A Unique WWI Tribute Ahead of Remembrance Day
World War I was a truly appalling affair. Perhaps overpowered in our collective memories by World War II and the terrifying rise of fascism, Remembrance Day is an important opportunity for us to reflect on a conflict that should forever be a lesson to us all. Every year, the 11th of November at 11am marks the anniversary of the formal end of hostilities in this conflict. With extra significance, 2018 sees us salute the 100th anniversary of the end of the War and I was delighted to head to the best museum in the world to observe their special tribute. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum’s current exhibition, Brushes with War; Art from the Front Line 14-18, delves into the mindset of those involved in the conflict and provides a deeply moving window through which to observe some of the horror faced by those in the front line. Lest we forget.
A Quick History
The early 20th Century saw Europe cloaked in political tension. A complex array of alliances between individual nations saw Britain, France and Russia on one side and Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy on another. The ultimate tipping point, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the 28th of June 1914, sent Europe into war by alliance domino effect. Other nations from across the globe would soon follow in joining the conflict, turning it into the ‘war to end all wars’. An estimated 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians were to die in the war between 1914 and 1918.
Politics aside, the conflict itself can perhaps best be summed up with the dire pointlessness of trench warfare. A line could be drawn from the North Sea to the French/Swiss border, known as The Western Front, with Allied forces on one side and the (predominantly) German troops on the other, with neither making significant progress in terms of ground gained. Months became years as the armies pestered each other without ever making any significant inroads, all the while living in appalling and demoralising conditions. Sure, new warfare methods including the terrifying use of gas and the, largely unsuccessful, innovative unleashing of fearsome metal beasts known as tanks were attempted. But the stalemate in the ditches held until an eventual armistice in late 1918.
What was the point? Personally, I’m at a loss and given that the rise of the Nazis stemmed largely as a consequence of this first great conflict, it makes the whole sorry chapter in world history all the more tragic.
Take a moment to picture yourself in a filthy, damp, overcrowded ditch. You’re malnourished, tired and scared. You could be ordered ‘over the top’ to your likely death at any moment. You’ve lost friends and family in the mud to either side of you. A wind change could mean poison gas is on its way to your lungs, with the promise of a torturous death. You are no longer even sure why you are here, patriotism seems a distant memory and your disillusionment far outweighs any hatred of the ‘enemy’ – themselves just similarly downtrodden souls a few hundred feet away, feeling much the same way. This was trench life. And this is where these images were born.
The Kelvingrove Museum Exhibition
The most fundamental thing to note before entering the exhibition is that the artwork on display (219 works) does not come from professionals, it comes directly from the source. The men in those trenches, scrawling together memories and thoughts in their moments of maximum despair. Across all sides and nationalities, this is a moving, uncensored and poignant look at their thought process. All of those emotions, put onto paper by soldiers who were probably just looking to pass the never-ending time, almost certainly clueless as to the legacy that their work might leave. 100 years later, here we all are pouring over them with barely a clue as to the true hardships and horrors that the ‘artists’ would have faced. Yet there can hardly be a better way to appreciate their sacrifice.
The exhibition touches on various points of interest.
- The use of war propaganda was something that fascinated me during my studies at school – this was early marketing at play. Without Twitter, mainstream media, TV or mass advertising, ordinary folks had to form their opinions with what little information was available to them. Governments could drum up support and patriotism by portraying opposing nations in negative ways, playing on fears and giving people someone to blame for all of their problems. Some might argue that fundamentally not much has changed in the world of media but when you have no means of corroborating opinions, you have to take what you get.
- The issue of mental health also comes up as World War I was perhaps the first large-scale event to identify post-traumatic stress as a thing. I’m currently watching Peaky Blinders (loving it by the way) and it provides timely insight into the long-lasting psychological impact of the brutalities of this war. As if the maddening claustrophobia and monotony wasn’t enough, the fear of imminent death or injury would drive any of us lot insane within days. These soldiers endured years.
- The role of women in the war effort as well is thoughtfully acknowledged. While the front-line conflict itself was very much male-dominated, women controlled The Home Front. Working in munitions factories, providing medical support and pretty much running the economy while conscription had seen fathers, sons and brothers shipped off en masse. This vital contribution to the war effort is still seen as instrumental in women finally being granted the right to vote in Britain, with restrictions, in 1918.
- The ‘total’ reality of the war. While the trenches will always go down as the most definitive, this was a conflict fought in water, air and land. It covered most of the planet and saw civilians joining the militaries in the direct line of fire. Towns were decimated, battleships sunk, planes shot down and, at its most severe, saw tens of thousands of people killed in a matter of hours.
The exhibition will run at Kelvingrove until the 6th of January 2019 and entry is £7. This weekend’s Remembrance Sunday will also see Kelvingrove host a day-long programme of musically-themed events starting at 10.30am.
In addition to the primary Kelvingrove musuem exhibition, they are also currently hosting a couple of further WWI displays that hit hard on the emotions.
Art in Aid of Blind Soldiers
Frank Brangwyn’s work takes an important look at those that were blinded during the conflict. Something that would terrify anyone, the possibility of losing your sight was as real as that of losing your limbs and five lithographic prints document a soldier’s experience of emotionally departing for war, being blinded on the battlefield and then being re-trained in new skills to continue to aid the war effort. War takes on a whole new meaning and level of impact when it gets personal and this representative soldier’s journey delivers a big impact.
Although actually created in 1915 during the conflict – Brandwyn sold them at the time to raise money for injured troops – they are presented in a modernised and visually striking way. An established champion of the working-class soldier, Brandwyn depicts the case study infantryman boldly dominating each of the lithographs. You feel his pain throughout. The heart-breaking departure at the railway station from his sweetheart and the booming impact of the blinding explosion take you along on his tragic journey.
The display has also been made fully accessible for the blind and visually impaired.
I Say Nothing
Christine Borland’s structures call for a critical look at one of the big issues of this period. Her work originated from a simple feeder cup – a seemingly innocent, teapot-like object. These were used to both feed hospitalised sick and wounded and to force-feed hunger-striking suffragettes in the years leading up to 1914 and the war’s outbreak. The diametrically opposed uses for the cup underline the starkness of the difference – from the nurturing, caring element to the barbaric and invasive. The latter was a particularly gruesome saga in the movement for suffrage equality and rectifying of the gender imbalance that dominated society at the time. Hunger striking was one of several dramatic actions taken by women in Britain determined to have their voices heard.
Borland has created two sets of images which depict the cup in use in the two opposing contexts. Wooden silhouettes are arranged in two circles cloaked in a semi-transparent paper. It’s all deliberately mysterious. What are we looking at? Who is at the centre of these circles and why are they obscured? The visuals, elusive and murky as they unquestionably are, do more than words could.
All three displays make for a highly evocative journey into a dark chapter of our past. Kelvingrove never ceases to amaze in that sense and, while I will always default here when I’m in need of an idle, brain-emptying wander, the thoughtfulness and importance of its pieces and exhibitions truly is world-class. If you’re in Glasgow over the winter, I encourage you to see for yourself.
This post was sponsored by Glasgow Musuems and Glasgow Life as I was invited once again to delve into the cultural treasures of my home city. My desire to promote Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and its exhibitions comes very much from a sense of local patriotism but also total conviction that its displays are always relevant, timely and of the very highest quality. I would not endorse them otherwise.
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