The skilfully choreographed end of the Tony Blair decade is about to receive an unwelcome gatecrasher as a centrepiece of one of London’s most popular summer visitor attractions.
A huge and controversial artwork showing the prime minister and his wife, Cherie, being expelled naked from 10 Downing Street amid the chaos of Iraq was unveiled at the Royal Academy on Wednesday.
Composed in an emotional burst of energy in 10 days by the prominent sculptor and academician, Michael Sandle, it will dominate the annual summer exhibition, the world’s largest open-entry art show, which had more than 150 000 visitors last year.
Although some eyebrows were initially raised at the submission, the 4,5m x 1,5m drawing has been given extra prominence by winning the exhibition’s annual Hugh Casson prize for drawing. The Royal Academy’s president, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, is expected to highlight Sandle’s work at the academy’s annual dinner this month, which usually is attended by government figures.
The charcoal drawing was modelled by the artist, who is 71 and has sculpted many public commissions, on medieval paintings of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden in disgrace. The embarrassed central characters outside No 10 are flanked by one panel representing brutality by British troops in Iraq and another showing a pile of Iraqi corpses under an Hieronymus Bosch-like rain of body parts.
The brutality panel is based on the case of Corporal Donald Payne, who admitted inhuman treatment of Iraqi civilians at a court martial last year in which other soldiers in his unit were cleared amid controversy. Sandle has called the panel “Corporal Payne’s Chorus” because the soldier invited others to hear what he called his “choir” of victims screaming.
“I wasn’t going to submit this year, but I suddenly felt overcome with anger at the way Blair has messed up,” said Sandle, who originally thought he had missed the submission deadline.
He worked non-stop, including fixing up the framing required for all entries, after staff reminded him of the 10 days of grace allowed to academicians entering work. “There he was, elected by a huge majority, and he has allowed his vanity to destroy it all,” said Sandle. “He doesn’t appear to feel a twinge of conscience about Iraq because he is so sure that he did the right thing.
“They have talked about the original perpetrators of violence being the ones who should apologise, but what about the 650 000 Iraqis who have died since the invasion? Who is going to apologise to them and how?”
Sandle has no particular reputation for political artwork, but the human cost of warfare has played a prominent part in his sculpture.
Two of his best-known works in London are the Malta Siege Memorial in Trinity Gardens, Lambeth, and the Seafarers’ Memorial at the headquarters of the International Maritime Organisation.
“I am very aware of the way that Britain has a habit of interfering overseas,” he said. “Years ago I did a Mickey Mouse machine-gun sculpture as a comment on the Americans in Vietnam. I was interested to discover from my historical research how we’d meddled with the place after the Japanese surrender. It wasn’t the Americans who started it and it wasn’t the French. It was us [the British].”
The stark drawing, entitled Iraq Triptych, will hang in the exhibition’s Gallery V next to a group of romantic watercolours and a drawing of British troops on the Somme battlefield in World War I at an outpost nicknamed Moo Cow Farm.
Also in the gallery is a sardonic entry by David Hensel called Mad Dog, which alludes to last year’s main summer exhibition controversy, when a sculpture by Hensel got lost en route to the judges, who saw only its plinth and bizarrely included that in the show.
The gallery was hung by the Scottish artist Barbara Rae after Sandle’s work triumphed in the complex judging process, which whittles more than 9 000 entries down to about 1 200. Sandle said: “I was expecting them to find it a dark corner somewhere so this is all a very nice surprise.
“It’s particularly good to have won the Casson prize. I was apprehensive about the whole thing once I’d taken it to the academy. But I’m glad I did. I just had to do it — I thought: this guy just can’t get away with what he’s done.” — Â