The ambitious art installation entitled ‘Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red’ at the Tower of London’s dry moat has captured popular imagination and taken a nation by a storm. Between 5th August and 11th November 2014, the wide green expanse of the dry moat was filled with 888,246 scarlet ceramic poppies, in the memory of as many soldiers from the British Commonwealth who fell in World War – 1.
On the World War – 1 centenary this year, as many as four million visitors are estimated to have seen this installation – arguably the biggest and most spectacular in the history of installation art so far.
Notwithstanding its immense popularity, this installation has faced severe criticism from a few quarters, no least from Jonathan Johns, the Influential Art Critic of The Guardian. The critics, I think have important points to make, which need to be taken a serious note of. More about that a little later, first about the red poppy and the installation itself.
Growing up in India, I have always been intrigued by the connection between the red Poppy and the tragedy of war and it was only recently that I understood the link, which goes back to the Napoleonic wars of the 19th century.
Wild Poppy seeds can remain dormant in the soil for 80 years or more before they germinate. Germination is generally triggered when the soil is disturbed or churned, which brings the seeds lying dormant deeper in the soil, to the surface.
During the Napoleonic wars, battlefields were churned up into large expanses of mud and left strewn with bodies of fallen soldiers. The soil in the desolate battlefields became saturated with lime from the rubble, which also created ideal conditions for the germination of poppy seeds. The conditions following battle were ideals and Poppies grew in such profusion that they turned the battlefields into vast expanses swathed in red.
Fast forward to World War 1. The spring of 1915 was a warm one after a frigid, cold winter. In the region around Ypres in Belgian Flanders, blood red poppies had started blooming in profusion in and around the battlefields, in the months of April and May. The contrast between bloodshed and the sudden profusion of these delicate blood-red poppies which followed on the remnants of death, destruction and loss was as stark and severe, as it was poignant and beautiful – it was as if Mother Nature was healing a shattered barren land.
Serving in the First World War, Canadian volunteer medical officer Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, in an outpouring of grief, wrote the poignant poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. Earlier, he had buried his friend, a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who was killed in the battlefield. McCrae was moved by the blooming poppies, as much as he was grieved by the loss of a friend.
The poem reads as:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
– John McCrae, May 1915
Three years later, an American lady, Moina Michael, working in a New York City YMCA canteen started wearing a poppy in memory of those who had fallen on the battlefield. The custom soon spread almost all over the world.
The idea of the installation at the Tower of London was conceived and executed by British Ceramic Artist Paul Cummins, in collaboration with Stage Designer Tom Piper. This ambitious work’s title is taken from the first line of a poem by an unknown World War 1 soldier. The poem reads as:
The blood swept lands and seas of red,
Where angels dare to tread.
As I put my hand to reach,
As God cried a tear of pain as the angels fell,
Again and again.
As the tears of mine fell to the ground
To sleep with the flowers of red
As any be dead
My children see and work through fields of my
Own with corn and wheat,
Blessed by love so far from pain of my resting
Fields so far from my love.
It be time to put my hand up and end this pain
Of living hell. to see the people around me
Fall someone angel as the mist falls around
And the rain so thick with black thunder I hear
Over the clouds, to sleep forever and kiss
The flower of my people gone before time
To sleep and cry no more
I put my hand up and see the land of red,
This is my time to go over,
I may not come back
So sleep, kiss the boys for me
– An Unknown Soldier Working since January 2014 under the guidance of Cummings, each bright red glazed poppy was handmade and individually crafted by a team of local workers in Derbyshire, making each poppy unique. The living and growing installation was physically put up progressively by over 8,000 volunteers and in November, the installation was removed and the poppies sent to buyers who have placed their orders in advance. A share of the proceeds would be going to charities that work for the welfare of war veterans.
The first poppy was planted on 17 July 2014, and the work was unveiled to the public on 5 August, the centenary of Britain’s entry into the war. The poppies have been arranged to resemble a sea of flowing blood which appears to be pouring out of a bastion window called the “Weeping Window”.
And there is a ‘wave segment’ – a surge of Poppies spilling over the wall of the tower near the Tower entrance. Both the Weeping Window and the Wave part are to be taken on a tour of the UK lasting until 2018, and would then go on permanent display at the Imperial War Museums in London and Manchester.
The installation officially ended on the 11th November, Armistice Day. To quote Cummings, “The installation is transient; I found this poignant and reflective of human life, like those who lost their lives during First World War. I wanted to find a fitting way to remember them”.
Between 1 September and 10 November, each day around sunset, the names of one hundred World War – 1 service personnel were read aloud by a Yeoman Warder, followed by the Last Post bugle call. The names were nominated by members of the public.
I visited the tower and the installation three times. The first time it was in late August and then late in the night on 9th of November and then early in the morning on the 10th of November. Simply put, as an aesthete and a pacifist, I was completely blown over by this monumental work on all three occasions. I was overwhelmed by the poignancy, scale and sheer impact of this awe inspiring installation.
There were 888,246 poppies, each representing one fallen soldier – to me it was a painful reminder of a loss of monumental proportions. And every soldier, irrespective of rank, status, nationality, class, ethnicity, faith, was represented by one blood red poppy. Death in the battlefield alas had been the final leveler, I thought.
This magnificent work, to me, also brought home the message that amidst the profound mystery of death lies hidden the equally profound miracle of new life. From the cries of destruction rings forth the music of renewal. Amidst great tragedy lie the seeds of beauty, from conflict and grief arises reconciliation. There is always a new beginning, there is hope; such is the infinite grace of Mother Nature.
Now, about the criticism of this work.
It is worth noting that Colonel John McCrae was no pacifist, at least not to begin with. After all towards the end of his poem he urges others, in the voice of the dead, to continue the fight. Uncomfortable as it is, the poem is a call for war. Seen in this perspective, one could argue that the red poppy glorified war.
But as Ted Harris, (writer and artist, author of Remembrance Today: Poppies, Grief and Heroism) informs us, McCrae wrote another poem “The Anxious Dead”, a few years later, in 2017.
O guns, fall silent till the dead men hear
Above their heads the legions pressing on:
(These fought their fight in time of bitter fear,
And died not knowing how the day had gone.)
O flashing muzzles, pause, and let them see
The coming dawn that streaks the sky afar;
Then let your mighty chorus witness be
To them, and Caesar, that we still make war.
Tell them, O guns, that we have heard their call,
That we have sworn, and will not turn aside,
That we will onward till we win or fall,
That we will keep the faith for which they died.
Bid them be patient, and some day, anon,
They shall feel earth enwrapt in silence deep;
Shall greet, in wonderment, the quiet dawn,
And in content may turn them to their sleep.
– John McCrae, 1917
In this poem, the glorious dead no longer extol others to carry on the battle; rather the poem seems to say that “the dead will only rest in peace once the guns are silenced. Who wins or who loses the battle is now less important. Peace is the goal”
Daryl Worthington (http://www.newhistorian.com/tag/remembrance/) informs us that “the first major controversy surrounding poppies occurred in 1926, when members of The ‘No War Movement’ campaigned for the image of the poppy to be separated from military culture so it could become a symbol for peace. The initial aim of this campaign was to have No More War printed on all poppies sold for charity. It obviously failed, but gave a hint towards the ways poppies would become politicized”.
Clearly, the Red Poppy does not mean the same thing to everyone, as Ted Harris has pointed out. To many, it is a symbol of respect and gratitude for those who have sacrificed their lives for their country. It shows support for the armed forces and also may be a statement of patriotism. At the same time, to many others, it is grim reminder that humankind still has to resort to warfare to settle their differences.
Ben Griffin, a former soldier and the founder of Veterans for Peace, an organization set up in 2011 for veterans campaigning against war lead an alternative Remembrance Service on Sunday 9 November 2014. Veterans wearing white poppies, as against red ones, conveyed the message that war was not glorious. Implicit in this was the view that red poppies glorified war.
And then writing in the Gurdian, Art Critic, Jonathan Johns critiqued Cumming’s installation as “toothless” art. Johns also points out that the installation is very specific about who it mourns – out of the millions who died, this installation limits itself to the soldiers from the commonwealth, leaving the rest out.
He has rightly reminded us in his spirited and brutally honest critique “that we need to look harder, and keep looking, at the terrible truths of the war that smashed the modern world off the rails and started a cycle of murderous extremism that ended only in 1945. If it did end…”
The art critic adds “…an adequate work of art about the war has to show its horror, not sweep the grisly facts under a red carpet of artificial flowers… deaths and injuries were not beautiful”. According to him, “a true work of art about the first world war would need to be as obscene as cancer”.
Going by the images above, I can understand where Johns is coming from. However as an aesthete, I do cringe at the idea. In my view, we don’t necessarily “need to smell the rotting earth and gunpowder, feel the boots falling apart in muddy water, the pounding in the chest as the guns started up” every time we genuinely and deeply grief about loss of lives.
The beauty of the installation at the Tower is not “spurious”, as Johns considers it to be. To me it is honest and genuinely beautiful.
But then, the question remains – something that I personally feel so conflicted about. How do we honour the memory of those who died trying to protect us, while we denounce war at the same time?
Having loved the installation and disagreed with Jonathan Johns, I shall nevertheless let this learned critic have the last word. He is right to caution us – “let not great beauty muffle terrible facts, the historical reality , our historical understanding of the Great War, its causes and consequence”.
To me, the final tribute to the glorious dead will have been paid only after the guns have been silenced, after we have ended all wars, after we have achieved lasting peace.
On that note, I leave you with a few more photographs of this amazing work of installation art.
For photographs of Flanders Fields, Belgium, particularly how it looks today, you might want to check out the following blog: