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As Memorial Day Nears, Exhibit Shows
Enduring Impact of First World War

Date: May 15, 2001
Story by: Mary Bridget Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos by: Jane Alden Stevens
Archive: General News

It's over, already, O.K. That's how many Americans today might view World War I, if they thought about it at all. Once commonly known as the "Great War" and the "War to End All Wars," it officially ended 83 years ago and seems largely forgotten. Many think of it as dead history, ancient and unreal, the stuff of textbooks.

Barbed Wire

But it's not over, not by a long shot. That's what photographer Jane Alden Stevens of the University of Cincinnati discovered over a year-and-a-half of traveling Great Britain, Germany and France, focusing especially on World War I's Western Front. Using more than 300 rolls of film, she documented the war's lasting impact. In large and stark black-and-white images, she recorded:

  • immense destruction still visible in barraged, upended, pockmarked fields

  • abandoned towns never rebuilt

  • mementos left by families who still make pilgrimages to WWI cemeteries

  • sculptures that record unhealed grief
  • Stevens, a professor of fine art, will soon exhibit a portion of her work in "Tears of Stone: World War I Remembered" at the University of Cincinnati. The exhibit opens Saturday, June 9.

    Menin Gate (British memorial to the missing in Belgium

    "I first wanted to explore the memorials, battlefields, affected towns and countries of World War I, because I've always been interested in how people memorialize other people. Remembrance is powerful. It helps us take stock of where we come from as a culture as well as individuals. It gives us perspective and context for the lives we live today," explained Stevens.

    However, what she found as she crisscrossed England, Germany and France was that she was not only chronicling how people remember, but how they live today because of the long-ago war. For instance, near the French city of Verdun, it's estimated that shells rained down at the rate of 1,000 per square meter during World War I battles. Many plunged deep into the ground, and they've been working their way up ever since. When farmers turn over the soil for planting, they often unearth unexploded (and very unstable) shells. In addition, millions of acres of forest are surrounded by barbed wire, off limits because of unexploded shells in the soil. Modern casualties from these shells are officially listed as World War I deaths. In some cases, estimated Stevens, it will be hundreds of years before the land is safe to walk on.

    Soldier's Picture, Berks Cemetery, Belgium

    It's impossible, she said, to remain ignorant of history if you travel along the Western Front (the border between Germany and France). Serving as an open-air history lesson are the sheer mass of cemeteries and the battlefield landscapes skewed in ungainly chunks as well as the abandoned villages never rebuilt because of the toxicity of the land and the poisoned water pooled in shell craters.

    She recalled, "In the Somme region one day, I was walking in fields of wheat, corn and sugar beets. I knew there were cemeteries nearby because of a map I was following. I came to a crossing of wagon paths. They really couldn't be called roads. I stood there wondering which way to go. Then, I saw that to the left was a pasture ...the land there was in stark contrast to the smoothly graded fields all about. It had shell holes and mutated hills. It was immediately evident what had happened in this place."

    Mother and Father sculptures, Vladslo Cemetery, Belgium

    Stevens chronicled not only these "natural" memorials, but also the official ones. Europeans still visit these sites. Stevens recalls meeting one couple coming into a British cemetery at dawn just after she'd finished shooting. They'd come to visit the grave of the man's great-uncle on behalf of the dead soldier's daughter, she recalled. "It really gave me a newfound respect for the sacrifices war imposes on both civilians and soldiers, and the incredibly long-term effects of war," said Stevens.

    Perhaps the most moving memorial, for her, was the epitaph written by one father for his son:

    Sadly disfigured. 'Twas for the best. - Dad.

    The images shown in "Tears of Stone" were shot with a pinhole, panoramic camera and a more modern swing-lens panoramic camera. The pinhole, by virtue of its less-precise optics, makes for a softer image and gives the resulting photographs a more historical, timeworn sense. Stevens' work was funded by the English Speaking Union, an international cultural organization, as well as the Ohio Arts Council and the University of Cincinnati. The grants totaled about $23,000.

    Soldier With Grenade, Chateau-Thierry War Memorial, France

    Viewers will be able to record their own thoughts during the exhibit. Stevens will place hundreds of postcard-sized images on stands so that viewers can write their own reactions on the back and place the postcards on the walls of the gallery. The postcards contain images of guestbook pages from memorial sites along the Western Front where visitors recorded reflections while visiting those sites.

    The exhibition of "Tears of Stone" will be in UC's 840 Gallery, located in Room 4340 of UC's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. It will go on display June 9-30th. The gallery, which is free to the public, is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays. A reception is planned from 5:30-7:30 p.m. June 15. For more information, call 513-556-2962.

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