A powerful exhibition of Trench Art at the In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres, by British sculptor Stephen Hurst, refocuses our minds on the tragedy of war. With the last survivors of the Great War of 1914-1918 having passed away, it’s no longer possible to tap into their memories to remind ourselves of those tragic, earth-shattering years. Of course, we have their diaries, books, photographs and flickering black-and-white movies. But we also have another vast – and even continually expanding – collection of items to provide evidence of those devastating years and their aftermath. It’s Trench Art.
The original definition of Trench Art was confined to objects made in various materials by soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians between 1914 and 1939. Recently it has been expanded to include any decorative item that is directly linked to any armed conflict or its consequences, in any period. And as armed conflicts are so common, Trench Art is a correspondingly huge field. Every day, somewhere in the world, Trench Art is bought and sold in flea markets, car-boot sales, militaria fairs and online.
Trench Art can be grouped into three general categories. The most obvious is art made by soldiers during breaks in combat. In the Westhoek of Flanders during the First World War, for example, many soldiers drew pencil sketches on whatever scraps of dry paper they could find. Or they made simple carvings out of wood, chalk or bone. Some even had time to produce crude metal items, such as rings, crosses and pendants, from bullets and shells. Even today in the fields of Flanders, rusty cigarette lighters, matchbox covers, tobacco boxes and letter openers made from bullets and scrap metal are unearthed by farmers’ ploughs. Many objects are personalised, engraved with a man’s name, rank and regiment, much to the enthusiasm of local historians.
A second category – and much larger in terms of quantity of items produced – refers to objects made by civilians during and immediately after a war. In Flanders during the First World War, the civilian manufacture of Trench Art quickly became a cottage industry, with items being sold to both Allied and German armies. After 1918, Trench Art became a means of making a living. Returning refugees discovered that their villages, towns and farms were devastated, and the agricultural land rendered useless and dangerous by saturation shelling. As de-mining brought more metal to the surface, local Flemings made and sold Trench Art to battlefield pilgrims. Many bereaved widows, sweethearts and relatives returned to their homeland clutching an ashtray made from a shell case, an inkwell made from a grenade, or a crucifix made from shrapnel as the only material reminder of the dead.
The final category is art made by civilians after a war has ended; maybe with the purpose of reminding us about the grim reality of war. Into this category falls a collection of art on display at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres until September 15. Entitled ‘Ypres, the Great War and the re-gilding of the memory’, it is a retrospective exhibition of the work of British artist Stephen Hurst. It includes an extensive overview of sculptures and graphical work, as well as the never-before-exhibited Ypres Series and Diaries.
Stephen Hurst is irrevocably linked to Flanders. His parents travelled to Ypres in 1919, 13 years before Stephen was born. They belonged to the first group of battlefield pilgrims who had many dead to commemorate: a father, a brother, uncles and brothers-in-law. Stephen’s childhood took place in a world that prepared for the next war, in which he served in Malaysia. “The experience strengthened his dedication to become an artist,” says Piet Chielens, Curator of In Flanders Fields Museum. “Not to get rid of the war, but to comprehend it, to understand the people who fought, worked and lived in it, to depict the cruelty of war and to attack the cynicism of its leaders.”
The exhibition includes the Somme Series of sculptures, painted reliefs, drawn and written research. First exhibited in the UK in 1977, this was Hurst’s first foray into Trench Art. It partly came about when he literally fell into a trench while searching for the major mine craters in the Somme battlefield. During his wanderings along the Ancre Valley he was exploring a private wood (ignoring the stern warning signs “Defence d’entrer” and “Danger de mort”) when he fell into a ventilation shaft. He was only saved from a potentially fatal fall by his drawing board getting wedged into the shaft. “I cannot swear that it was that close encounter with death, on the site of a battle half a century earlier, that precipitated the Somme Series, but it was one amongst several stimuli,” recalls Hurst.
In 2009, Hurst started the Ypres Series, which makes up more than half of the current exhibition. The catalyst was when Hurst was invited to be Artist in Residence at the In Flanders Fields Museum. He and his wife Sylvie lived in a house in Guido Gezelleplein, from where they explored the Westhoek. The experience was stimulating, if at times harrowing: “I frequently found myself in a small cemetery surrounded by wheat with a soft wind blowing over the bright green shoots, reading those familiar regiments and familiar names and, to my own surprise, discovered tears running down my face.”
But Hurst is no romantic. His view on war is down-to-earth, and based on his own reality of the horrors of fighting in a distant country. He is particularly critical of those who describe young soldiers as making the supreme sacrifice or giving their lives that we might live. “Young men did not talk or think like that. They did not ‘give’ their lives,” states Hurst. “Their lives were taken from them, then as now, by a mixture of ingenious and highly lucrative technology, and official stupidity. They were slaughtered, shredded in a gigantic meat-grinder.”
In this context it is no surprise that some of Hurst’s latest creations focus not on the First World War but on later conflicts. They include drawings made in 2003 that “bear witness to the illegal American oil war” (Iraq). Others drawn in October 2012 illustrate the murder of British soldiers in Afghanistan by their Afghan allies. This is Trench Art at its most powerful and hard-hitting.
Stephen Hurst’s sculptures are being displayed at the In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres, until 15 September, 2013.