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The living, the dead and the imagery of emptiness and re-appearance on the battlefields of the western front

By P. Gough


Taking as its field of enquiry the trenches of the First World War, this chapter explores the processes of death, burial and exhumation on the Western Front. Deserted by daytime, yet crowded with action at night, the Great War battlefield was a lethal tract where death was often random and anonymous. However, the battlefield could also be a phantasmagoric, at times enchanted place, replete with myth, superstition and sublime moments of dread and fascination. By looking at the war through the eyes of a number of artists this chapter examines the role of painting and photography in appearing to bring the dead, the disappeared and the dying back to figurative life. Possibly the best known work of this kind is Stanley Spencer’s vast panorama of post-battle exhumation The Resurrection of the Soldiers, a mural-scale panorama of earthly redemption which was painted in the 1920s at the same time as vast tracts of despoiled land in France and Belgium were being brought back from apparent extinction, and planted with thousands of military gravestones. While salvage parties recovered and re-buried thousands of corpses, Spencer and such artists as Will Dyson, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and Will Longstaff were conjuring up images of barren and blighted landscapes populated by phantom soldiers emerging from shallow graves.\ud The chapter opens with an examination of how soldiers populated an apparently emptied landscape which was actually teeming with subterranean activity, how they died, how they were buried, and how they were made to ‘re-appear’ through art, film, and poetry. Having examined the crowded emptiness of No Man’s Land, the chapter briefly explores the complex processes and iconography of remembrance, including the ritual surrounding the exhumation and re-burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. Focusing on Stanley Spencer and his fascination with the ideas of redemption and resurrection, the chapter explores how different artists created images that appeared to revive and resurrect the battle-dead. Finally, through a reflection on Jeff Wall’s epic photographic battlescape ‘Dead Troops Talk’, the chapter connects Spencer’s ontology of reconciliation with Wall’s bleaker montage of debacle and death

Publisher: Ashgate
Year: 2010
OAI identifier:

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