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Review: Don McCullin at Tate Liverpool *****

You wait for one terrific photographic retrospective to come along – and then a pair of them open in Liverpool within a month of each other.

Both Linda McCartney at the Walker and this new iteration of Don McCullin’s masterful 2019 Tate Britain show – transported north and with extra local flavour – were due to draw the crowds over the summer months until Coronavirus closed down the country.

But it’s certainly much better late than never, and both are must-see shows albeit of a very different complexion.

I won’t lie to you. McCullin’s vast sweep through an even vaster archive (around 230 prints out of many thousands) is incredibly important viewing, but also at times incredibly emotionally challenging with image after image emphasising man’s inhumanity to man.

Set against a painted backdrop which is the colour of the “dark Wagnerian clouds” he loves to capture across the Somerset Levels, McCullin chronicles much of the dark side of humanity across decades of the 20th Century’s most distressing conflicts.

The 85-year-old started photographing people as a young man growing up in Finsbury Park, the area of London captured in early pictures bursting with sharp suits and Italian coffee bars.

His first major international foray into the world of photojournalism saw him at the right place at the right time – Berlin 1961 as the wall went up between East and West, both sides of the rising divide immortalised in black and white images taken on a camera he reveals his mother had “retrieved from a pawnshop”.

The faces that peer over the divide are curious, bemused, resigned. Meanwhile one shot of East German soldiers digging a deep zig-zag trench for the foundations of the notorious wall could have come straight from the fields of Flanders 50 years before.

McCullin’s world turns progressively darker and more bloody however with assignments taking him from the Cyprus Civil War (be warned, his images are littered with the dead), to the Congo where brutality reigned in its full grisly, mutilated ‘glory’, and Biafra in which Britain played a wholly shameful role.

Here, the photographer chronicles the silent misery of starving parents and emaciated children. It’s vital testimony, but deeply harrowing.

The show takes a broadly chronological path through half-a-century of the Londoner’s work, and London features amid the war and carnage, although it’s less the swinging and more the hidden city, McCullin seeking out the poor, the dispossessed, and the helpless.

In one caption he explains how he sought to let them know he was “looking at them through a pair of eyes that have enormous compassion and understanding”.

Above: The Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Liverpool.

Top: Derry-Londonderry 1971 © Don McCullin

Compassion, understanding and humanity are sorely lacking in the man theatres of war in which McCullin has found himself over the last 50 years; Vietnam (where his Nikon camera – on show here – took a bullet for him, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Iraq, the Northern Ireland Troubles. It’s a lot for one person to bear witness to, but bear witness he has.

When the show was first staged at Tate Britain last year, there was a small section chronicling McCullin’s trips to Northern England, made from the 1960s to 1980s.

For this Liverpool show, he apparently went back to his original negatives and printed a series of pictures taken in the city and never seen before; photos that have their own singular sense of bleakness with lone figures framed against the ranks of chimneys and the waterlogged, derelict bomb sites.

The images look a century old – and yet it’s sobering to consider they were taken in the same decade I was born.

For a man who has seen so much that no one should have to, it’s perhaps hardly a surprise that ‘off duty’ McCullin has retreated deep into the English countryside, and a series of landscape photos taken around his Somerset home bring this turbulent retrospective to a relatively serene close.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised however to find this is no bucolic green and pleasant land. McCullin’s landscapes are of the Wuthering Heights/Tolkein variety – those ‘Wagnerian’ clouds reflected in furrows of water, bathed in ethereal light and punctuated by stark outlines of ancient Ents.

Don McCullin is at Tate Liverpool until May 9 2021.

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