Phase 1: The Will to Forget (1919-1920)

The initial, shocked response to the war in the months following the armistice can be sensed in Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus School, set up in 1919 and which defined Modernist orthodoxy for decades – buildings should be simple, unornamented and functional in the contemporary materials of glass, steel and concrete. Beaux Art pretensions to the teaching of art were to be swept away. Even capital letters, the capitals of classically proportioned columns included, would be banned. However, the school’s profounder effects would not become clear until the early Thirties, when, banned by the Nazis, its protagonists moved abroad and its Modernist principles found fertile soil in the gathering storm of the Great Depression. Suppression was not enough to contain its central idea that a new, perhaps utopian, world, evident in Stuttgart’s Weissenhof estate of 1927, could be built on the ashes of the old.

In Britain, in 1919, blank shock can be seen in in the earliest memorials to the war. On London’s Whitehall, the Cenotaph (meaning empty tomb), commemorating in particular the hundreds of thousands of bodies never recovered, was a temporary design by Edwin Lutyens. He had imagined that something more elaborate could be conceived. However, its plain yet allusive form struck a chord with onlookers and was retained.

The Cenotaph, Whitehall. Edwin Lutyens, 1919. © RO’C

The memorial is blank save for the wishful words: “The Glorious Dead”. The form does not allow projection onto itself. Being white, it reflects the gaze of those staring at it. Being blank, it reflects nothing, a numbness. Nothing, except that they – they who are in no way represented – are dead, and they are glorious. It is too soon for memory or re-enactment. The minds of those gazing are still in shock.

Although a representation of Edith Cavell occupies the front of this memorial near Trafalgar Square, the side representing “Sacrifice” is blank.

Edith Cavell Monument, St Martins Place,
Sir George Frampton, 1916-20. © RO’C

The notion of sacrifice, derived from Christian teaching, was central to the motivation for British troops during the war. But, whereas before the war the term was eulogised repeatedly and at length, now it remains solely as a word, etched in stone. Any of its significations and implications has been blanked out.

Cheltenham war memorial, Gloucestershire, unveiled 1st October 1921. © RO’C

Similarly, this early memorial in Cheltenham is non-figurative. The only decoration is a regimental crest and the names of the dead. The format is reminiscent of the lists of the dead published daily during the war in the daily newspapers. Time has not moved on since then; the names are still names alone, not men with stories to be re-presented.