A trawl of the trenches finds art in artillery

Kleines aus dem Großen Krieg
December 6, 2002

Trench art, or l'artisanat des tranchée , until recently an ignored form of testimony of the changing face of 20th-century war, is explored in this brilliantly researched and edited volume. The German title translates as Small Things from the Great War: The Metamorphosis of Military Trash . It is an exhibition catalogue written, with two exceptions, entirely by students of the justifiably renowned study group of the Ludwig Uhland Institut at the University of Tubingen in Germany. Not that you can tell. The two professional contributions, one in English, the other in French, do not stand out in any way from the 11 student essays.

Trench art, the evocative but misleading name given to a variety of three-dimensional objects made by soldiers and civilians in the context of war, has long been in classificatory limbo. It has had no fixed or agreed place, either in the world of military collectables and memorabilia or, more importantly, in academic discourse. The research carried out in Tubingen was prompted by the presence of a research group formed around the theme of "war and war experience in the modern world", which looked for ways of studying expressions that did not involve language as the primary medium.

In trench art, they found articulated a concern with material bricolage , with the creative playing with rubbish. Yet the bric-a-brac of war presented itself also as a form of everyday creative expression that had already attracted the interest of folklorists prior to the Great War. As a barometer of cultural sensitivity, a bitterly ironic and politically subversive snapshot of Gemütlichkeit (homely life), art from the trenches reveals a barely touched underworld of popular consciousness.

Partly made by soldiers in the trenches and sent home as items of transcendental and memorial value, and partly made as souvenirs in the years after the Great War, trench art is notoriously difficult to find, let alone to analyse.

The detective work necessary to establish a collection of trench-art pieces was time consuming and complicated by the fluid boundary between objects that appeared to be authentic - made at the time of the war - and those that were intentional forms of remembrance, made in years of peace.

Gottfried Korff's excellent introduction sets out the major research findings against the background of an inspiring exploration of existing literature. Throughout the essays resonates a concern with the role of art and the art world in the formation of an image of war, expressed in a broad range of recent exhibitions and publications.

Like all collections of "rubbish" as art, even when the material comes from the trenches, there is the risk of potentially including everything and anything. In "Killing time", British academic Nicholas Saunders makes an insightful attempt at categorisation of trench art by classifying its variety according to who made what, when, where and why. Interesting categories emerge: smoking equipment; writing equipment; artillery shell-cases; personal adornments; miniatures; miscellaneous carved wooden objects; miscellaneous objects carved from bone, stone or chalk; miscellaneous embroidered and beaded objects; and miscellaneous personal items decorated with or made from bullets, cartridges, shell fragments and assorted scrap metals. Saunders concludes with a comparison of 1914-18 trench art and "trench art" from Sarajevo in 2000 (a result of the Bosnian war).

"Objectification of war experience", a chapter by Leonie Fuchs, Fabio Gygi and Anne Ulrich, is a witty exploration of irony and satire, subversively exposing the heroic in the homely as a common feature of the war souvenir during the 20th century. From the hurrakitsch synonymous with the imperialism of the Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Coke-tin model of a Huey helicopter used in the Vietnam war, the scrap-metal souvenir lies at the heart of the "aesthetics of war". Subsequent essays examine different aspects of the image of war, such as the role of rubbish in the industrial economy of war, boredom's contribution to trench art, and the trench as art form in text and image.

The volume closes with an interview with Freddy Raphaël, in which he says: " Objets ne parle pas de lui-même, il faut qu'il soit interrogé ." Objects may not be able to talk directly about the past, but here they are made to speak obliquely in several interesting ways.

Susanne Küchler is reader in anthropology, University College London.

Kleines aus dem Großen Krieg: Metamorphosen militärischen Mülls

Author - Projectgruppe "Trench Art-Kreativität des Schützengrabens"
ISBN - 3 932512 19 7
Publisher - Tübinger Vereinigung für Volkskunde Verlag
Price - €19.00
Pages - 2

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