I was in the occupied Palestinian city of Hebron once, in 2001, and the Palestinians had lynched three supposed collaborators. And they were hanging so terribly, almost naked, on the electricity pylons out of town, that I could not write in my notebook. Instead, I drew pictures of their bodies hanging from the pylons. Young boys – Palestinian boys – were stubbing out cigarettes on their near-naked bodies and they reminded me of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, all arrows and pain and forgiveness, and so all I could do was draw. I still have the pictures. They are ridiculous, stupid, the work of a reporter who suddenly couldn’t bring himself to write the details on the page.
But I understand Hoyland’s picture, even if it is not my picture. After I saw the oil fires burning in Kuwait in 1991, an Irish artist painted Fisk’s Fires – a title I could have done without – in which she very accurately portrayed the bleached desert with the rich, thick, chocolate-tasting oil we tasted in the aftermath of the war. Sometimes, I wish these painters were with us when we saw the war with our own eyes – and which they could then see with theirs.
But John Hoyland’s Blood and Flowers quite scrupulously directs our eyesight on to the bright, glittering centre of gore that we – be we photographers or writers – look at immediately we enter the centre of that little Golgotha which we wish to visit and of which we never wish to be a part: the hospital. Blood is not essentially terrible. It is about life. But it smells. Stay in a hospital during a war and you will become accustomed to the chemical smell of blood. It is quite normal. Doctors and nurses are used to it. So am I. But when I smell it in war, it becomes an obscenity.
I remember how Condoleezza Rice, when she was Secretary of State, visited Lebanon at the height of the war – at the apogee of the casualties – and said that the birth of democracy could be bloody. Well, yes indeed. The midwifery was a fearful business. Lots of blood. Huge amid the hospitals. God spare us Ms Rice’s hospital delivery rooms…
I’m not sure how sincerely we should lock on to art to portray history (or war). I have to admit that Tolstoy’s Battle of Borodino in War and Peace tells me as much about human conflict as Anna Karenina tells me about love. I am more moved by the music of Cecil Coles – one of only two well-known British composers killed in the 1914-1918 war – than I am by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. But this does not reduce the comprehensive, unstoppable power of great art to convince – just as a brilliantly made movie can do in the cinema.
I have to admit that I have a few worries about art and war. Can a painter who has never experienced war really understand the nature of the vile beast? Most of Britain’s First World War artists were in France, but that does not apply to Iraq. When I saw wild beasts – the desert dogs – tearing apart the corpses of men, women and children in southern Iraq (killed by the United States Air Force and, yes, by the RAF, whose pilots – God bless them – refused to go on killing the innocent) and running off across the sand with fingers and arms and legs, there was no art form to convey this horror. Film would have been a horror movie, paintings an obscenity. Maybe only photographs – undoctored – can tell you what we see.
Goya got it right. I went to see an exhibition of his sketches in Lille a few years ago – the irony of my father’s trenches a few miles away (he was a 19-year-old soldier in the third battle of the Somme) not lost on me – and was almost overwhelmed by the cruelty that he transmits. The collaborators hanging, near-naked, from the pylons seemed so close to the raped and impaled guerrilla fighters of Spain that art seemed almost pointless. What is the point of intellect when the brain will always be crushed by the body?
When the Americans entered Baghdad in April 2003, I ran into the main teaching hospital in Baghdad to find a scene of Crimean war proportions. Men holding amputated hands, soldiers screaming for their mothers as their skin burned, a man without an eye, a ribbon of bandage allowing a trail of blood to run from his empty socket. Blood overflowed my shoes. I guess it’s at times like this that we need John Hoyland.