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Work captures horror of war

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If you found last week a bit startling with all those ‘little horrors’ roaming the streets, holding their neighbours ransom for sweet treats, prepare yourself for this evening’s pyrotechnic frenzy.

November it turns out is pretty scary and this work by artist Huib Luns seems to sum it up nicely.

Flippancy aside, this is a poignant art work. Made sometime between 1910 and 1920 it is titled simply War and was produced in response to World War One.

A fantastical image of a Bellona Goddess of War with a medusa-like head, it is at once a graphic manifestation of human terror and otherworldly.

It’s creator artist Huib Luns (1881- 1942) was a Dutch painter, sculptor and writer who designed book covers, posters and medals. A bit of a renaissance man, Luns was a professor of art history and a leading practitioner of his day.

At the outbreak of World War One Luns was 33 years old and teaching art in Rotterdam, which despite Holland’s neutrality was heavily impacted by the war.

Strategically located between Britain, Germany and German-occupied Belgium, Rotterdam was a hotbed of espionage from where the British coordinated its spy network in Germany and occupied Belgium.

Tens of thousands of Belgian refugees lived in the city, as well as hundreds of German deserters and escaped prisoners of war.

No doubt the art schools in the day would have been alive with progressive ideas and its young students would have identified keenly with the young people conscripted for the war in Europe.

Only 20 years before this print was made, Luns was himself a young student at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. There he would have been exposed to a curriculum where philosophers, academics and artists met to test and exchange ideas and knowledge.

A background such as this would have grounded his art practice in wider considerations such as ethics and the politic.

The fact that his eldest son Joseph grew up to serve as Minister of Foreign Affairs and later became Secretary-General of NATO suggests to me that Luns and his wife must have created a very politically engaged household. I imagine rigorous dinner table discussions that gave Luns the younger a solid foundation in international politics.

Luns Senior, was also a brilliant painter if maybe a little conservative due to the classical education offered at the Rijksakademie. His work ranged in style, influenced by the Impressionists and the Pre Raphaelites. As well, Dutch national Rembrandt (Harmenszoon van Rijn) makes his presence felt in Luns’ early portraits.

Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust holds this work by Luns and another titled Peace. On the record of both works it shows that both were a gift of the cultural philanthropists Carnegie Corporation. Carnegie were in the early 1900s generous donors who funded libraries across the world and education and travel opportunities for museums and galleries as well as schools.  

It is acquisitions such as this one that have created such an eclectic collection and although it is great fun to see such works in the light of today’s fun filled celebration such as Halloween and Guy Fawkes, each is a view of history that reveals lost or less known  stories.

This work and its companion work Peace can be viewed in the MTG Hawke’s Bay online collection.

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper 5 November 2022 and written by Toni MacKinnon, Curator Fine Arts at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Image credit: 

War by Huib Luns. Hawke's Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi. Gifted by the Carnegie Corporation

14 November 2022

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