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a word on art

The 100th Anniversary of the Poppy

I’ve always thought that far too much time is spent pouring over the tiniest symbolic details in works, writing treatises on a single pomegranate seed in a Van Eyck, analysing the angle of a mirror in a Velasquez. While one can understand why these generate interest, I feel that it is equally important to recognise and probe our relationship with the iconography that we are most often exposed to, in this case the Remembrance Poppy.

While the meaning of the poppy is now widely known, its early appearance across the Flanders battlefields set it out as the symbol of the war dead, the story behind its advent as a sartorial mark of remembrance has been largely forgotten. We often see the remembrance poppy as a primarily British symbol, associated with General Haig and the military. Yet its genesis was in fact far more international and driven by two women on both sides of the Atlantic. The first was Moina Michael, an American who started making silk poppies in 1919, which she distributed amongst her colleagues to solicit charitable donations. Starting with only 25 in the first year, the bold colours of the flower became quickly popular, and the symbol started to spread in the urban USA. The second figure was a French woman, Madame Guérin, who began making paper poppies around the same time, with the help of French war widows, actively supporting the bereaved while also raising money for charity. After travelling to the states in 1921, her success led her to visit London in November, where she organised the first national Poppy Day, a tradition that has continued ever since.

2021 is the centennial of the Remembrance Poppy. I think we should mark the efforts of these two now-forgotten women, who first had the idea of using the symbolic power of the red flower to support those affected by war. Today, while bright red still predominates on the 11th of November, the significance of colour is clearly marked by the array of new poppies that have sprung up in the last decades, from the purple poppy that refences the animal casualties of war, to the white that seeks to remember all casualties of war, soldier or civilian, and the black poppy that hopes for a pacifistic future.

As a nation we are primed to understand and interpret the poppy worn on the lapel, but how do we respond to the poppy on the canvas? Although they make an appearance in the oeuvres of most painters, Monet and his 1873 Poppy Fields at Argenteuil comes to mind, it is in the works of Kenneth Webb that the poppy assumes an almost iconic status.

If Monet turned to the poppy as the brightest of the naturally occurring colours to punctuate his landscapes, Webb places these flowers front and centre in bold, graphic fashion. The shock of their scarlet petals bring life to the Irish bogs which unmistakably attracted Kenneth in a similar way that the symbolism of the flowers rising from battlefield caught the imagination of Michael and Guérin a century ago. So, while we are now all used to the ubiquity of the poppy, we should never forget quite how special their position is. The next time I see one I’m going to stop and allow myself time to take in just how bright that red is, how unique their presence on the landscape is, and truly fitting they are as a marker of collective memory.

View Kenneth's artworks here .


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