Critique by Mary Sara

When he escorted a group of students to Berlin in 2001, Ian Cale was not to know that what he saw there would inform the strongest and most varied body of work of his career to date, work moreover that would force him to draw deeply on his emotional and creative reserves.

In the distressed and crumbling fabric of certain areas of the city, he found evidence of the destruction of lives which was almost as fresh as the day in 1945 when it was made. In May of that year the Russians took Berlin and World War Two was over.

Millions of shells had been fired into a city already devastated by two years of bombing; nearly a quarter of a million people died in the last three weeks of the war. Over 30,000 Russian soldiers died, 10,000 German soldiers, and the 90,000 German defenders of the city were mostly either the old or young and stood no chance against a million Red Army troops. The Russians were already committed to sharing the city with their Western Allies after the war but retribution for the Nazi forces devastation of large parts of the Soviet Union in 1941 was a powerful driving force and a terrible revenge was exacted.

Ian Cale's early knowledge and store of mental images relating to the city and the times came from a boy's world of airfix models of fighter planes and toy guns. As an adult he was aware that the TV and film fiction and documentaries saturated with images of war and conflict are almost always from a triumphalist point of view. The winners tell the tale. The stories of the ordinary man, woman, child or soldier caught up in world events are not told, brief and nasty moments of evil go unrecorded.

On that first visit to the city, as he walked past burger bars and all the colourful trappings of western materialism into areas of desolation and degradation, a new composite reality began to form in his mind and imagination. Since then, the people who suffered (the Cold war had its casualties too) have found in Ian Cale a 'war artist' able to go beyond the recording of events, even 60 years later.

As he roamed bleak wastelands, entered dangerously derelict bullet-pocked buildings and explored abandoned apartments and empty streets, Ian Cale took photographs. The wounded buildings Ian Cale haunts, photographs and films yield their histories to the imaginative eye. Bullet holes are sometimes stopped up with neatly cut slabs of stone like plugs to stop the bleeding, others remain as ragged holes. Other people have been there recently too and added paint and graffiti, but it is those who were killed or who left their rooms to rot, whose presence is most marked. Chairs spurned like shabby relatives; a child's toy among the debris; fragments of amazingly durable wallpaper that was once so carefully chosen and applied, all survive. They evoke real lives where a story book character like Heidi looked down on a sleeping child and husbands pasted up the latest flowery designs in the kitchen. Incorporating the Heidi image, so redolent of healthful innocence, into the painting Dancing in a Summer Meadow reminds us, as did John Keane's Mickey Mouse amusement ride figure found in devasted Kuwait, that what is left after the big conflicts of history are over is degradation of all that was once hopeful, good and true.

Other artists have used metaphor to express their response to conflict, war and its aftermath; Paul Nash's surreal and fractured landscapes were metaphors for a world despoiled by savagery. Goya's terrible scenes of small scale casual brutality stood for the slaughter of thousands and still retain their intense potency and universality.

For Ian Cale the facts of the conflict, the signs that remain - and his reactions to them - are inextricable and equal sources for his paintings. Despite the darker visions behind this body of work, it has always been Ian Cale's practice to lift visual motifs from their original context and re-order them into paintings which become analogous to and expressive of an inner emotional state, working on several paintings at once so that they inform each other. The works shown in Kessel: Signs of Conflict are consistent with that characteristic mode of working.

Returning to Berlin again and again, as the evidence changes and decays before his eyes, and with re-development and obliteration immanent, he collects images of absences: missing people, razed buildings, echoing factories. He takes risks in collapsing structures, entering nervously like a trespasser or burglar.

In abandoned places the surviving architecture supplies the narrative context and visual clues to past events, references that fill the paintings. A pattern on a door jamb where bell pushes once waited to be pressed recurs, sometimes suggesting blank or blocked up windows or sinister doorways. A grid of metal, excrescences of disease-ridden plaster and broken concrete, coloured bars from insignia of now meaningless rank, a circular vent - all have the potential to become signifiers of things beyond themselves when gathered together, composed, and given new roles in paint on canvas.

We find nostalgic beauty in the decaying stucco and peeling paint of Venice, but have to resist the impulse to take aesthetic pleasure in the textures and patterns left by bullet holes, steel reinforcing bars rusting through concrete or the patina of grime that accrued during the Soviet occupation, because the underlying cause is not simply the passage of time.

The artist gained permission to handle guns from the period in a museum store and it is this level of seriousness and depth of research that has eliminated sentimentality from his art.

He is compassionate but cool, truthful to his own experience and deeply respectful to the humanity behind the scrawled names that are like incantations or the crumpled soldier's cap that in his hands seems able to carry the weight of meaning of a skull in a memento mori.

He visited a war cemetery and added a circular bronze wreath to his vocabulary of motifs, as well as the outstretched fingers of a bronze of a dead soldier, distorting it into a clumsy star shape in passing homage to Picasso's Guernica. Although the photographs act as a reference source for the paintings, they also stand alone and separate from them, and, paradoxically, although the paintings look like the photographs, many of them were done before the photographs were taken.

He has become conscious of this and endeavours not to take photographs that look like the paintings already begun in the studio. In order to encompass the ever widening and difficult nature of what he was seeing, learning and responding to, Ian Cale has employed a wide range of media, including film. Setting up a tripod in an empty building and then letting it run he records the passing of yet more time with only the most subtle shifts of changing light as the event. Nothing else happens because it already has.

South of the city of Berlin lies the village of Halbe, where, in the surrounding forest, over 50,000 soldiers, refugees and civilians were killed as the Germans made a last stand against the advancing Russians. "Even today, a thousand corpses are found each year in and around Berlin. Many of them are detected in the now silent forests of Halbe."

On his somber, reflective walks through the forest, Ian Cale has found some of the small objects that still survive among the litter of the forest floor: part of a gas mask, an abandoned cooking pot, a hair brush, buttons, a bicycle clip, a picture frame, the sole of a child's shoe. Noting their exact position, he has brought some items back to the studio in order to record them in detailed observational drawings. He does not wish to keep them; eventually he will return them to exactly where they were found. They are relics of past lives and he treats them with reverence. Through the act of dispassionate drawing, like a forensic pathologist he hopes to win from these fragments, evidence of horrors, some understanding of how they came to be there. 'Scorch' prints made from some of the objects, heated then pressed on to the paper, leave a ghostly trace like the change in soil colour left by a wooden post hole in an archaeological excavation.

In his introduction to the catalogue of John Keane's Gulf paintings which were shown at the Imperial War Museum in 1992, Alan Borg wrote: "The job of the artist is to go beyond the facts and confront us with the world of feeling and emotions." When Ian Cale found himself emotionally devastated by the physical evidence of Berlin and East Germany's war time past and by the grim reminders of life under Soviet occupation, he felt compelled, like a war artist, to explore the nature of his response to the facts. First, like an archaeologist or forensic scientist he documents, but then his chosen task is to make art that speaks directly to the imagination and reveals to the open-hearted all that he can bear to relate of what he has discovered.

Mary Sara.

*Tilman Remme, producer of BBC "Timewatch: Battle for Berlin" which followed the historian Antony Beevor as he carried out his researches for his book Berlin: The Downfall, 1945