Soon after the start of the Gulf War on 2 August 1990, painter and photographer John Keane was invited by the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London to be Britain’s official war artist for this new conflict, forged in the disintegration of the Cold War. At first refused accreditation by a suspicious Ministry of Defence, due to his record of painting an unflattering portrait of war, the 36-year-old Keane eventually travelled to Iraq, where he was embedded with the British army. The artist later spent five days in Kuwait, in the aftermath of the US-led liberation that brought the Gulf War to an end on 28 February 1991.
While stationed in the region, Keane took photographs and made a video diary that captured the daily lives of citizens, soldiers, medical staff and journalists against the backdrop of major military operations and the machinery of war. Keane later recalled, “My aim was just to be a sponge – absorb and record as much as possible. I didn’t know how I might react. The whole experience was very alien and disturbing. Like a dream that I awoke from on my return.” Alongside the more traditional subject matter for a war artist, Keane also photographed items such as an abandoned shopping trolley containing rocket warheads on the streets of Kuwait City, palm trees bent over like tortured humans, and a smiling child giving a V sign in front of a marauding tank, revealing his keen sense of irony and eye for seemingly innocuous and easily-overlooking details that in their quotidian mundanity reveal the strangeness of war.
Upon his return to the UK, Keane used this photographic material as the basis for a series of paintings that aimed not only to address the conflict, but also reflected on the media coverage of events. Paintings such as the series Scenes on the Road to Hell – so named after photos taken on Basra, Highway 80, which became known as the “Highway of Death” after the Allied forces attacked retreating Iraqi troops in the last days of the war – brought together material from several images to tease out their disturbing and ominous nature. Through the application of lurid colours, smudged and dripping, Keane distorted the scenes and created a visual world has been compared both to Goya’s epic print series The Disasters of War and The Scream by Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch.
John Keane’s Gulf War pictures were first exhibited in London in 1992, where they were met with surprise at their apparently subversive content. The painting Mickey Mouse at the Front became a particular subject of discussion and more than some outrage. At the centre of the painting, the famous Disney cartoon character sits grinning on a Kuwaiti beach covered with excrement, surrounded by the decimated palm trees and rocket-filled shopping trolley, and in front of bombed-out city ruins. While The Sun newspaper branded it “sick”, and vilified Keane for his perceived slight to the families of dead soldiers, the scene was a realist tableau, composed from Keane’s photographic images and visual memories from his time in Iraq and Kuwait.
Since his Gulf War project, John Keane has continued to travel to conflict zones and to engage with traumatic subject matter, producing paintings that record campaigns against illegal logging in the Amazon, life in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Chechen War and the rise of Islamist terrorism, and the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. The artist understands the Gulf War as the bridge between Cold War and War on Terror, “the opening salvo on a war that is still going on, being waged with greater ferocity than we could ever have imagined.”
You can see John Keane’s Gulf War photographs on the Imperial War Museums website, while his paintings are displayed on Keane’s website.
Images: All images by John Keane. Top – Photographs from The Gulf War 1990–1991, part of the John Keane Collection, Imperial War Museums; Middle – Scenes on the Road to Hell 1, 1991. PVA on paper, 150 x 85 cm; Bottom – Mickey Mouse at the Front, 1991. Oil on canvas, 173 x 198cm. All images courtesy John Keane and Imperial War Museums.