Of statues and stumbling stones

By Jill Segger
August 24, 2017

As a child, I absorbed the idea that patriotic statues – like flags – rarely led to much good. The shocking events in Charlottesville which centred around the statue of  General Robert E Lee and the standards of Confederacy and Nazism have done nothing to change my mind.

The memorialising of military persons in stone and bronze are inevitably symbols of victorious power. But just as historical accounts as chronicles of the victors come eventually to be questioned, so too does the continuation of their public effigies. The taking down of statues is as much a part of history as their erection. It is wise to examine our reactions to this state of affairs. Not to do so is perhaps to border upon idolatry.

Remembering those who were the collateral damage to the exaltation of generals, tyrants and dictators produces a very different kind of public art. It is a form which invites us to reflection on suffering, humility, hope and repentance. There are three works which challenge me in this way and they are all on a small and intimate scale.

The five children depicted in Frank Meissner's 2006 Kindertransport bronze outside Liverpool Street Station arrest the attention immediately.The children gaze around them, all looking in different directions with curiosity and expectation. Our historical knowledge fills in the gaps and prods us towards reflection on the trauma which lies beneath this innocent and hopeful tableau. That I catch a glimpse of my mother's features in the tallest of the three girls – a child just entering upon puberty – reminds me of how blessed my own childhood was.

Elizabeth Frink's representation of Edmund, called saint, which stands in the grounds of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral, occupies related emotional territory, The life-size figure is frail, even puny, and slightly androgynous. In one hand, he holds a small cross close to his naked breast – an apparently futile shield against the oncoming Danish archers who were about to end his life in an East Anglian forest. But walk round the statue – always a good sounding for a three-dimensional work – and the whole character of the weak figure at bay is transformed. The tentative and apprehensive gaze becomes assured. He looks towards something unseen but understood. And this is because we have become participants in the drama, because something has been asked of us beyond uncritical admiration and easy partisanship. We are no longer just observers: the altered angle of gaze has become a glass of truth.

In the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas in Staffordshire, there is a figure of a young soldier about to be executed for desertion. 'Shot at dawn' is a truly harrowing reminder of what war can do to the hearts and minds of humankind. Andy DeComyn's representation of a teenage boy, blindfolded, tied to a stake and waiting to die is the most affecting memorial to the victims of war that I have ever seen. The child – for that is what he is – seems alive to us in that agonising final moment of his earthly existence. The army greatcoat swamps his small frame, his shoulders are slightly raised in anticipation of the bullet's impact and his mouth is a line of terror. That the solidity of stone can so speak of the fragility of flesh opens a humane perspective rarely encountered in commemorative statuary. And in being made witnesses of this response to what we now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder, we are called to repentance.

There is nothing of triumph or swagger about these memorials. They do not rouse up what is worst in human nature. Here we are offered the humanity of those who fell victim to that very perversion. In making plain the common strand of our vulnerability, they invite us to find each other, to turn from pride and faux-heroics towards redemptive pain and compassion.

This may not be easy. In 992, Gunter Demnig, a German artist, began a project of memorialising the victims of Nazi persecution in the the streets where they had lived and from where they were taken to extermination. He inserts cobblestones measuring 10 centimetres square into the pavements, each one bearing a name and a date of birth and death. These are called stolperstein – literally 'stumbling stones'. It is in the painful rising from a fall that we may learn how to really re-member each other.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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