Deanna Petherbridge CBE

The Destruction of the City of Homs

2016

In Tate Britain

Artist
Deanna Petherbridge CBE born 1939
Medium
Ink and wash on paper
Dimensions
Image: 1060 x 2280 mm
support: 1060 x 2280 mm
frame: 1277 x 2520 x 50 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Ivor Braka in honour of Maria Balshaw 2017
Reference
T14951

Summary

The Destruction of the City of Homs 2016 is a large-scale drawing in pen, ink and wash across three panels which abut to form a triptych. This work was made as a response to the ongoing civil war in Syria, which started in 2011 as part of the general unrest of the Arab Spring protests, and continues at the time of writing. Having grown up under apartheid in South Africa, Petherbridge has created politically charged work throughout her career. In this particular drawing, which took eight months to complete, the city of Homs in Syria is shown in tatters. From a multitude of viewpoints, the work captures in detail the bombed out tower blocks of the city. In ink and wash, the artist has created a rubble-strewn bombsite with the bones of eviscerated buildings exposed to the sky. Two stark, jagged white passages penetrate the painting across its width, destabilising further an already unsettling vista. Of the title, Petherbridge has said that ‘the name “Homs” was significant to me for another reason. To a Western ear its name relates to the French l’homme and its extension, as a term for mankind … perhaps even humankind.’ (Quoted at https://www.drawingmatter.org/sets/drawing-week/deanna-petherbridge/, November 2016, accessed 23 June 2017.)

Petherbridge’s practice has concentrated on politically and socially motivated drawings, inspired by the urban landscape and architecture of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and India. Influenced by the English vorticists, her architectural shapes, grids and structures are perpetually destabilised by perspectival and narrative ambiguities and interventions. Repetition and seriality are also key to her work. Through this combination of depth and perspective, spatiality, patterning and repetition, the artist has said that she is attempting to elicit through drawing ‘the kind of emotional effects more commonly attributed to brushwork in modern painting’ (quoted in McEwen 1987, p.40).

The artist has written extensively about this particular drawing of the ruins of Homs, which was exhibited in her solo exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester from December 2016 to June 2017:

A photograph of the bombed-out shell of Dresden, destroyed in February 1945 when I was six years old, has lived potently in my life-long memory bank. This, like other black and white photographs of the time, depicted a ghastly desolation in which empty-windowed facades tapering sharply from jaggedly pointed upper stories to the debris-surrounded bases seemed to mimic the triangular infrastructure of the Gothic A few pointed spires and steeple silhouettes in the wreckage of the city imbued the image with a profoundly melancholy pictorialisation of destroyed European history … When I became sure that the destruction and suffering in the Syrian civil war was to be the demanding subject for a new drawing, I realised that the horrific images and descriptions haunting me in the media were those of the wreckage of a modern city.  I have never visited Syria and never gone to Homs, but what shocked me in this new Middle-Eastern war was that I was seeing the total annihilation of modernity. As horrific witness to a different kind of warfare and means of obliteration, these were blunt not jagged ruins; not the serrated remnants of stone or brick shells but the skeletal remains of reinforced concrete structures. When contemporary utilitarian architecture loses its glazed curtain walling and its flimsy infill panels and divisions it reverts to a hollow imitation of its original post and platform structure.

For me, there is something very freakish and diabolical about this reversion… in trying to find a visual language for depicting The Destruction of the City of Homs, I could only perceive the incinerated city as coldly and chillingly empty: a clumsy pile of vertical and horizontal debris voided of the living future and the lived-in past.
The city I have drawn could, of course, be Aleppo. As it is not based on fact – only partly suggested by photographs and film and mostly invented – I realised that the name ‘Homs’ was significant to me for another reason. To a Western ear its name relates to the French l’homme and its extension, as a term for mankind … perhaps even humankind.

This is a symbolic work, but it still demanded that I drew every inch of its surface with an immense attention to detail, as if, by so doing, I could commemorate all the imaginary people and their activities:  the office buildings, the factories, the mosques, the schools and hospitals, the homes, apartments and workshops and their bombardment to rubble and dust. The city – and there are lots of towers still standing in my drawing but they are all empty – is drawn from a multitude of viewpoints, as if I was traversing its geography on the back of a drone. I have viewed it from above, below and within, sometimes recording a perspective, sometimes a worm’s eye view, sometimes an oblique projection, sometimes large in scale sometimes small, but all with the same level of detailed depiction. There is no rationality or consistency in the multiplicity of views, although held together (I hope) by the similitude of the ink and wash technique. For me, the gaping diagonal white passages tearing through its complexities represent those awful bulldozed wound-like roads that cut through destroyed urban areas during wars. No matter who or what was there before, now there is only a brutish urgency to move army troops over and through the archaeology of destruction. Rubble is not cleared for those starving ghosts surviving amongst the ruins but to support the passage of the conquering armies to move on to further slaughter.
(Artist’s statement, 26 November 2016, at https://www.drawingmatter.org/sets/drawing-week/deanna-petherbridge/, November 2016, accessed 23 June 2017.)

Further reading
John McEwen, Temples and Tenements: The Indian Drawings of Deanna Petherbridge, Calcutta 1987.
Deanna Petherbridge, Gill Perry, Roger Malbert, Martin Clayton and Angela Weight, Deanna Petherbridge: Drawing and Dialogue, London 2016.

Aïcha Mehrez
June 2017

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Display caption

Petherbridge made this work in response to the press coverage of the civil war in Syria. Homs, a city that has seen some of the most intense violence of the conflict, is shown as a bomb-damaged labyrinth. The artist has spoken of her painstaking attention to detail in making the work as a way of commemorating ‘all the imaginary people and their activities: the office buildings, the factories, the mosques, the schools and hospitals, the homes, apartments and workshops and their bombardment to rubble and dust.’

Gallery label, May 2019

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