Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"The Warrior's Tomb" by Gertrude Hermes

In January of 1940, German U-boats began an offensive against Brittish ships. That same month, the Royal Air Force Coastal Command fitted airships with Air to Surface Vessel radar detection sets in order to better target the submarines. Along the bottom of this image, Gertrude Hermes, a Brittish artist, inscribed: "And all that remained to be seen were bubbles rising and oil spreading over the surface of the sea," these words based on reports in The Times about the bombing of a submarine by Coastal Command on January 16, 1940.

This image does not conjure up my typical associations with World War II, despite the inscription. Oddly enough, I am more reminded of an episode of Reading Rainbow, where the host Levar Burton stands beside a man-sized caldron and explains that it contains all the material elements that make up a human body. But without the proper organization, and perhaps something more, these elements remain nothing more than a container of indistinct, creepy liquid. What a thought for a child to contemplate: that what could have been a person, can be just a tank of glop.

Looking at this wood engraving, I feel I am looking down into that cauldron, only this time what truly was once a person has been melted down, or drowned in oil and water. The body has disintegrated as if in acid. Bubbles and foam slowly swirl and curve around an axis like water down a drain. Glug, glug, glug, and soon will be gone, forgotten. And yet I am not alarmed by this image. While it makes a firm suggestion of previous violence, at this point the act is complete. This is an image of death after the fact, and so ultimately an image of peace, albeit a dark and empty sort of peace.

In his 2003 essay Artists in Times of War, Howard Zinn writes, "...the artist transcends the immediate. Transcends the here and now. Transcends the madness of the world. Transcends terrorism and war." I feel this work does this so well, and in such a subtle, yet powerful manner. The composition arranged within a perfect circle, the divine form, while more dynamic and organic forms and lines ungulate within the circle, the viewer is shown both heaven and earth, or for atheists like myself, both the body and the mind. Wars involve so many factors, politics, propaganda, strategies and ideals. But with this image, Hermes hones in on the single most significant and inevitable outcome of war: the loss of human life.

1 comment:

  1. Very elegantly stated.

    I like the subtle contrast of seabirds and the shadow of the plane. Flight, one evolved, one designed, yet both capable of deadly intent or joyful ascent.