This post reflects on the emergence of the silhouette statue as the dominant anthropomorphic commemorative medium for honouring the war dead in the UK, operating in conjunction with, but temporarily supplanting the ubiquitous poppy and rewriting existing commemorative landscapes, both real-world and digital.
As part of the British Legion’s First World War centenary commemorations, silent silhouettes have been promoted to augment war memorials and other public spaces across the land. The public were invited to say ‘thank you’ via this medium to those who ‘served, sacrificed, rebuilt and changed the nation’. The public were defined as ‘businesses, local authorities and individuals’. The claim is that ‘they helped make us the nation we are today’.
These constituted a series of wooden and metal black near-life-size silhouettes of the main contributions to this theme, which apparently constituted: a soldier, sailor, airman, nurse, medical support, soldiers from across the commonwealth, munition factory workers, and suffragettes, with ‘Lest We Forget’ at their bases and the names of their sponsors.
There But Not There
In addition to the black silhouettes, a seemingly separate initiative has created a series of other memorial silhouettes – There But Not There – which promotes the charitable purchase of aluminium hollow outlines of life-sized soldiers holding bayonet-fixed rifles and bearing poppies: Tommy. The triad of aims for this project are to commemorate, educate and heal. A variant is the en face plastic silhouettes of the upper halves of young men’s bodies, which could be positioned on benches or chairs and and other seating locations to evoke the presence of absence. These were particularly evocative on the benches of war memorials, and in the pews of churches and chapels, and perhaps most so when situated at war graves. Miniature transparent plastic versions were also created for sale as desk-top ornaments. Check out their gallery.
A rapid search on Twitter found zero critical comments directly aimed at these temporary additions to war memorials and public spaces. It seems this has been accepted without critical commentary, as so often with corporate and community decisions regarding war memorials. The photographs on social media are surprisingly small in number, and where individuals are shown in relation to them, they are posed for the media by organisations and institutions wishing to publicly display their cooperation with the cult of commemoration: local councillors, mayors, school children, and sportsmen and women, as well as veterans and serving armed forces personnel. Inverclyde Council, for example, tweeted images of the There But Not There Tommys at their war memorials.
Endorsement also came from international celebrities posed in support of #therebutnotthere, include Arnold Schwarzenegger and Totenham Hotspur FC. Meanwhile Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt was posed with one in Whitehall.
Of particular interest is how these movements utilised heritage environments – natural and historic – and specifically religious and mortuary spaces. Cathedrals, as at Norwich and Southwell Minster were among those populated by the silhouettes. Cemeteries too received this attention, including some Commonweath War Graves, as at Undercliffe Cemetery. Bradford . A wide range of other heritage sites and monuments across the nation bore the silhouettes for the 11 November 2018 including Edinburgh Castle.
It is important that this isn’t seen simply as remembrance of the First World War, and the Tommy silhouettes made appearances in the Falkland Islands in connection to the 1982 conflict. The some silhouette was also projected onto the Rock of Gibraltar. This is about Britain and its Commonwealth and beyond.
Specific discussions in the media focused on the installation, or else many instances where these figures have been stolen (e.g. at Abercarn Community Association) or vanadalised. The Daily Mail produced this pre-Armistice Day outrage-inducing article here denouncing the perpetrators as ‘thugs’ and describing the figures as if they were living people, and thus ‘mutilated’.
As is often the case, the precise for reasons for the vandalism are unclear: whether motivated by objections to their message or simply because they are prone to being snapped by mindless drunks and angry people.
An Archaeodeath Reaction
These silhouettes have context: the widespread growth of varied forms of anonymous generic sculptures to commemorate the war dead and the industrial dead. They also join other initiatives in conflict commemoration, such as the waterfalls and sculptures of poppies used to dress war memorials and other heritage locations for Remembrance Sunday. There are also a growing number of black metal memorial benches which have been augmented to memorials, with both First World War and Second World War iconic images attached.
Together, they chart the 21st-century rise of the silhouette as a medium for remembering the war dead. Another related trend are of evocative silhouette metal sculptures at a range of historic locations and to commemorate the military, such as the National Memorial Arboretum’s 47 Squadron memorial.
A further specific artistic set of silhouette sculptures were created by Jackie Lantelli in Slimbridge churchyard, which gained greater emotive power through their three-dimensionality and their association with actual graves rather than a cenotaph.
I also see them as powerful and evocative in their ability to intervene in a ghostly fashion through their solid silhouettes (Silent Silhouettes) and also as opaque or transparent form (There but Not There). Together, the dead are materialised temporarily in a variety of public spaces: present-absences.
Yet the standardisation of the silhouettes is also part of their power, contrasting with the bespoke silhouette sculptures found elsewhere. They are arranged and placed in a host of indoor and outdoor settings, in different numbers and combinations, and contrasting scales, to signal contribution to a landscape – both realworld and digital – of icons to the centenary commemoration. In this fashion, the silhouettes bind these disparate public buildings, sites, memorials, monuments and places of worship together into the same memorial scheme, again, following the precedent of the ubiquitous poppy. As with poppies, they operate on contrasting scales from miniatures, life-sized, and gigantic projections, but unlike poppies, the silhouettes afford the human form as the medium of remembrance, rather than a floral symbol. They thus cite and bind together the different locations in relation to each other into a temporally specific but spatially far-reaching shared theme of conflict commemoration.
For these same reasons, one might cite them for criticism. This is a 21st-century perpetuation of post-war spiritualism, focusing on the romantic ‘haunting’ of the living by the dead. They reduce the three-dimensional sculptures of soldiers and others upon war memorials to a banal trope. But rather than accusing or vocal, these figures mourn for themselves and each other in submissive silence. While one might consider the human form here to have a mnemonic agency, it is dull and generic. Their posture is revealing, either bent, bearing items of their militarised labour, or else saluting: they are fixed in dutiful service or standing straight up and posed for differential sacrifice. The allusion of voluntary death and service is reified. Simultaneously, all local flavour is drained away, and the mass-produced iconography jars with the diverse materiality and symbolism of Britain’s complex and diverse conflict commemoration culture. These projects are attempts to create a corporate and cohesive narrative mobilising our imaginations about the ‘lost generation’. They intrude upon the original stories told by memorials in a fashion that poppies and wreaths do not and given the overarching popularity of the bayonet-fixed ‘There but not There’ versions, how is this not an overtly patriotic, if not jingoistic, form of remembrance? Whether by intention, perhaps some vandals are affording a necessary corrective by breaking this silhouettes, to remind us of the broken bodies of the war dead: shattered by shrapnel and interrupted from their futures.
Key archaeological questions remain: how are their numbers selected? Why is the Tommy ubiquitous for both initiatives and beyond a token nod to inclusivity and civilian deaths and service, did they really expect nurses and munition workers, let alone suffragettes, to be popular additions to commemorative spaces? How long will they last in the face of vandalism and other sources of damage, or were many only temporarily displayed and have been removed already?