Sunday, 2 November 2014

Art and the WW1 commemoration controversy

I partly agree with Jonathan Jones's criticism of the official spectacular and attractive poppy installation, but not with his assertion that a true work of art about World War 1 can only be 'obscene'. In yesterday's Guardian Jones approvingly illustrated for example an Otto Dix drawing of a worm-eaten skull

A small but compelling installation for the 1914 centenary by Rose Frain is currently on show at the National Art Library inside London's Victoria and Albert Museum . It evokes the prone and pierced body of the fallen combatant, but indirectly, within a multivalent arena of references to battlefields ancient and modern. It juxtaposes both precious and quotidian objects from the museum with things found and collected by the artist, and new enigmatic art works. The mortal head of a soldier is metonymically present in a simple assemblage of present-day Balaclava and dog tags (making a fortuitous comparison with the Dix drawing instanced by Jones), while an 18th century Afghan arm-guard, made for a touchingly slender limb, lies open, inlaid with (Koranic) prayers. A 1918 soldiers' phrase-book in 3 languages: 'Help me to carry him'. Modern-day soldiers' equipment: their rations, and rather pathetic first aid kit. A postcard honours the nurse Edith Cavell, executed in Belgium for treating the wounded of both sides.
Balaclava and dog tags. Photo copyright Rose Frain
These and other items are placed in juxtaposition amid an erect swarm of ghostly white shells and grenades. Incorporated within the ensemble is another artist's war piece, from the enemy side: Theodore von Gosen's four bronze medals (1914) each bearing a Horseman of the Apocalypse: these have something of the grotesque admired by Jones in Dix. Nearby, a small rust-coloured gobbet of something - actually a fragment of horse chestnut - in a white enamel bowl hints most nearly at surgical horrors. But the stylised 'O' shapes that ricochet across the whole work suggest both gunshot wounds and cries, of shock, pain, or lamentation.

There is far more to this installation than detailed here, including an artist's book that draws on Shakespeare's words, reminding us that we need language as well as imagery to think with and to talk to one other, friend and enemy. In all I see in this work a very contemporary artistic approach to commemorating war that acknowledges suffering and honours courage, tender to our own but without chauvinism, and does not fail to make connections with the urgent ongoing conflicts of today. And it works through an invitation to associate and reflect, rather than the relatively simplistic 'impact' of either massed ceramic poppies or maggoty skulls.

Disclaimer: I curated Rose Frain's installation at the V&A, but these comments are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either the Museum or the artist.

This Time in History: What Escapes (2014-1914), by Rose Frain
Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7 2RL
Room 85 (at the entrance to the National Art Library)
Until 1 February 2015. Free.

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