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War/Photography

Images of battles won and lost paint us all with the brush of brutality at a searing, resonating MFAH exhibit.

In "Retribution and Homecoming," WWII images show the humiliation of Nazi collaborators. In Robert Capa's August 18, 1944 image Chartres, France, a woman with a shaved head clutches a baby, pursued by a jeering crowd. In Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1945, photo Deportee Camp, a Gestapo Informer Is Recognized by a Woman She Has Denounced, Dessau, Germany, a woman snarls at her Gestapo accuser. Righteous anger and hatred look the same to the camera.

The images of Nazi concentration camps offer an inarguable justification for World War II, seen as our last "good war." But no nation comes out of war with its morality intact. Matsumoto Eiichi's 1945 image Shadow of a soldier remaining on the wooden wall of the Nagasaki military headquarters (Minami-Yamate machi, 4.5km. from Ground Zero) is literally ghostly. It's like a rayogram made with a nuclear blast.

In the comments posted on the wall at the end of the exhibition, there are calls for peace, tributes to loved ones and quotes from John Lennon. And then there are slogans like "FREEDOM ISN'T FREE."

Valentine stands with her daughters Amelie and Inez in Rwanda by Jonathan C. Torgovnik
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the artist. © Jonathan Torgovnik
Valentine stands with her daughters Amelie and Inez in Rwanda by Jonathan C. Torgovnik

Location Info

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Museum Of Fine Arts, Houston

1001 Bissonnet St.
Houston, TX 77004

Category: Museums

Region: Kirby-West U

Details

"WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath"

Through February 3 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

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War and its legacies are complicated. I visited the show with a friend whose father was an American prisoner of war held by the Japanese. He was beaten daily for more than a year. While there, I also saw an old grad school friend and former Houstonian, photographer James Nakagawa. His grandfather helped develop the Zero for Mitsubishi. Nakagawa took the 2010 image Gama Cave #009, a large-scale color photograph from the blackened Okinawan caves where civilians were burned alive during WWII. The image is beyond haunting.

It's a practically flawless exhibition. The contemporary art in the "Remembrance" section harbors the only slightly out-of-place moments. Morimura Yasumasa's large color print of the artist dressed up as Emperor Hirohito and Douglas MacArthur seems too clowning in the context of the show. This much reality is a hard act to follow. But works in "Remembrance" like Nakagawa's cave photo and Richard Avedon's large, unflinching black and white portrait of a Napalm victim are moments of art and truth.

The only down side of this highly admirable show is the war-themed gift shop right outside the exit. I have groused about MFAH post-exhibition merchandising so much in the past that I feel like the town crank, but the shop here is the crassest ever. Wonderful photography books are overshadowed by war tchotchkes like a grenade-shaped stress ball and "Food Fighters," plastic army men cocktail toothpicks. Making war cute and playful does the exact opposite of what the show is intended to do. It's not the fault of the curatorial department, but it sure is a bad way to exit this moving exhibition. Hopefully somebody will edit the merchandise before the show travels.

As I slowly made my way through WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY, I kept waiting for the exhibition to turn south, to try to offer some patriotic, it's-all-worth-it-in-the-end sop to the audience. I have faith in the curators, but I didn't think MFAH as an institution had the stomach to be this frank and unrelenting. But it did. It doesn't let up, and the result is a powerful, heartbreaking exhibition that should profoundly affect anyone who sees it.

It isn't an easy show, but it's worth it. It makes us look at ourselves without illusions and we leave the better for it. How often does that happen?

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