THEY PASSED BY
A multimedia artwork by Alexis Hunter 2009
In the Pas de Calais aspects of past wars; gun emplacements, concrete ramparts are being dismantled. The physical remains of a painful time are being removed as one generation wants to forget the past and move on, but a new generation will want to discover the history when technology met the old established way of warfare. The First World War poetry of Winifred Owen and Rupert Brooke express that indescribable carnage of a World War fought in the fields of France and enables us to understand the soldier's life then in an immediate way, to comprehend the nihilism of the trenches through the abstraction of art. Possibly it is only art that can speak the indescribable.
I was born just after the Second World War in New Zealand, and we were taken as young school children to the local village War Cenotaph to pay respect in silence. We stood, surrounded by the sub-tropical bush in the hard sunlight, and noticed on one side of the Cenotaph the carved names were covered in lichen and the other sides the letters were bright and shiny as they have just been chiseled into to the stone. We fidgeted and the teachers were cross with us. We did not understand. Some of the teachers cried and we wondered why.
In the New Zealand countryside we would find old houses, full of stuffed furniture, the dog bowl still at the back door, empty for decades. There always was a photograph of the handsome young soldier, standing erect in his serge uniform, in the dusty oval frame above the yellowing lace on the mantelpiece. But no trace of the family, long gone, leaving everything just as it was, no son to take over the farm. An entire generation decimated.
It was not until I started visiting Pas de Calais I felt the actual visual
truth of a World War. The thousands of white crosses, the trenches still visible
in the grassy fields, the dull silence bought that time so close and believable.
This art work is to alleviate that naïveté of my own childhood ignorance
and a chance to pay homage to the strength of people in these small French villages
who had the fortitude to keep on going in the middle of the carnage of two World
Alexis Hunter, London, July 2009
Archival photographs of the photographs taken by New Zealand soldiers during World War 1 from the Turnbull Library collection in Wellington, New Zealand with excerpts of prose and poetry of the Poet soldiers of the Somme.
A poignant aspect of young New Zealand farmers killed in the First World War is that the families had no body to grieve over. The cenotaphs were not only the symbol of grief but stood for the soldier's body too. Formal framed portrait photographs also stood in place of a missing grave's headstone in the local cemetery. As the New Zealand soldiers were encouraged to carry cameras there are many records of the men adjusting to a strange country, but adapting well as they had been brought up on farms. These are the ones I have chosen, as the men milk cows and recuperates in the hospital tents. Also I have chosen pictures of the villagers themselves, as they gather to impassively stare at the German soldiers marching through their villages.
Old black and white Photographs taken by the local villagers found by the artist in the 1980s. Postcard of a letter from a villager waiting for the war to end found in the municipal bomb shelter.
Small abstract oil paintings on canvas