An extraordinary , emotionally overwhelming public art project is slowly unwinding in London. Since this past Summer, the installation called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, has been progressively installed at the Tower of London. Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, it consists of 888,256 ceramic poppies, each one honoring a life lost during the conflict. The poppies had been “planted” by volunteers to demonstrate the growing casualty rate during the War and to make the installation itself experiential for onlookers who, over successive visits, become aware of the project’s shifting and always expanding scale and shape, just as in the course of the War itself.
The work was opened on August 5th (the day Great Britain entered the War) and the last poppy was placed this past week, on November 11th, the date of the Allied-German Armistice, and also Veterans’ Day in the US and Remembrance Day in the UK. Parts of the installation will remain until the end of this month and two other significant portions will be transferred permanently to the Imperial War Museums in London and Liverpool.
Fortunately for us, talented photographer and MWC Member Angela James is currently in London and has provided us with her photographs of the installation (see above). The poppies themselves were designed and created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and were made by a vast team of volunteers in the town of Derby, birthplace of the industrial revolution and capital of the UK’s traditional china and pottery industries. The design of the site installation, in and around the Tower of London, was by stage designer Tim Piper.
Most of us are familiar with the poppy as a symbol for war veterans. The Salvation Army used to (maybe it still does) sell them in early November and it was a badge of honor to wear one. The symbolic use of the poppy comes from the famous poem, In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae Their significance relates to the fact that poppies were the first flowers to grow in the turned soil of soldiers’ graves in the region of Flanders in northwestern Belgium.
World War I – The Great War – truly changed the course of world history and order and many historians now regard it primarily as the prelude to the second, greater, conflict – World War II. In the United States, the collective memory of World War I tends to be muted reflecting our country’s limited participation and the war’s correspondingly smaller impact. At the time of WWI, America was in its economic and industrial ascendancy with strong strains of isolationism after years of absorbing huge waves of immigration. In general, the country wanted to steer clear of the political unrest embroiling Europe. Although eventually participating in WWI, US casualties totaled just over 110,000 (with a population of 140MM). In the UK, with total fatalities of almost 900,000 (with a total population of approximately 43MM and coming right after the huge loss of life in the 1918 Flu Pandemic), the negative repercussions of the Great War were felt demographically, economically and politically for generations to come and are present to this day.
Not surprisingly, the aftermath of the war in the UK spawned a worldwide peace movement. White poppies are the symbol worn by peace activists.