A Blend of Futility, Poetry and Bronze: Whelan makes Owens - Unforgettable
When I first saw Jim Whelan's magnificent bronze monument, Futility, words from, Margaret Macmillan's recent Reith Lecture, echoed in my mind. She spoke on the subject of the paradox that things of great beauty come out of an attempt to deal with war.
She said, "It’s curious, I think, that not all wars seem to produce the same level of artistic engagement. The First World War, it seems to me, produced much greater literature, much greater poetry, much greater questioning of the meaning of war than did the Second World War, and that may be because the Second World War, at least for those of us on the allied side, was much clearer: it was a war that we felt had to be fought; whereas the First World War increasingly we came to think was a war that perhaps should not have been fought."
This sculpture manages to make visual that waste of human life. Defeated by the pointlessness of his circumstances, the baseness of this soldier's position on the floor is particularly eloquent. There is nowhere lower that this man can go. All thought of portraying bravery and fight are absent here: his legs thrust out, he balls forward weeping into them. He is unlike the brave and sombre portrayals of other figurative war memorials, making this one - unforgettable.
Not only is this soldier an everyman, but it commemorates the loss of a great poet, Wilfred Owens, on the 100th anniversary of his death. The poet died during active service, just a week before the war's end. Owen's poem, Futility, inspired the sculpture. It is a softer poem than many of his more anger-filled examples, but no less forceful with its truth.
The origins of this bronze intrigued me. I cannot recall another bronze war memorial that hails from a poem.
Poetry is very close to my heart - it's the place I go to in quiet moments. Though no great expert, I am familiar enough with the genre to make the connection if I had come ever across another memorial like it during my working days.
I could recall paintings that were inspired by literature and poetry - Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, from Shakespear's Hamlet and John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, based on Tennyson's poem, but not outdoor sculpture. This may be because the history of commemorative bronze stems from people rather than concepts. .
Sculpture inspires my own fiction and without it there would be no stories I could tell. It is, perhaps, for that reason that the idea of poetry giving birth to a sculpture seems perfectly natural to me. I look on with great hope and anticipation that different mediums of art will continue to blend with war memorials in the future. I envisage myself as the doting godmother of many more bronze monuments with poetic and commemorative parentage.
For those that don't know the little poem that inspired the monument: .
Futility By Wilfred Owen Move him into the sun— Gently its touch awoke him once, At home, whispering of fields half-sown. Always it woke him, even in France, Until this morning and this snow. If anything might rouse him now The kind old sun will know. Think how it wakes the seeds— Woke once the clays of a cold star. Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir? Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil To break earth's sleep at all?
Particular thanks are given to Chris at Hidden Liverpool who kindly granted permission to use his photograph