Freedom in the trenches: The war poetry and art of David Jones
“We find ourselves privates in foot regiments. We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful, to us.”
David Jones, Preface to In Parenthesis
Is it possible to be free even in a place where one experiences unbending restraint and relentless suffering? The 100th Anniversary of the end of the First World War provides an occasion at which to explore the nature of freedom – is it possible in a trench?
This exhibition is based on artwork and poetry of David Jones, a man who served as an infantryman with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in the First World War. The exhibition presents extracts from his epic poem In Parenthesis, a story of comraderie in the trenches, experienced in the face of detached superiors, firm military rigour and inhuman danger.
The exhibition explores how Jones found and gave artistic expression to a freedom where it was most unforseen. In Parenthesis highlights how it is possible for someone in the trenches to perceive around himself an immense density of goodness. The density of what is good is seen most evidently in companionship with others, in an awareness of the beauty that lies beyond what is merely useful, and in a memory of the heroism and hopes of ages past.
This awareness opens up the possibility of choosing a path that means one is not simply caught up in an efficient and all-powerful system. It opens up the possibility of freedom.Jones was convinced that Western civilisation was abandoning its humanity as it focused exclusively on utility.
Nonetheless, the presence of what is good does not obliterate evil. In Parenthesis concludes with the story of a corporate sacrifice, made during an engagement in Mametz Wood as part of the First Battle of the Somme in 1916.
The extracts from the poem are mounted alongside reproductions of Jones’ works of art. Jones had originally intended to include poetry and illustrations alongside each other withinIn Parenthesis, but he had been prevented from completing the desired engravings by ill health. Jones’ narrative method and his paintings both present fragments and impressions.His works of art embodied signs that searched out, but never fully captured, what was most true.
An exhibition by Peter Kahn
with the contribution of Kate Banks, Laura Staccoli, Siobhan O’Shea, Erika Pace, Jennifer Strotz, Richard Solomon and Michela Young