Natalie was excited about her mission: using her map-reading skills, she was planning to get us from the north end of Kensington Garden to the Imperial War Museum. We would be crossing three parks and the River Thames. We decided we would walk through the parks and then take a taxi. Within an hour, with Natalie guiding us to the end of Green Park where we caught a taxi, we were dropped off by one of London’s excellent cabbies at the front gates of the Imperial War Museum, which stands in the middle of a park. It’s building was formerly the central portion of Bethlem Royal Hospital, or “Bedlam,” which specialized in the care of the insane. You might have heard about “Bedlam,” which was notorious until 1770 (on a different site) for having allowed patients, who were often manacled or chained to the walls, to be viewed by paying visitors as a public attraction (you can find references in literature set during these times).
I couldn’t help but think that there was something symbolic about a former hospital for the insane housing a museum of war, which might be considered human beings’ most extreme form of insanity. Our primary reason for coming was to see a painting we had wanted to see in person, which I write about below. Unexpectedly, we found our time at the Imperial War Museum one of peaceful contemplation.
The main floor’s exhibits focus on air warfare.
I couldn’t help but stare, with my mouth hanging open, at a huge German V2 rocket, which were launched against England in 1944. The bombs were built by slave laborers, most of who died of starvation, in huge bomb factories. Seeing weapons of destruction so closely is quite frankly disturbing. I had to sit down. Natalie and I talked about the novel she is writing about three sisters who escape London during the bombings. All three of us remember an episode from one of our favorite British television series, “Foyle’s War.” Stories help us make sense of it all.
To juxtapose the machinery of war with the personal story of war, we entered an adjoining space where one London family’s daily experience through World War II is effectively captured in re-creations of rooms from their home, with their actual personal belongings. Finally, we went upstairs to the art gallery where we find the painting we had come to see in person: John Singer Sargents’ “Gassed,” a large canvas approximately 8’ tall and 20’ wide. Sargent painted this scene after being on the World War I battlefields.
One thing that is so remarkable about seeing paintings in person is that one can actually see details in the paintings that don’t come across in print. Look closely at the close-up from this painting and you will see soldiers in the background playing soccer.
We sat and stared at this painting for a long time. We were the only ones in the gallery. It was incredibly peaceful.
It’s interesting that you found the I.W.M. peaceful. I think what I like most about the I.W.M. is that it records and documents the experience of war but never glorifies it. It’s not all about weaponry and military hardware, not all about valour and derring-do: it’s as much about ordinary people’s experience of warfare, with all its suffering, brutality and privation, but also about the courage and resilience of those ordinary people in the face of all that.
Sargent’s “Gassed” certainly is a striking work of art and an affecting one too. I sometimes wonder if Sargent tried to evoke a spiritual atmosphere in the painting, as well as documenting the plight of the gassed soldiers. Both columns of blinded men are being guided (shepherded?) towards a dressing station – the more distant group on the right of the painting, led by the white-coated medical officer looks particularly like pilgrims led by a priest. It’s also noticeable how so many of the figures are bathed in strong sunlight, possibly to point up the darkness visited upon them by their blindness. However, the light that bathes them can’t be from the sun – it is pale and low in the sky, as if setting, behind the men in the right hand column. In any case, light from it would fall on the other side of the figures, away from the spectator.
The figures of other soldiers playing soccer in the background also point up the plight of the gassed and blinded men and show that for others life goes on, despite their suffering. Is it also a comment on how commonplace such suffering had become, I wonder?
I can never see the picture without being immediately reminded of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”, to my mind the most harrowing and poignant of all war poems – or maybe anti-war poems. I think it conveys in an almost terrifying way the horror of a gas attack and also the waste and futility of war. You may well be familiar with it. It can be found (with annotations at
Andy, I am printing your comment and inserting into the Sargent book we have in our library, which does not include a satisfying description of “Gassed.” Your comment together with Wilfred Owen’s poem will become the much needed and appreciated new inserted page in the book. At the IWM, there was a note stating that the blindness was most often temporary, but we know that the damage to the lungs was not, as Owen’s poem so vividly describes. I love your observation about the light in the painting. The sun is low and on the far side of the men in the foreground, yet the men in the foreground, especially on the left side of the frame, look as if the sun’s rays are are striking them. Hmmm…. It’s always interesting to look in paintings at where the light is coming from, i.e. is the light coming from a justified light source (sun or lamp or candle) as it would in “real life” or is being used to communicate feeling or symbolism. I’m going to go take another look at the photograph of the painting and see what feeling I get from the light. Thank you!