History, and history at Cambridge, has been seen as a weapon since the first week of 2014, which marks the centenary of World War I’s onset. On January 2nd, Michael Gove published an article in The Daily Mail, in which he voiced his opinion on how the war’s history ought to be taught: all national mythology, no critical thinking. He wrote that Richard Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, was “attacking Britain’s role in the conflict,” and suggested Margaret Macmillan, Warden of St Antony’s College in Oxford, as offering a better alternative. Gove, of course, mischaracterised the work of both historians, and both responded quickly.
The question of how to engage with this centenary is unfortunately and inescapably political, and is delicate. We are close enough to the First World War that a prominent politician can frame the study of history as an attack on national identity, and yet so far away that few are familiar with more than fragments: a shot fired in Sarajevo, the deployment of mustard gas, millions dead and maps redrawn.
The Fitzwilliam Museum’s first exhibition marking the war’s centenary focuses audience attention on events from August of 1914 to March of 1915, but does not celebrate them; La Grande Guerre is an elegant antidote to Gove’s politics of veneration without interrogation. The exhibition consists of thirty-six lithographs and woodcuts, displayed in the small Shiba Gallery, a windowless space on the second floor which can, at times, feel strangely removed from the outside world. The prints on display are French, adding another degree of distance from politicians that discuss the event in national rather than international terms. Their stylised nature, finally, sets them further apart. This distance, however, brings the audience closer, facilitating critical analysis.
This exhibition is, perhaps, rather niche. There is a smaller audience for prints than painting and sculpture, and most people are unfamiliar with the specifics of printing processes. These are lithographs, created by drawing an image on a stone or metal plate, and woodcuts, made by cutting into a block. In both, the process is completed by the application of ink and pressure. These particular images, most of which are by unknown printmakers, have been coloured by hand after printing, and are accompanied by short descriptive passages.
The images in La Grande Guerre catch and hold the eye, and in doing so they offer an exercise in thinking about history, in looking at events and sources closely rather than imposing narratives. Gove, in his Daily Mail tirade, complained about Blackadder and Oh! What a Lovely War, both of which are often shown in schools. He did not specify any preferred representations. There are few cultural products, save perhaps those intended as propaganda, that match Gove’s perception of the war as “defending the western liberal order”. There are narratives which are imposed, and there are narratives which emerge from the concentrated study of detail. The detail, in La Grande Guerre, focuses on pain, not glory.
The most compelling of the images, perhaps, is ‘A German Soldier on Fire’, from February of 1915. The smoothness of the outlined flames is alarming; the fire, brought to life by the movement of the eye, glides too easily, and will spread quickly. The sketched quality of the background gives the same sense of the scene as occurring without time to process. Everything is orange-red – suggestive of a space engulfed by this particular emergency, but suggestive also of blood, a symbolic wash of human sacrifice. The tip of the soldier’s stick, trailing flames, extends through the frame of the print, suggesting the fire could jump easily from the printed space – no longer entirely enclosed – into the space of its audience.
This is a German soldier, illustrated by a French printmaker for a French audience, but nationality is secondary to the horrors of war. On the other side of the room, ‘In the Woods of Augustow’ shows a German soldier attacked by wolves, which are being shot by a Russian soldier. The German figure is slumped on the corner, limbs splayed and body vulnerable, eyes closed in pain. The audience, looking at these prints, are compelled to sympathise with this man; he is portrayed as human, and as a victim of violence. There is no obvious element of caricature or mockery.
What role do aesthetics, then, play in negotiating critical proximity?
The argument is sometimes made that beauty, in provoking pleasure, can discourage critical thinking or understanding; in admiring an image, one becomes complicit and distracted. This can be the case with propaganda, which often asks audiences to enter the image and escape through the suggestion of specific actions leading to positive outcomes (“buy war bonds,” suggests a lithograph by Frank Brangwyn in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which shows a soldier fighting). This sort of identification with national cause and effort isn’t provoked by the prints of La Grande Guerre. These images are stylised and modern: lines are rhythmic; depth is flattened; colours are bright. They maintain aesthetic distance, and mark the boundaries of a chasm.
The pinks and blues of ‘The Battle of the Yser’ draw the eye, but are undercut by the quick realisation that this is the scene of a massacre. Bodies are piled at the centre of the image; there are too many to count, and the fleshy pinks cease to be seductive and become sickening almost instantly. In ‘The Neutrals’ an idealised Switzerland – a village church and houses nestled in hills covered in fields and flowers, white mountains and pink clouds rising above – is interrupted by a tank loaded with men shooting at a distant plane, as small as a bird in the sky. This box-like vehicle dominates the scene, kicks up earth and trails smoke behind it, and the whole endeavour seems futile. The beauty of these prints is not an easy beauty.
It is color and line that draws people into the images, engages them with the details of war, and it’s also beauty that makes the violence of the war more deeply felt. There is beauty, these prints suggest, in all situations. Sunsets and snowy woods serve as a reminder that war is staged against the same backdrop as leisure, not in a monochrome dystopia where leaves refuse to grow on trees. Meanwhile, the stylisation of these prints shows us the way in which war has made the world alien even as its components are familiar.
As of last Tuesday, Michael Gove is no longer Education Secretary. On his first day as Chief Whip, Gove apparently found himself trapped in the toilet. It felt, initially, a little bit like the dénouement of a horror film. There was a palpable sense of relief; the villain became comical. Looking closely, though, the situation feels worryingly calculated. Gove doesn’t appear dangerous anymore, and yet his party remain in power and his policies remain in place. David Cameron has suggested Gove will play a significant role in the upcoming election campaign. Michael Gove prioritised propaganda over education in writing about the First World War, and his responsibilities in the government now follow suit. It is the party that wins the election, after all, that retains power.
It’s hard to imagine children looking at the prints in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Nonetheless, the gift shop sells books and toys. There are grenade erasers (“warning: choking hazard,” says the label) so that mistakes made with pencils can disappear with a touch of violence, and napkins covered with poppies to transform spilt drinks into acts of remembrance. There are miniature medals for distinguished conduct; one imagines them pinned on teddy bears. This is not as elegant as La Grande Guerre; these souvenirs do not seem considered. They are, perhaps, closer to the Michael Gove version of history: all celebration, no examination.
Anna Blair is a PhD Candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at Cambridge University. Her research examines colonial space and nostalgic modernity in interwar Paris. She tweets at @annakblair.
The column: Picture politics
Cultural institutions – museum, galleries, studios – are often perceived as objective, rarefied, and irrelevant to contemporary political life. These spaces, however, have a great deal of power – in part because of their privileged position as ‘spaces apart’. This column curated by Anna Blair will explore different ways in which cultural institutions internationally engage with or deny political issues.