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Trenchant criticism: on poppies, cenotaphs and other memorials

On the centenary of the Somme, are there better ways to honour the dead than with a proliferation of memorials?

Reading about the pious solemnity of the great and good visiting the field of ceramic poppies by the Tower of London this year, I had difficulty repressing a Wildean tear of mirth. But really tears of rage would have been more appropriate, because in this jamboree year for empty sentiment, some things that are worth remembering have tended to get smothered beneath the cosy narcosis of official poppycock: the fact, for instance, that it was the great and good who sent millions of men to their pointless deaths 100 years ago, and who continue to do so today.


By way of contrast, Lutyens’ austere Cenotaph, and his cyclopean memorial to the 72,195 missing of the Somme at Thiepval, achieved exactly the right tone of mute, traumatised shock in representing something that is, in its moral enormity, ultimately unrepresentable − at least not without drifting into the realm of mere kitsch. Lutyens’ heap of arches at Thiepval in particular, which suggests the ruined central crossing of a bombed-out cathedral (as Gavin Stamp pointed out in his superb book on the monument), is a suitably ambiguous symbol for a time of shattered faith.

That Lutyens achieved such resonance without recourse to conventional spirituality − something that outraged the established church at the time − is admirable. At around the same time, however, Gropius and Mies built memorials to the fallen revolutionary heroes of the Weimar Republic that were even less conventional in their symbolism. Their kinetic and brutal sculptural forms rejected the classicism that still inheres in Lutyens’ wreathes and arches, and that conjures a dubious sense of repose and timelessness − when really the causes being commemorated, and the people who died in their name, had a bloody historical specificity that we should do well to recall in our era of resurgent nationalism. The bodies that lie in those faraway fields that are ‘forever England’ (even the netherworld wasn’t safe from our imperial ambitions) were the victims of real politicians and plutocrats, and not of some abstract spectre named War that eternally stalks the globe.

Neither Gropius’s lightning-bolt monument to the victims of the Kapp Putsch, nor Mies’s hard brick wall of a memorial to Liebknecht and Luxemburg (Mies reputedly stated that he was inspired by the walls against which most of the Spartacist revolutionaries were shot) had very long lives: both were demolished by the Nazis when they came to power. However, the tendency these monuments initiated towards a more expressive, abstract memorial culture was revived after the Second World War in Yugoslavia, when Tito erected sublime (in the Burkean sense) concrete monuments to the struggle against fascism. The photographer Jan Kempenaers has recorded these structures in a recent book, and though some of them undoubtedly stray into kitsch symbolism, their decaying state is a poignant reminder of the rapid recession of the moment they memorialise.

‘Monument builders will leave no one forgotten, until one day the lice cracked between the fingernails of Tommies will get their own marmoreal avatar’

Memory is fugitive − my own grandfathers both died in recent years and their war stories have inevitably faded since being handed down to me − and monuments have a real role to play in preserving the tangibility of events that tend to fade from folk memory. They are also a focus for communities, providing a public locus for grief and a sense of a burden shared, functions that over time become foundation stones of community itself. But after the bloody 20th century, these functions have come under justified scrutiny. Communities are exclusive by their nature, often violently so, and it is always best to question whose version of events is being commemorated by their monuments.

In postwar Germany, after a disgraceful period of official amnesia, another, more critical type of memorial − which James E Young called ‘counter monuments’ − was erected, with the intention of casting the process of memorialisation in a critical light. Perhaps the most striking example of this tendency was a ‘Monument Against Fascism’ erected by conceptual artists Jochen and Esther Gerz in a suburb of Hamburg in 1986. Visitors were invited to inscribe their names on the surface of the 12-metre lead-covered column, which inevitably ended up covered in scrawls both banal and provocative in character. After each reachable section was completely superscribed the column was lowered into the ground, until eventually the whole thing disappeared. Superficially, the participation solicited by the artists was ‘against fascism’ − in the sense that fascist monumentality is an undemocratic imposition and a suppression of dissent. But the artists’ intent was more critical than this: each lowering of the monument was accompanied by official celebration, its vanishing thereby ironically eliciting a frank expression of the desire to forget the painful past.

‘Monument Against Fascism’, Hamburg.

‘Monument Against Fascism’, Hamburg

Such a degree of reflection is unthinkable on these shores. Indeed, the recent proliferation of representational memorials suggests that for many, even the Cenotaph is too abstract. Jilly Cooper’s monument to Animals in War, which depicts a donkey trotting through the crack of doom, is all very well if you’re the kind of person who weeps at the fate of Blackpool beach’s hairier denizens, but frankly if that’s the best object you can find for emotional investment, you ought to get out more. More hideous still − because it’s devoted to a serious subject − is the monument to the members of the 38th Welsh Division who fell at the Somme, which looks like a Games Workshop figurine. The memorial to Women in War, next to the Cenotaph, is a pointless duplication of the latter, its surface draped in hanging garments as if it were a cloakroom. And a recent attempt at a return to classicism, the Bomber Command Memorial, is clumsy in design, oppressive in scale, and deeply questionable in its subject. It seems that the further we move from 1918 and Lutyens’ Cenotaph, the more bombastic − and more numerous − our memorials become. At this rate the monument builders will leave no inch of London uncovered, no victim of war forgotten − until one day the lice cracked between the fingernails of Tommies will get their own marmoreal avatar.

These mawkish memorials are the enfeebled descendants of a long tradition of representational monuments, which was moribund long before Gropius and Mies (and Lutyens) radically sheared away from it in the 1920s and ’30s. The most egregious example of this tradition’s decline is perhaps the Haig memorial on Whitehall, an inept depiction of a man so divisive that even Niall Ferguson − even the Daily Express, for God’s sake − have argued for its removal. At the time of its unveiling in 1937 it was strongly criticised for its combination of idealised mount and naturalistic portrait, but these days the blood on Haig’s hands comes in for sharper criticism than any stylistic questions. Perhaps the greatest act of remembrance we could perform this year would be to obliterate the Haig memorial − and refrain from building any new ones.

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