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Conference Papers
Conference papers

Paul Gough
Constructions of Death, Mourning, and Memory Conference, WAPACC Organization, Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, USA, October 27-29, 2006

Insurrection: Resurrection: reviving the dead in the work of Stanley Spencer, Otto Dix and Jeff Wall
    'The scene that followed was the most remarkable that I have ever witnessed. At one moment there was an
    intense and nerve shattering struggle with death screaming through the air. Then, as if with the wave of a
    magic wand, all was changed; all over ‘No Man’s Land’ troops came out of the trenches, or rose from the
    ground where they had been lying.’
Taking as its starting point Stanley Spencer’s vast panorama of post-battle exhumation The Resurrection of the Soldiers (1927-32) this paper examines the role of painting and photography in appearing to bring the dead, the disappeared and the dying back into figurative life.

Spencer’s panorama of earthly redemption was painted in the 1920s as vast tracts of despoiled land in France and Belgium was being brought back from apparent extinction, and planted with thousands of gravestones and military cemeteries. As salvage parties recovered thousands of corpses, concentrating them into designated burial places, Spencer painted his powerful image of recovery and reconciliation.

This illustrated paper will locate Spencer’s work in the context of such artists as Will Dyson, Otto Dix, and the Australian Will Longstaff whose image of the Menin Gate at midnight’ depicts a host of phantom soldiers emerging from a Flanders battlegrounds. However, unlike the grotesque ‘undead’ depicted in Abel Gance’s 1919 film J’Accuse, Longstaff’’s ‘ghost army’ and Spencer’s reborn battalion are intact, pure and unsullied by warfare.

Achieving greater popular acclaim than Spencer’s vision of rhapsodic peace, Longstaff’s painting was more in tune with the mood of séances, spirit-photography, and battlefield pilgrimage that so dominated the decade after the Great War.

The paper will conclude with a reflection on Jeff Wall’s epic photographic battle-scape of 1992 ‘Dead Troops Talk’. Gough will explore common themes and draw some comparisons between Spencer’s ontology of reconciliation with Wall’s bleaker montage of disaster and death.