his experience that he “found the whole episode pretty disturbing” and that he “wouldn’t particularly want to repeat it”.
“Scenes on the Road to Hell” follows Goya’s “The Disasters of War”, and has the emotional power of Munch’s “The Scream”. As well as the paintings, the collection of powerful photographs that inspired them are well worth seeing.
John Keane’s Gulf War paintings are at the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, while the photographs can be seen at the adjacent WaterWay Gallery, until 27 February.
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