“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”
- In Flander’s Fields
- John McCrea
Fran Bull’s epic installation In Flanders Fields: a meditation on War is an experience not to be missed. The scale alone is extraordinary, particularly because it is offered to us as a single, monumental artwork rather than a collection of individual pieces. The viewer enters fully in, treading upon the shadows of the floating birds above, walking between silent, haunting figures. The steadfast, blank gaze of soldiers who perished in the tragic battles of WWI interlace across the gallery with the mournful, accusatory stares of the women of Lysistrata, creating a piercing gauntlet of sorrow.
Entering the softly-lit gallery space, the viewer is immersed in an elegant visual and intellectual exploration. Ms. Bull refers to the work as her “silent scream in response to all war,” powerfully addressing the tragedy of man’s inhumanity to man over a two thousand year span.
The exhibition draws a line of human connection from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to the renowned poem by WWI soldier and Field Surgeon John McCrea from which Ms. Bull takes the title of the show. In Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ comedy from 411 BC, the women of all Greek city-states withhold sex from their soldier spouses until the men sign a treaty of peace. While humorous, the play is about the Peloponnesian War, a horrendous, brutal 27-year battle between Sparta and Athens. In Flanders Fields, McCrea speaks to us from the battlefield, spattered by the tragedy of war, yet hearing bird song, seeing windblown petals.
Immediately upon entering the gallery space we are greeted by four larger-than-life white figures. Two elongated soldiers dangle in mid air. Are they ascending to heaven or falling, blasted out of their foxholes? Beneath them, two stately Greek women gesture awkwardly, bewildered, stunned, beseeching us to behold the tragedy, to stop.
While the work speaks to war, it is not visually gory or brutal. Ms. Bull’s color is stark, dramatic. Bloodless white figures and faces are interspersed with the intense red of gracefully drawn poppies. Black larks are elegantly printed on diaphanous, ghostly gauze. These symbolic colors are a relief. They offer balance and serenity: an austere abstraction which allows us to distance ourselves (slightly) from the horror of war. Here and there, the simple beauty of flowers or birds become a respite. A single, relatively comic, brightly-colored print depicts the faces of women interspersed with skillfully drawn birds.
The scale of Ms. Bull’s work is extraordinary. Twenty or more life-sized busts of the women of Greece mounted on simple, bare-wood pedestals, speak to us of ancient battles from groupings placed around the gallery. These sorrowful figures gaze upon 126 shrouded death masks: the faces of the dead from a more recent, 20th century war field. We observe them as if we are gazing down from above, floating with the flocks of abstracted bird forms that dangle in the air, casting eerie shadows on the walls and floor.
Bull states: “I have created an aesthetic and meditative environment in which viewers are led to contemplate the nature of War as it weaves through human history. My hope is that viewers will be inspired to examine afresh the paradigm of War as a response to conflict.”
Artistically, Ms. Bull fearlessly combines and experiments with media demonstrating an astonishing breadth of ability: innovative sculptural techniques and materials, traditional and experimental printmaking, lithography, painting and more. She generously explains her technical explorations in a didactic display tucked into an alcove.
And she invites us to participate. As the show progresses, more and more splotches of red paper punctuate the figures. Ms. Bull has provided small squares of poppy colored paper, asking viewers to write a comment and place it somewhere in the installation.
In Flanders Fields: a meditation on War, a touring installation by artist Fran Bull, will be on exhibit at the Christine Price Gallery at Castleton State College from February 28th through April 1, 2011.
Photographs by Don Ross