Sensory War

October 11, 2014  -  February 22, 2015

Free Admission

This major exhibition marking the Centenary of the First World War explored how artists have communicated the impact of military conflict on the body, mind, environment and human senses between 1914 and 2014.

The show examined how artists from 1914 onwards depicted the devastating impact of new military technologies utilised in a century of conflict beginning with the First World War. It brought together work from a range of leading artists including Henry Lamb, CRW Nevinson, Paul Nash, Otto Dix, Nancy Spero, Richard Mosse, Omer Fast and featured works by the hibakusha; survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima which were created in the 1970s and are being shown in the UK for the first time.

The First World War involved a profound re-configuration of sensory experience and perception through the invention of devastating military technologies, which destroyed human lives and altered the environment beyond recognition. Its legacy has continued and evolved through even more radical forms of destruction over the last hundred years. Throughout the century, artists have struggled to understand the true effect of modern technological warfare. While military and press photography have brought a new capacity to coldly document such lethal displays, artists found a different way of seeing.

Manchester Art Gallery has a nationally important collection of art of the First World War, which was assembled by its first director, Lawrence Haward. Taking this rich collection as the starting point, this show includes historic and contemporary art from the UK, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, Japan, Vietnam, New Zealand, Algeria, Ireland, Iran, Israel and Palestine.

Exhibition Themes

The Sensory War explores the responses of a range of artists over the past century to the sensory effects of warfare through a series of themes.

Militarising Bodies, Manufacturing War
Examining artist’s reactions to the industrialised process of militarisation and the effect of noise in the urban environment this display includes work by CRW Nevinson who depicted scenes from the First World War using the aggressive, Modern visual style of Vorticism.

Pain and Succour
A display exploring how artists responded to the treatment of soldiers on the front line. It includes Henry Lamb’s Advance Dressing Station on the Struma from the gallery’s collection, and Henry Tonk’s An Advanced Dressing Station in France from the Imperial War Museum which are exhibited together here for the first time.

Rupture and Rehabilitation
Looking at how art was employed not only to record the treatment of soldiers in hospitals but also how it reflected on the new medical advances of plastic surgery and facial reconstruction. Exploring this theme, all 12 plates of Cologne New Objectivist, Heinrich Hoerle’s Die Krüppelmappe’ (The Cripple Portfolio) are presented alongside his oil painting Three Invalids. Seen together in the UK for the first time, these works record Hoerle’s tender but also bitter reflections on the ruined bodies of war from a German perspective. Also in this section are a series of delicate drawings of disabled soldiers recovering in hospital by French female artist Rosine Cahen.

Shocking the Senses
A display which reflects on the experience of shell shock and includes works such as Pietro Morando’s Goyaesque studies depicting the appalling tortures that took place inside prisoner of war camps during the First World War.

Bombing, Burning and Distant War
This section explores the effects on the ground of military conflict. It includes Omer Fast’s video work 5,000 feet is the Best which reveals the terror of drone strikes for the victims and the psychological impact on soldiers in recent conflicts of piloting drones from a distant location on another continent.

The Embodied Ruin: Natural and Material Environments
A display which looks at how artists such as Paul Nash and William Orpen used landscapes destroyed by conflict as a metaphor for the fate of the soldiers who fought there.

Chemical War and Toxic Imaginations
This section includes work that responds to gas warfare since the First World War. Included in this section are Sophie Jodoin’s haunting drawings of faces wearing gas masks depicting a distorted human physiognomy.

Haunted Ghostlands: Loss, Resilience and Memory
Exploring the after-effects of military conflict this display presents The Separation Line by emerging artist Katie Davies which explores the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan by documenting the military repatriation funeral processions through British town, Royal Wootton Bassett.

The Sensory War 1914-2014 was presented in partnership with the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Centre for the Cultural History of War at the University of Manchester. It was curated by Dr Ana Carden-Coyne, Co-Director of the Centre for the Cultural History of War at the University of Manchester; David Morris, Head of Collections, the Whitworth Art Gallery; and Tim Wilcox, Principal Curator, Exhibitions at Manchester Art Gallery.


Gas Mask (SJ54), Sophie Jodoin, 2008, from the Series Helmets and Gasmasks, 2007-9
Advance Dressing Station on the Struma, Henry Lamb, 1916, (detail).