Sculptors at War: PMSA Conference 2015

These issues were also examined in a contemporary context and the nature of memorials, both following the First World War and today, was explored.

Chaired by Dr. Holly Trusted, Senior Curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the conference reflected the ethos of PMSA, by including a stimulating mix of historic and contemporary material. Individual speakers covered a wide-ranging variety of national and international topics.

Ann Compton, Senior Fellow of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (2014-15) was keynote speaker. Her paper Taking Stock of Sculptural Practice and the Business of Commemoration c.1918-1930 evolved from her recent research into the changing structure and composition of the profession of sculpture in the period surrounding the First World War. Using new evidence from this investigation she considered how our understanding of the commissioning and production of war memorials might be altered by factoring in tensions and uncertainties faced by sculptors at this time. Her re-examination of the politics surrounding the distribution of commissions to men and women sculptors and the extent to which making memorials brought designers financial and professional rewards was particularly interesting. The contents of her paper will appear in a book on the subject which Compton is currently writing.

In contrast to Compton’s fact driven paper, that given by Dr. Jonathan Black, Senior Research Fellow in History of Art at Kingston University, London, A Different Kind of Realism? Toughness and tenderness in the First World War Memorial Sculpture of Charles Sargeant Jagger was packed with visual analysis. Centring on Jagger’s desire to develop a new form of sculptural realism in tune with his visceral experience of the First World War as an infantry officer at Gallipoli and in northern France and Flanders, Black’s paper looked at the way in which Jagger’s conception of the British soldier in his First World War memorials can be related to the contemporary vision of Ernst Junger. He also drew fascinating and convincing parallels between the work of Jagger and the pre-war public sculpture of Austrian-German sculptor Franz Metzner. Jonathan Black’s paper will appear on our website in the Autumn.

Contemporary artist, Toby Ziegler then gave a presentation on his installation at the Conflict and Collisions: New Contemporary Sculpture exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield in 2014-2015. This was an intriguing account of his response to Jagger’s plaster relief, No Man’s Land, which inspired him to produce an articulated and dismembered cardboard foot with the aid of state-of-the-art digital and 3D technologies. To read more about Ziegler’s creation of this piece and other works in the Conflict and Collisions exhibition see our interview with Dr. Samantha Lackey, Curator at the Hepworth Wakefield.

Physical injury was also addressed by independent historian of twentieth-century British sculpture, Sarah Crellin, who spoke on Masks, memorials and anniversaries: thinking about Francis Derwent Wood’s Great War work 1915-2015. Derwent Wood used his sculptural skills during the First World War to develop prosthetic masks after he witnessed the profound psychological trauma and isolation of facially mutilated young men. His Machine Gun Corps memorial at Hyde Park Corner is, according to Crellin, ‘one of London’s most controversial, denigrated and misunderstood monuments.’ She attempted to restore the historical ‘truth’ behind the memorial in her 2001 Sculpture Journal article, ‘Hollow Men: the masks and memorials of Francis Derwent Wood 1915 -1925’. At this conference Crellin built on her previous analysis of Derwent Wood’s prosthetic work and his Hyde Park memorial to conduct a sensitive and insightful investigation into the historical and ethical matters arising from the artist’s and historian’s relationship and obligations to the real traumas of the past.

Dr. Ruth Cribb then spoke about the First World War from an entirely different perspective. She is the great-granddaughter of the letter-cutter sculptor, Joseph Cribb, who was apprenticed to Eric Gill at the age of 14 and worked with him until he was called up in Spring 1916. Her paper, Joseph Cribb: Conscripted Craftsman gave a fascinating account of the way the war affected her ancestor, in particular through his work with Max Gill for the War Graves Commission and in his memorial commissions, and was illustrated with documentary evidence and images from her family’s archive . Cribb also talked about her great-great grandfather’s wartime collaborations with the Gill brothers, Max and Eric, and how his post-war experience helped him develop his career and establish himself as an artist-craftsman of high standing.

The following paper, Collaborations, rivalries and the professional networks of commemoration in inter-war Melbourne, by Professor Catherine Moriarty, Curatorial Director of the University of Brighton Design Archives and Professor of Art and Design History,was based on her research in Australia and expanded the international scope of the conference. She explored the community of sculptors working on commemorative projects in inter-war Melbourne and considered how they competed for memorial commissions, both among themselves and with sculptors from elsewhere, but also how they sometimes had to work together, due to limited resources or expertise, or in order to satisfy expectations relating to national identity or military service. Her paper examined a range of commemorative work from large-scale monumental structures to local war memorials, and a variety of other sculpted objects that formed part of the inter-locking public and private material cultures of remembrance. A particularly fascinating aspect of her talk was the images of First World War dioramas.

Dr. Söke Dinkla, Director of the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg continued the international theme, from a German perspective. Under the title Human Dignity is Inviolable: Anti-war Sculpture from Lehmbruck until Today, she talked about the images produced by contemporary artists in response to military threats across the globe and took her starting point as Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s sculpture Fallen Man, a key work of c.1914, created as a reaction to the war and offering a radical counter-image to the popular image of the heroic soldier. In evident contrast to the widespread heroic monuments, the Lehmbruck soldier is an expression of despair, he is naked, crawling, and has a broken sword in his hand, identifying him as a fighter. Dinkla treated us to a wealth of illustrations of works by Lehmbruch at the Museum, before moving on to speak about international artists such as Marina Abramović, Dan Vo and Duane Hanson. Her paper formed an interesting link with the contemporary artists participating in the conference commenting on how contemporary art deals with war and war-like conflicts in sculptures, installation and video and how artists who have experienced war in their home countries reflect military conflicts observed both from a geographical distance and from up close via the media. This paper will be appearing on our website.

Contemporary sculptor, Anna Redwood, who works in many different media and enjoys the challenge of creating artwork to reflect the themes and stories which unfold around her, illustrated some of the points Dinkla made. Last year Redwood was invited to Afghanistan for a month as an Official War Artist for 7th Armoured Brigade, The Desert Rats, and Lesley Smith made a BBC documentary, Voices in the Desert on the Redwood sculpture Desert Rats. This film was shown and Anna spoke interestingly and with passion about her experiences working with the soldiers at Camp Bastion and Helmand Province. She was delighted by the positive effects making the sculpture from welding scrapped vehicles found in the desert had had on them and how the sculpture, a 12’ metal rat had become a memorial which the men truly valued. A full summary of Redwood’s talk will appear on PMSA’s News.

An internationally renowned sculptor, who welded his work himself, Michael Sandle RA gave a lively and full presentation on his impressive oeuvre of war sculpture. Growing up during the Second World War clearly had an impact on Sandle, whose sculpture often conveys a very personal response to what he regards as the political ‘lies’ surrounding war. The numerous images he showed included such iconic works as the International Seafarers’ memorial on the Albert Embankment, London, the Belgrano medal, the World War II Malta Siege memorial in Valletta and the seminal A Twentieth Century Memorial (formerly known as A Mickey-Mouse Machine-Gun Monument for Amerika). An interview in which Michael Sandle discusses his war sculpture with art-historian Benedict Read, including his recent Summer Exhibition bronze, and his years teaching in Germany from the early 1970s until 1999, will be appearing in the Autumn.

A further contemporary response, but this time to the First World War came in the form of the award-winning film commissioned by Channel 4, Does it Matter? by Tony Heaton OBE, CEO of Shape, a disability-led arts organisation. Heaton’s film was shown and he gave an interesting commentary about his voyage of discovery of First World War memorials and the vicissitudes and joy he had making it .

Contemporary clay artist and sculptor Clare Twomey in her presentation Making meaning – an artist in a new land looked at alternative ways of representing loss, remembrance and memorial. While a monument seeks to make something or someone permanently remembered, a pile of broken china can evoke a sense of loss and a memorial can be something fragile. Twomey described the work she had undertaken on the ‘Memory Makers Project’ for Holocaust Memorial Day giving out 2,000 invitations to the public asking them to comment on humanity. Their thoughts will be placed on beautiful porcelain objects which will be handed back to the public in the same place on the same day next year. These thoughts will become part of an artwork which is a precious material, but fragile. A studio visit with Clare Twomey will appear on in the Autumn.

Papers, presentations and films were interspersed with stimulating panel discussion with the art-historians and artists. The PMSA would like to thank all the speakers and panellists, the volunteers and the delegates for their contribution to making, what the vast majority of those who attended felt was, an engaging and worthwhile event.

Sculptors at War, PMSA Conference 2015, took place at the Goethe Institut, London SW7 on 24 March 2015.

Main image: Charles Sargeant Jagger, No Man’s Land detail, 1919-20, plaster, The Hepworth Wakefield (Wakefield Permanent Art Collection) (photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones)

Aurora Corio