Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 7th April 2023 to 7th January 2024

Reviewed by Jim Burns

We live in a world in which displacement, the situation whereby thousands of people have to leave their home countries and unwillingly move elsewhere, is increasingly a fact of life. Wars, droughts, dramatically increasingly sea levels have, and will, continue to affect what happens as debates develop about how we in places less challenged by climate change or civil unrest should react to the presence of strangers in our midst. What adds to the problem is that, perhaps compared to the past, the numbers involved are much higher. There are worries about how societies with internal difficulties, in terms of housing, jobs, medical and other facilities, can possibly take in large groups whose demands on resources it may not be possible to fulfil without affecting the lives of established citizens of a country.

The current exhibition at the Whitworth is not designed to explore the overall social impact of mass displacement and how it changes a country like the United Kingdom. Rather, it is an attempt to tell a “partial, fragmentary and yet compelling set of stories” through paintings, posters, sculptures, tapestries, and other items.  It’s mostly devoted to examples from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but, in a small section dealing with the effects of slavery,  there is an intriguing eighteenth century etching of the artist Richard Cosway and his wife being served by their black servant, Ottobah Cugoano, a one-time slave from Ghana. His story is a classic account of how displacement can influence a person’s life and activities.

From the twentieth century the earliest example of mass displacement is Frank Brangwyn’s 1914 poster illustrating Belgian refugees fleeing from Antwerp as German troops advanced on the city. Many Belgians came to Britain around that time, as readers of Agatha Christie’s Poirot books will know. It’s clearly a form of propaganda, though executed with skill, and meant to arouse sympathy for the refugees. Brangwyn also put his talents to use to raise funds for Spanish refugees at the time of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Other posters in the display by William King and Ethel Franklin Betts Bains refer to the work of the American Committee for Relief in the Near East, and relate to the Armenian tragedy during the First World War and the plight of Greeks when there were hostilities between Turkey and Greece.  

The 1930s saw many Jews displaced from Germany among them the artists Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach, both represented in the exhibition. They arrived in this country and made major contributions to the British art scene. They weren’t the only ones. There is a good case to be constructed for the impressively beneficial presence of Jewish immigrants in the film, literature and art worlds of the United Kingdom over the years. Their displacement worked to our advantage.

With current crises in Ukraine, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, and many more locations the fact of displacement becoming a permanent situation, with its emphasis shifting from area to area, is a reality we have to accept and deal with. How artists will come to terms with their individual circumstances is something that remains to be seen, though suggestions of it can be found in the exhibition. As mentioned earlier, the available evidence so far tends to be “partial” and “fragmentary”. What comes next may surprise us. In the meantime it’s worth making a visit to the Whitworth to see work by, among others, the Palestinian Bashir Makhoul, Lada Nakonechna (her “Historical Picture of the Contemporary Ruins” is a bleak comment on what’s happening in Ukraine) and Francesco Simeti. His wallpaper print, “Arabian Nights”, is colourful and lively.