20.03.2014 - 01.09.2014

Art and culture in times of conflict

The First World War erupted exactly one hundred years ago. It was to claim the lives of many thousands of Belgian soldiers and civilians. The war was utterly devastating: art and culture also fell victim to its ravages. In Leuven, the University Library was burned along with numerous valuable books. Ravaged starts from the burning of Leuven in 1914, and then situates the event in a broader context. Throughout the centuries, there have been countless examples of conflicts that targeted cultural heritage. From the 16th Century Iconoclasm to the destruction of the statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, from the burning of Constantinople to the destruction of Beirut: crimes against art and culture are of all ages.

The exhibition demonstrates how artists depicted these destructions. Shocked by what was lost, they were inspired by the devastation. The exhibition brings together artworks dating from between the fifteenth and twenty-first century, from old masters to contemporary artists. Allegorical representations of Mars, the god of war mercilessly attacks the arts are juxtaposed with images of destroyed cities, historical pieces, propaganda materials, postcards and critical reflections on art theft and destruction. The exhibition features a wide variety of media: from painting to graphics and tapestry art and from photography to video and monumental installations. The artworks are divided into five subthemes throughout the exhibition: destroyed cities, ruins, deliberate destruction, propaganda and art theft.

The artists

Cai Guo-Qiang, Adel Abdessemed, Emily Jacir, Fernando Bryce, Lamia Joreige, Lida Abdul, Michael Rakowitz, Mona Hatoum, Mona Vatamanu & Florin Tudor, Sven Augustijnen, Francesco Hayez, Floris Jespers, Pierre Alphonse & Pierre Emile Arnou, Frans Francken II, Henri Bles, Pietro da Cortona, Simon de Vlieger, Aurèle Augustin Coppens, William Turner, Michael Sweerts

Mona Hatoum


Mona Hatoum (°1952, Beirut) left Lebanon at the beginning of the Civil War in 1975. She presents her memories of her native city as an apocalyptic landscape. A group of thirteen steel constructions evokes the experience of wandering through an abandoned city. Though the structures are stripped of any architectural detail and reduced to their most basic elements, some are based on existing and recognisable buildings in Beirut. To Hatoum, the physical experience of an artwork is always primary. This is undoubtedly the case in Bunker: the visitor moving through the rubble of this collection of modern ruins is immediately gripped by its emotional impact. This is an inhospitable place, not a protective one as the title might suggest.

Floris Jespers

American Welfare – Commission for relief in Belgium

The burning of Leuven University Library caused shock, indignation and outrage around the world. After the war, the Americans built a new library in Leuven. In gratitude, the Belgians gave the Americans an enormous tapestry to a design by Floris Jespers (1889-1965, Antwerp) in 1953. The work was intended to glorify American generosity towards Belgium. On the right, we see the Americans intervening on the battlefield; civilisation – an ionic capital – has been crushed under foot, but the American intervention manages to save cultural heritage from total destruction. Leuven University Library is clearly recognisable in the centre of the tapestry. The tapestry was first exhibited at the World Exhibition in New York in 1939. It was later formally presented to the Hoover Institution at Stanford, where it has since been stored in the archives.

Michael Rakowitz

May the Arrogant Not Prevail

The Iraqi Ishtar Gate is one of the most famous examples of an artwork removed from its original cultural context. The gate dates from 575 B.C. and was the city gate of the ancient city of Babylon, in the region now known as Iraq. In the early twentieth century, the gate was taken down under the supervision of a German archaeologist and rebuilt in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Currently, a 1950s reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate stands near the ruins of ancient Babylon. Michael Rakowitz (°1973, New York) has made a replica of this replica. In this work, the artist focuses our attention on the colonial background of many modern cultural institutions. His gate is covered with packaging from Arab products. The title of the work, May the Arrogant Not Prevail (2010) is derived from a translation of Ay-ibur-sabu, the name of the road that started at the original Ishtar Gate.

Curators: Eline Van Assche and Ronald Van de Sompel 

Scientific committee: Koenraad Brosens (KU Leuven), Luc Delrue (M), Mark Derez (KU Leuven, Universiteitsarchief), Goedele Pulinx (M), Marjan Sterckx (UGent), Jo Tollebeek (KU Leuven), Tom Verschaffel (KU Leuven), Hélène Verreyke (M) and Eva Wittocx (M)