Brian Maguire’s ‘War Changes Its Address: The Aleppo Paintings’ – Review

By Stacy Wrenn

‘Aleppo 4’ by Brian Maguire, 2017.


The absence of life is the most harrowing of the physical consequences of war, it directly contradicts our idea of a city. Buildings that were once filled with people, shuffling in and out of them, refused to nothing but a skeletal frame. Maguire’s documentation of the recent emptiness and ruinous nature of Aleppo He is not a war artist, he was not commissioned by a state department to depict the effects of sieges in a particular light. These people-less paintings are no William Orpen pastel-hued view on death, there is nothing dreamlike about them.

Since the 1970s Maguire has immersed himself in cities in an attempt to accurately understand and depict their social issues, he does not approach things in an isolated, theoretical manner. He visited Syria in 2017 after eastern Aleppo was liberated. During this visit he walked the streets with university students to hear their experiences, and facilitated an art class with local children, where he asked them to paint pictures of their homes – he was trying to see it through their eyes, to lessen the problem of ‘the Western gaze’ on the Middle East. There is clearly a significant amount of research and experience behind this exhibition, which shows a level of consciousness and self-awareness not always present in contemporary artist.


‘Aleppo 1’ by Brian Maguire, 2017.

Although the titles of the works – which are just ‘Aleppo’ followed by numbers to differentiate them – inform us of where these paintings are representative of, the relative ambiguity of the generic white apartment blocks reminds the viewer of the seemingly never-ending cycle of war. At any given point, while may not be happening here, it’s happening somewhere.

These people-less paintings are no William Orpen pastel-hued view on death, there is nothing dreamlike about them.

However, his careful use of block colours in patches of the canvas provides some hint of life – or rather, potential return to life. All is not lost for Aleppo, it does not need to be completely abandoned and left to the destructive powers of time. Its buildings are not merely empty shells, his gestural brushstrokes and absence of perfectly straight lines give some warmth to what are otherwise cold, blocky structures. In an interview with Russia Today, Maguire explained the rationale behind his approach to forms: “Buildings, when you start with them, are fixed, solid structures. When they have been subject to war, they almost change to organic structures.”

Maguire’s careful depiction of the theme of forced displacement is the stark reminder of the longevity of war that we need in a time where international issues are often soon forgotten after a few months and attention is shifted to the ‘next’ issue.

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