Monday, August 4, 2014

4th August, the date 100 years ago of the declaration of war.

The art  of Nick Hedges, and Thomas's War Diary.

Today I choose the work of the artist Nicholas Hedges.

 Nick is concerned with our ability to  re-encounter and  to empathise with the past; he shows  artefacts  of  the 1914 - 18 war -  old postcards, maps of trench systems, the iconic splintered trees, but worked on  in a modern idiom.

- Faces from old photographs, scarred by Nick's stitching, sensitively done and very moving.
-Old maps reversed, with images of shell burst created with ashes, canvas stitched to show a vast complex of trenches
- Words cut for images - the  trees of war artists like Nash are there, but transformed:

' shattered trees are those of family trees, planted in the broken ground, grown out from a soldier now made nameless and anonymous to the world....It's often the case that we know nothing of those who died; all too often it's as if they were always victims, individuals who never experienced the 'everydayness' of life as we do today.'                                                                     NH

Reading Nick's blog, I found that visitors to the Gallery immediately thought of First World War poets and poetry when they met these works; then I read that Nick himself has recently become very interested in Thomas and had blogged about him two days before! He kindly sent me these images.
It is so good to find these circles of interest and support.
What struck me most in relation to Edward Thomas  were the series of images of bursting shells.

 No sound - I was glad that the exhibitors hadn't  added a sound-track as they might have done, for  the images were powerful enough to evoke an aural as well as a visual sense of shelling.

  Shells: exploding, passing overhead, firing  shells, the noise of shells, their effect on the air, constantly feature in Thomas's ten-week war diary:

'Some 4.2's coming over at 10. Air flapping all night as with great sails in a strong gusty wind(with artillery).....Beautiful pale hazy moonlight and the sag and flap of air.'

He had acute vision and acute hearing and had lived most of his life in rural quiet. It's hard to imagine a greater contrast but he does not complain, he simply observes, though I remember he describes that flap of air as 'grisly', that effect of the vacuum which killed him by stopping his heart.
Oh - I just noticed this for the first time:

'As I was falling asleep great blasts shook the house and windows, whether from our own firing or enemy bursts near, I could not tell in my drowse, but I did not doubt my heart thumped so that if they had come closer together it might have stopped.' 

Now I find my thoughts going towards diagnosis - atrial fibulation? - and that sense of  'couldn't something be done, can't we intervene', which is I think one aspect of empathy with the past.
 'The past is not dead. It's not even past.'  I heard that recently but forget  who said it - was it Ford Madox Ford? No, William Faulkner.

 I read the war diary in my old RG Thomas Collected Poems, 1978, now hard to find. The small leather-bound notebook was found by Thomas's grandson, another Edward, son of Merfyn, in 1970, some time  after Merfyn's death.


It was very hard for Edward to transcribe, being written in small handwriting in a pocket-sized notebook, but you can try too, as it can be seen on the First World War digitalised Archive, University of Oxford. Professor George Thomas worked from a magnified version.

The note-book was exhibited at the Imperial War Museum, in 2004 I think, all creased by the shell-blast that killed Edward Thomas.

The 1914 centenary commemoration is of course bringing  about a resurgence of interest in the war, . It is good  that as well as the familiar documentaries and exhibitions, there will be responses from  contemporary artists like that of Nicholas Hedges, and from writers too.


A war poem, Edward Thomas style:

February Afternoon

Men heard this roar of parleying starlings, saw,
A thousand years ago even as now,
Black rooks with white gulls following the plough
So that the first are last until a caw
Commands that last are first again,---a law
Which was of old when one, like me, dreamed how
A thousand years might dust lie on his brow
Yet thus would birds do between hedge and shaw.

Time swims before me, making as a day
A thousand years, while the broad ploughland oak
Roars mill-like and men strike and bear the stroke
Of war as ever, audacious or resigned,
And God still sits aloft in the array
That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone blind.

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