ed. by Jo Tollebeek and Eline van Assche. Mercatorfonds, dist. by Yale University Press, June 2014. 306 p. ill. ISBN 9780300204476 (cl.), $80.00.

Reviewed September 2014
Maria E. Gonzalez, Lecturer, Department of History, Rutgers University-Camden Campus, maria.e.gonzalez@rutgers.edu

tollebeekThe editors of this exhibition catalog thoughtfully expand the key subject of an exhibit mounted at the M-Museum in Leuven, Belgium, marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and the deliberate destruction by German troops of Leuven University Library in 1914. Founded in 1425, Leuven University shone during the sixteenth century attracting renowned humanists, Erasmus among them. Fittingly, the allegory of Mars and Minerva introduces the theme of artistic response to the destruction of art and culture during times of social conflict.

For this exhibition catalog, Tollebeek, professor in the Faculty of Arts at the Katholieke Universiteit, and van Assche, assistant curator at the M-Museum, arranged submissions from thirty-two authors to form a mosaic of multiple, but complementary, perspectives. The short essays circle about the human and material losses suffered by Leuven and other Belgian towns during the Great War and then spin to contemplate perceptions of the calamities brought about by religious, military, and political clashes exemplified by disparate events such as reformist fury in sixteenth-century Amsterdam; the incineration of Hiroshima; and the radicalization of Mao’s China.

The editors divide the essays into nine blocks organizing the movement of 400 years of artistic and literary expressions about the destructiveness of war from “Allegory” to “Modern Propaganda” and beyond. The essays could serve as points of departure for additional research, or discussion, in graduate seminars about the lasting effects of damage caused by widespread destructive frenzies; the relationship between despoliation of cultural artifacts and the dehumanization of entire communities; the impetus for looting, iconoclasm, libricide, and genocide; the ethical, moral, and legal deliberation necessary to reduce the destruction of creative production that attends social cataclysms; the countervailing notions of cultural preservation and conservation; or the need to refresh classical allegories of intransigent gods. The essays treat these timely topics and more.

Ravaged makes a suitable companion to recently issued exhibition catalogs such as Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasms; 1914: The Avant-Gardes at War; and Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950, presented by Tate Britain, London; Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn; and the Hirshhorn, Washington, D.C., respectively.

The catalog includes over fifty reproductions of works exhibited at the M-Museum and 115 sourced images that illustrate the texts collected in the book. Brief author biographies appear at the end of the book and corresponding references follow each essay. A case binding with sewn sections and ample margins make this attractive book sturdy and easy to read.