Friday, 31 March 2017

Statuary Friday, vol 2 no 2 (Autumn 2017)

Ok here's my project or perhaps it's a meme: though I doubt if anything qualifies as a meme if only one person is onto it. Well, anyway, every Friday I do a different piece of sculpture selected from the vast numbers littered around lovely Melbourne. My only criteria are: it must be outdoors, it must be more or less permanent, and it must be in a publicly accessible location.

#2.2 Widow and Children

Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne

Even though there is an embarrassment of riches of beautiful, challenging and interesting sculpture around the Shrine I've hesitated to venture into blogging it, for reasons that no doubt are obvious. (The only piece of Shrine-related statuary I've written about is the Weary Dunlop memorial.) But I pass this tiny sculpture each morning and evening, and in between, I sometimes bring groups of adult visitors or schoolkids to look at it and talk about it, and I continue to find it fascinating and disturbing. I think it's worth the effort of negotiating the messiness of mingling my personal hobby with my day job. (I used to do this a lot, of course, but it seems trickier now than it did then.)

This bronze sculpture was made by a Dutch-born Melbourne artist, Louis Laumen, to be the centrepiece of the Legacy Garden installed at the Shrine in 1998. Legacy, as you probably know, is a charity established by returned servicemen in the immediate aftermath of the Great War for the care and support of families bereaved by war. Legacy played an important part in getting the Shrine built, and it manages a vast pre-Anzac Day ceremony for Victorian schoolchildren which sometimes features heartwrenching participation by kids who have lost a parent in the obscene and continuing Middle Eastern and Afghanistan conflicts.

Since the late 90s Laumen has made a lot more figural public sculpture for Melbourne, including many of the bronze sportsmen and women around the MCG. The differences and overlaps are interesting. The MCG statues depict specific famous individuals and these people are archetypes; The MCG bronzes are polished and polychromatic but this work is raw and weathered; the MCG figures are larger than life but these are much, much smaller; the MCG statues don't seem to me to have any particular relationship to the features of their environment but this group is embedded in an intense dialogue with the iconic building it's oriented towards. What they all have in common, though, is a subliminal expressionism, detectable in the elongation and torsion of arms, legs, and necks as well as the dramatic movement of the fabric of clothing.

While I haven't looked super-carefully at the MCG statues (they're not really my cup of tea - you know, sport), I do think that this is a much more powerful work, even setting aside the subject matter (insofar as that's possible, which I guess isn't a lot). It's three very ordinary and respectable-looking Melbourne people, dressed ordinarily and participating in a very familiar Australian ritual. But this representation imbues them with a deep feeling about the devastation wrought by war. They are haunted by traces of Alberto Giacometti's surreal, starved and brutalised figures, echoing their "gaunt frames, knobby ravaged skin, and wiry solitude in the immensities of space generated about them by their own etiolation." (Hughes, The Shock of the New)

My pictures aren't great. I took them in haste last night whilst waiting for a work colleague with whom I sometimes ride homewards to emerge from the building. (In order to get close enough to take them I'm afraid I left some footprints in the soft earth of the very formal cruciform garden of which the sculpture is the centrepiece.)

From the picture above you can probably detect the spatial/symbolic relationship of the sculpture to the building, which famously subsumes all individual identities and emotions into the collective and the monumental - this tiny, ultra-vulnerable group walking towards this massive structure, which it now defines as the symbolic order, the name-of-the-Father. But even with a far better photograph than this one you can't really experience what it is to stand between these two objects and feel the pull they exert on each other across that space.

The expressions on their faces are very, very difficult to look at for long.

In a talk he gave at the Shrine some years back Michael McKernan made the IMO pretty trenchant observation that in our time it's almost impossible to contemplate the first world war, and its aftermath, in any other paradigm than grief. You can see something similar in this sculpture, I think. It's interesting to look at it next to this photo, taken in the 1950s, of a widow and her children bereaved in the Second World War:


But then again, the faces in this photograph taken on 25 April 1946: 

or, slightly different again - these children, at the Shrine on Anzac Day in 1944

I do sometimes bring kids here and ask them to talk about what they see in this sculpture. What they always see before anything else is the person who is missing, which I find interesting given the variety of family structures which kids live within and know about. I don't do it often, and only with groups that I think can handle it (not very many.) I think it's important, though, because the violence of war is still, right this minute, taking away loved parents and loved children, and to me there seems little point in coming to a war memorial and learning about past mistakes if you're not also going to try to think about whether you are prepared to pay the price of those wars we're still involved in today. 

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