London: Tate, 128 pp., $24.99 (paper)
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt/Hirmer, 300 pp., $55.00
On Hyde Park Corner in London, facing the Duke of Wellington’s old house, where one can still see a giant sculpture of a fully nude Napoleon towering over the hall, stands a curious monument known as the Royal Artillery Memorial. A huge sculpted model of a Howitzer gun points to the sky on top of a Portland stone plinth. Around this phallic symbol of deadly force, designed in the early 1920s by Charles Sargeant Jagger and Lionel Pearson, stand a couple of bronze soldiers. And on one side lies a dead artilleryman covered by his greatcoat. The text engraved in the stone under this fallen soldier reads: “Here was a royal fellowship of death.”
The monument commemorates the 49,076 men of the Royal Regiment of Artillery who died in World War I. There has been much controversy over it ever since it was unveiled in 1925. Some of the criticism concerns the questionable taste of paying such monumental tribute to a Howitzer. It might be construed as a crude example of militarism.
In fact, however, the problems some people have had with it, especially in the years soon after the catastrophic war, were about something else. Jagger, a veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front, wanted to inject a note of realism into his sculptures; the bronze soldiers are not idealized in any way. They look weary, hardened by bitter experience, almost dazed, like those soldiers staring at nothing in the famous Vietnam War photographs by David Douglas Duncan. And then there is the dead man under his coat.
This was not the usual way the Great War was remembered officially in Britain, Germany, or France. Abstractions—tombs of the unknown soldier and the like—were favored, or classical allegories, especially popular in Germany, of soldiers as nude Greek heroes holding up swords, or Christ-like figures expressing the beauty of sacrificial death. One of Jagger’s soldiers, leaning back with outstretched arms, could be likened to a Christ figure, but he still looks far more real than people, or at least military and civilian officials at the time, would have wished for. What the monument shows, despite the Howitzer, is not military valor, but the pathos of war.
The Royal Artillery Memorial is one of the works featured in “Aftermath,” the Tate Britain exhibition comparing the impact of the Great War on artists in Germany, Britain, and France. Of the three nations, France is least represented. The really interesting differences are between German and British artists.
As far as war memorials are concerned, Germany too had its controversies. Official monuments tended to be abstract, heroic, and focused on the sacrifice of young blood for the nation. But one of the most beautiful sculptures commemorating the…
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