An experienced painter and printmaker, Alan Turnbull’s recent work combines archival research and creative image making, both pursued as a form of visual enquiry. A major long-term project has been the building of an archive of documents and printed ephemera relating to the German city of Dresden, with particular reference to the period before its virtual over-night destruction in the Second World War. This archive has formed the basis for an extended sequence of creative works.
Another recent body of work, again archival in nature, takes as its subject Russian and post-war Eastern European poetry in translation.
An aspect of Turnbull’s thinking is how archival holdings can be investigated using creative and non-academic methods and how they can then be presented to the public in new ways. He has used archive material as the basis for digital prints and etchings, which explore themes of memory and multiple histories. In combining documentary and creative response, Turnbull’s work presents a dialogue between factual commentary and interpretive image.
‘By artistically juxtaposing the daily and banal with the force of history, Turnbull makes tangible what is otherwise hard to grasp.’
(Ulrike Zitzlsperger for the Times Higher Education, 29th November 2012)
The Dresden Archive Project places transitional, provisional and ephemeral images at the heart of debate concerning political and historical authenticity.
Consisting of over 500 items, including postcards, letters, photographs, maps, and printed ephemera collected over a 15-year period, the project is focused specifically on a site of erasure and destruction of culture: Dresden, a city obliterated in the bombing and firestorm of February 1945. Alan Turnbull’s visit to the city in the mid 1980’s left a strong impression and he began to collect postcards of how it had once appeared. Over the years, the collecting of material turned into something of an obsession, serving as it did to build an image of the lost city in the artist’s mind. Turnbull then spent many years cataloging and classifying the material he collected, establishing thematic and topographic sequences and placing them into an historical context with particular reference to the impact of the National Socialist regime on German cultural life.
Then began a period of close and detailed work, scanning documents and postcards under high magnification and scrutinizing them for historical and personal relevance. Following the classification of material, a series of ‘documentary art-works’ were produced in the form of digital prints. These presented greatly enlarged scans, sometimes with an accompanying commentary pointing out chilling contradictions: the circus big-top that became central to the overthrowing of the monarchy; the youth hostel that was to serve as a torture chamber; the five-star hotel that became a Gestapo HQ.
He then produced a series of works that take as their point of departure the practices of assemblage, collage and the use of the found objects. These works, which deal with themes of transience and loss, make use of actual archive material to foreground the presence of the historical relic in a contemporary framework.
The Dresden Archive Project was first exhibited at The German Historical Institute, London (2012-13). Additional works were made for exhibitions at Trinity College, Dublin (June 2013) University College, Cork (September 2013) and the Ex Libris Gallery, Newcastle on Tyne (November 2013).
Alan Turnbull has also spoken about the project at several major conferences and events, including his keynote address at Translating Holocaust Literature at Trinity College Dublin (June 2013) and Art and War, University of Cork (September 2013). He is due to give a further presentation at the Fifth International Conference on the Image in Berlin (2014).
A cross-disciplinary collaborative project with archivists at the Manuscript & Rare Books Library, Emory University, Atlanta, and the poet Tara Bergin, ‘In Translation’ examined the co-translations made by Ted Hughes of the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky.
Exploring methods of translation, Turnbull asked: What light can image-making shed on the process of translation from source text to target language? To what extent can an image convey ‘something of the original’, be it material or non-material? By juxtaposing, linking, and representing data can archival holdings be presented in a new and innovative way?
Turnbull first visited the Hughes Archive at Emory University and examined the poet’s working drafts for both their intellectual and material qualities. Making contact with the pages Hughes wrote on, including torn paper fragments of notations, handwritten manuscripts, corrected typescripts, photographs, letters, postcards and final proofs, Turnbull comprehensively examined the archive data for examples of working methods, processes of revision, instances of variant solutions and examples of manifestos and personal statements. Returning to Britain and working with Tara Bergin, the two conducted numerous interviews with poets, translators and Hughes scholars, engaged in the issues of modern poetry in translation with particular reference to the literalness and faithfulness of translated forms.
Referencing these findings, Turnbull then conceived collages and prints that paralleled the ‘aesthetic position’ taken by Hughes. For example, Turnbull made use of over-printing and multi-plate etching to parallel the revisions and re-workings evident in Hughes’ drafts, and placed emphasis on direct description and stark, stripped-down, isolated form through the use of direct and primitive printing techniques such as drypoint and hard-ground etching.
The resulting digital prints, etchings, photographs and collages were collated and exhibited alongside Hughes’ original manuscripts in three solo shows, held at:
Schatten Gallery, Emory University, Atlanta (November 2009- January 2010) Pembroke College, Cambridge as part of the Ted Hughes Society Conference (September 2012) Pázmány University, Budapest as part of the international conference, Modern Poetry in Translation (April 2013).
Following the exhibition at Cambridge, Turnbull was approached by Benjamin Dwyer Professor of Music, Middlesex University and asked to contribute an essay to the book he was editing on artists’ responses to Ted Hughes’ Crow. The book will be published by Carysfort Press, Dublin, in 2014 and includes contributions from a selection of international artists working in different media, including Simon Lee, Johannes Heisig, Gleny Kohnke, Douglas White, Algis Kizys, Kimberly Campanello and Mervyn Miller.
Turnbull’s research for ‘In Translation’ offers an innovative working method in a field of research usually associated with literary studies. It can be seen as a development of his earlier archival research on Russian poetry in translation (e.g. Writers in Exile, at the Vladimir Nabokov Museum, March 2008). Completing the circle, Alan Turnbull has been invited to give a talk and mount a display of prints for an international conference promoting Anglo-Russian links at the Russian university of Nizhny Novgorod in May 2014.
More information on the Dresden Archive project can be found at:
More information on In Translation can be found at:
In Translation was cited in Tara Bergin’s conference paper ‘Ted Hughes’ Sensibility of Translation: An Investigation into the Influence of Translation on Hughes’ Crow’. Published on-line at: