Con­cep­tual art can­not cap­ture the tragedy of the Great War

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Ian Jack

Four years of of­fi­cial re­mem­ber­ing reach their cli­max to­mor­row at the Ceno­taph and at hum­bler memo­ri­als all across the United King­dom. In Lon­don Prince Charles will lay the wreath, the Queen will watch from the bal­cony of the For­eign Of­fice, and the band will lead the pa­rade with its jaunty se­lec­tion of first world war songs. Big Ben will ring out once again to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, and the end of a war that has had a tighter grip on Bri­tain’s cul­tural (though not po­lit­i­cal) imag­i­na­tion than any other. But as we come to the end of the cen­te­nary com­mem­o­ra­tions, I won­der how much they have changed or en­larged our un­der­stand­ing of this great catas­tro­phe.

I am old enough to know a time when the Great

War was an ev­ery­day mem­ory. One or two of my sec­ondary school­teach­ers had fought in it. My ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, a sniper with the Royal Scots, was wounded in Flan­ders, while a pa­ter­nal great-un­cle, a com­pany sergeant ma­jor in the same reg­i­ment, died at Pass­chen­daele. This is a com­mon enough story. My grand­fa­ther would speak wryly but briefly about his ex­pe­ri­ence on the west­ern front, while my fa­ther would talk fondly of his sergeant ma­jor un­cle, who did dar­ing things such as leap­ing from a slow­ing train be­fore it reached the sta­tion so that he could run down the em­bank­ment and be quicker home for his tea.

I knew of the Great War from th­ese anec­dotes and also from a few keep­sakes in the house: a Glen­garry cap and a tat­tered book of Bruce Bairns­fa­ther’s car­toons (“Well, if you knows of a bet­ter 'ole, go to it!”). Gen Dou­glas Haig was hated; be­cause ar­mistice pop­pies were pro­duced in his name, we never wore any. But only with the com­ing of Joan Lit­tle­wood’s mu­si­cal Oh! What a Lovely War and the BBC se­ries mark­ing its 50th an­niver­sary did the war as­sume a clearer shape in the eyes of a gen­er­a­tion born nearly 30 years af­ter it had ended.

This was the shape we still know: the war as a tragedy that ended or ru­ined mil­lions of lives. It was eas­ier then to keep this idea alive be­cause so many sur­vivors still lived among us – though long be­fore the last of them dis­ap­peared, in 2009, the old rit­u­als had be­gun to seem emp­tier and time­worn. The 100th an­niver­sary needed new ways to stim­u­late pub­lic in­ter­est, and it found them by turn­ing com­mem­o­ra­tion into a more art­ful ex­pe­ri­ence, lib­er­at­ing it from the con­fines of the lit­tle crowd that sur­rounded the lo­cal war memo­rial on a No­vem­ber morn­ing.

The spec­ta­cle of the mul­ti­tude ar­rived in 2014. Pos­si­bly in­spired by Ai Wei­wei’s in­stal­la­tion of mil­lions of porce­lain sun­flower seeds at the Tate Mod­ern four years be­fore, the ce­ramic artist Paul Cum­mins and a team of as­sis­tants planted the moat of the Tower of Lon­don with 888,246 ce­ramic red pop­pies, each flower to rep­re­sent a life lost in the con­flict by Bri­tain and its colonies. The in­stal­la­tion was a tremen­dous pop­u­lar suc­cess – over four months, more than 5 mil­lion peo­ple are thought to have vis­ited it – and now the war’s end is be­ing marked by sev­eral ex­am­ples of the sim­i­larly mul­ti­tudi­nous.

At Ypres 600,000 lit­tle clay fig­ures have been spread densely across open land to mark the war’s vic­tims on Bel­gian ter­ri­tory. At the Tower of Lon­don the moat has been filled with 10,000 burn­ing torches, which are lit one by one ev­ery night to the sound of choral mu­sic. And at Strat­ford, in east Lon­don, 72,396 shrouded plas­tic dolls stretch out on a strip of the Olympic park to rep­re­sent the Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth sol­diers who died at the Somme and have no known grave.

Idon’t know about Ypres, but this week I went to the dis­plays at Strat­ford and the Tower and found they touched noth­ing in me. Shrouds of the Somme is an odd idea made odder by the sale of more shrouded dolls in the gift shop – £75 in a frame and £35 in a box, where they lay as if in­tended to en­cour­age lit­tle chil­dren to play with the dead. At the Tower, mar­shals in hi-vis jack­ets or­gan­ised large crowds into wind­ing queues that shuf­fled slowly to­wards the lights and the mu­sic. Ear­lier in the week I saw Peter Jack­son’s film They Shall Not Grow Old, his restora­tion of footage from the trenches, and found it a thou­sand times more mov­ing.

In fact, more mov­ing and in­for­ma­tive things are ev­ery­where present and ev­ery­where for­got­ten. The peo­ple hur­ry­ing to­wards the Tower strode past the memo­rial to mer­chant sea­men that spreads across Tower Hill; and, so far as I could tell from five min­utes’ ob­ser­va­tion, not one of them paused to look at its bronze plaques, which list the dead by ship they sailed in (“Athe­nia, Glas­gow; Au­so­nia, Liver­pool”) un­der a gen­eral ded­i­ca­tion to the 12,000 sailors of the Great War “who have no other grave but the sea”.

At Liver­pool Street sta­tion, the memo­rial to the dead of the Great Eastern Rail­way was like­wise ig­nored. I sought it out on my way from Strat­ford and dis­cov­ered some­thing be­neath it I had never no­ticed: a bronze re­lief of Field Mar­shal Sir Henry Wil­son, the chief of the im­pe­rial gen­eral staff at the war’s end, who ac­cord­ing to the in­scrip­tion had died on 22 June 1922 “within two hours of his un­veil­ing the ad­join­ing memo­rial”. What the in­scrip­tion didn’t say was that two IRA men had shot him out­side his house in Eaton Place as he left the taxi that had taken him from the cer­e­mony. His assassins were quickly cap­tured, and on the day two months later when they were hanged Wil­son’s big house in County Long­ford was burned to the ground. He had al­ways con­sid­ered him­self an Ir­ish­man as well as a union­ist.

The memo­rial that owes its in­spi­ra­tion to con­cep­tual art can never re­flect such com­plex­ity, nor is that its in­ten­tion. But even at the level of the big, bold state­ment it suf­fers by com­par­i­son with its prece­dents. What could be more dis­turb­ing or mul­ti­tudi­nous than the ap­par­ently end­less ranks of real graves in Flan­ders?

What, as an event that in­volves you, could be bet­ter than to visit the Field of Re­mem­brance out­side West­min­ster Abbey, and there give some money and in re­turn take a cross or some other re­mem­brance and write the de­ceased’s name on it, and then bor­row a mal­let and drive the lit­tle piece of wood softly into the piece of lawn re­served for his mil­i­tary unit or reg­i­ment?

I have done this oc­ca­sion­ally in mem­ory of my greatun­cle, the com­pany sergeant ma­jor, and did it again on Thurs­day. As the field was a stunt in­vented by Earl Haig’s poppy fac­tory in 1928, my lit­tle cer­e­mony flies in the face of fam­ily prej­u­dice and I never feel com­pletely at ease. This year I no­ticed that the Royal Scots plot looked as neat and crowded as a minia­ture ver­sion of those white ceme­ter­ies across the Chan­nel. Con­cep­tual art be­fore the term was in­vented, and no art in­volved, thank God.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MATT KENYON

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