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Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War Exhibition

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by John Burns (subscribe)
I am a writer and teacher, out and about in the world but with Nottingham never far from my heart.
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Our concept of war tends to be a confused one. Most of us – if we're lucky – will never have to experience war first hand. Instead, war exists as something unutterably horrible, something amorphous and intangible, something unreal that we blot out of our minds and allow to become the preserve of movies, literature and history.

Of course, if you were living through a war your opinion would be rather different and not quite so easily dismissed. War would become daily life and – as such – your daily life would become war. Unlike the characters in Downton Abbey who answer every cheery "good morning" with an "it would be a good morning if it wasn't for this damned war!", as if each moment were wrought with some enormous historical significance, your life would simply continue and you would be forced to make do.

It is this concept which is at the heart of Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War, a collection of photographs that depict the horror of World War Two in a way that reminds us that – once upon a time – this was a very real situation for people just like you or me.

From the picture of the haunted-eyed sailor staring directly into the lens as he repairs a damaged signal flag on a sewing machine, to the image of the three-year-old child with her bandaged head and teddy bear in a hospital bed, each piece in this collection underlines the reality of a conflict which remains – just about – within the bounds of living memory.

The life and vitality that runs through each image, despite the backdrop of death and destruction, makes it all feel very real and relevant. It ensures that the feelings we encounter when looking at Beaton's work will be taken away with us, and not closed up and discarded like a dusty historical textbook.

What makes the exhibition even more amazing is the reputation Cecil Beaton had as more of a celebrity and fashion photographer, rather than a documentarian of war and suffering. While his talent behind a camera was never in doubt, few will have been exposed to such moving work from this fascinating and highly adaptable artist.

Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War runs until December 31st at the Imperial War Museum.
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Why? Gain a fresh perspective on World War II
When: 10am-6pm daily until December 31st
Where: IWM London Lambeth Road London SE1 6HZ
Cost: £8, £6 concessions. Free for under-15s
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