Re:visit: women, war memorials, and five female sculptors who took on World War II

Just over a month ago I was in Washington DC, where I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was one of the attractions I was really excited to see. The memorial is on the National Mall and thus part of the open-air timeline of American history, together with the many other monuments and the Smithsonian museums. But the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is in a league of its own, especially when compared to the nearby World War II memorial. As it turns out, war memorials designed and/or sculpted by women are few and far between. I wonder why?

Memorializing the Vietnam War
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a large black granite V cut into the earth, a literal rupture in American soil, with no other decoration than the names of roughly 58,000 people sandblasted into the panels. These include the names of those who died in country as well as those of the many servicemen who went missing in action. It was the Chinese-American student Maya Lin, 21 at the time, who came up with the design. The theorist James Young, who interviewed her about it, calls it a ‘countermonument’, meaning that it subverts traditional ideas of what a memorial should look like and the purpose it should serve. Countermonuments point to loss and absence that cannot be compensated, rather than praise the deeds or existence of one or more persons. These monuments refuse to become stand-ins for the past they’re meant to commemorate. They also refuse to take up space in the authoritative way that makes viewers into passive spectators. Thus, the black underground V stands as an inversion of the vaulted white marble monuments on the National Mall. Young quotes Lin as saying she “imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal.” The monument creates an experience, bringing the dead in direct contact with the visitors, who see themselves reflected in the polished granite as they walk past.

To view the memorial, you have to walk down a sloping path, going underground as it were. This can be said to symbolize a number of things, including the descent into memory, the dead lying underground in foreign soil, or even the true cost of the war being swept under the rug by the government, creating a conspicuous lump that you can only see from a certain angle. The writer Viet Thanh Nguyen said about the memorial in his book Nothing Ever Dies:

Many memorials are more transparent and upright about celebrating wars, masculinity, heroism, and sacrifice, and few elicit the depth of attachment from visitors that the dark wall does. The wall’s power does not come from its complete commitment to war and soldiers but from its deep ambivalence about war and soldiers, who do not even appear personified as figures, faces, or bodies. . . As a mirror, the wall shows the figures, faces, or bodies of its visitors over the names of the dead, while as a barrier, the wall separates the living from the dead.

When I was there, on Memorial Day Weekend, the National Mall was teeming with visitors, many of whom were Vietnam veterans who had taken a break from racing their Harley Davidsons around the park to wander around and pay tribute to the fallen. The path along the wall was crowded with people who left photographs, flowers and poems, or kneeled down with a pencil to trace a name from the wall onto the piece of paper. People behaved completely differently than I had seen them do at the Korean War memorial or the World War II memorial. That is not surprising: compared to those memorials, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is far more minimalistic – some say nihilistic – and gives fewer obvious clues on how to behave around it. This lack of context is what made it controversial at the time it was designed: it became known as the ‘black gash of shame’, its list of names being seen as a ‘monument to defeat’, as meaningless as a list of victims from a bus accident. Nor was it popular with all veterans, as some saw the ‘black pit’, hidden away and scarring the National Mall, as an all too familiar reflection of the indifference or downright contempt they’d been treated with after returning from the war. (source)

To compromise, two more statues were added close to the wall: one was a bronze statue of three men, one black, one white and one Latino, with their arms around each other, dressed in the sweat-drenched khakis and bullet belts that are familiar to us from the movies. A safe and recognizable image of the war that everyone could relate to. The second sculpture is the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which remains the first and only memorial to women serving in the armed forces on the National Mall. Designed by Glenna Goodacre in 1993, the bronze sculpture is dedicated to the “265,000 forgotten women who served”, mostly as nurses, during the war in Vietnam. It shows three nurses, one kneeling with a helmet in her hands, one who holds a dying soldier in her arms and one who stares up at the sky wearily, as if looking at the incoming helicopters bringing in ever more wounded men. If war memorials designed by women are rare, war memorials depicting women – real women, not allegories of peace, compassion or motherhood – are even rarer. The memorial was conceived by Diane Carlson Evans, a former Army combat nurse who served in Vietnam and founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation. She wanted to bring attention to the women who served and “provided comfort, care, and a human touch for those who were suffering and dying.” (source)

Memorializing World War II
The names of the dead and missing on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial form a striking contrast with the World War II memorial in DC, which looks the way you expect a war memorial to look: large, oddly blank and quasi-religious, with marble pillars and an oval shape. The pillars say ‘Pacific’ on one side and  ‘Atlantic’ on the other; fifty columns bear the names of the states, emphasizing that the war was fought by people from all over the country. It would be temple-like, except there aren’t any statues to kowtow to. In the middle there is a large fountain, which on a hot day like the day of my visit was swarming with children and their parents hoping to cool off, the guards grudgingly allowing them to dip their toes into the water. As you walk up to the memorial, bronze slabs depicting war scenes line the marble walls: soldiers fighting, civilian populations celebrating being liberated, supplies being loaded onto trucks, nurses in hospitals.

The memorial does not hint explicitly at the dead and missing, but rather at those who returned victoriously; the only nod to those who paid the ultimate price is the small memorial pond that reflects a wall full of golden stars, each of which stands for 100 American men and women who lost their lives in the war. The design is not dissimilar to the Mardasson Memorial in Bastogne, which I visited on my Battle of the Bulge trip. This, too, has a circular shape and large pillars supporting a marble crown that bears the names of all fifty United States. On the inside, the pillars are inscribed with a description of the events of the war, as well as the names and insignias of the US Army divisions who took part in the battle. It is similar, too, to the memorial at Coleville-sur-Mer cemetery in Normandy, which has a semi-circular design with a statue of a large, muscular, bronze youth in the middle. To the sides, the walls bear the names of those American servicemen and -women who remain missing in action, as well as a large map depicting the battle of Normandy. But your attention is immediately commanded by the rows of white crosses stretching ahead; the Coleville memorial cannot help but acknowledge death. And yet, wandering among the gravestones, it lacks the confrontational atmosphere of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which forces you to look at yourself while looking at the names, and asks why you are there.

Trite and impersonal is how I had come to think of most war memorials, and it didn’t even occur to me to think of who designed them until I read Maya Lin’s story when I was in DC. It seems to me that when it comes to World War II memorials in the Western world, monuments to the suffering of soldiers and civilians follow a standard set of rules and conventions, as do many other works of art that deal with the war. Their suffering is cast forever in bronze or absorbed into a faceless cenotaph or temple to their martyrdom. Names are rarely featured because the suffering has often taken place on such a large scale, whether at that precise location or in general, that it’s impossible to know the identity of all those who were killed. That, or there were too many victims to mention. The World War II memorial in DC does not show any names either. One of the walls has an inscription saying that women also played an important part during the war, but again without naming anyone in particular.

Holocaust memorials often do feature names, but with a reason: the Nazi goal of erasing all Jews and their memory almost dictates that any monument that is erected to preserve the memory of Holocaust victims requires the preservation of names, as well as dates and places of birth, to show that these were people who have been erased. At the same time, the creation of lists is problematic in this case, since this careful archiving of every detail was precisely what the Nazis themselves were known for. In the case of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the goal is similar: in the face of this black hole that swallowed so many people, it makes an effort to stop them from becoming a faceless mass.

Women and war memorials
Lin’s design is unique and shifts the definition of what a war memorial can be. A wall, almost hidden underground, displaying the names of the dead and missing is almost the antithesis of what we are used to seeing: bronze sculptures of heroic soldiers bearing slogans, such as a quote from a famous commander’s speech. It’s not just a countermonument because it goes against traditional ideas of what monuments should be, but because it counters traditional ideas of who should make war memorials, as well. Maya Lin has said that the response to her design made her feel that “to some, I am not really an American.” Her detractors scoffed at a Chinese-American woman, and a young one at that, creating a memorial for men, soldiers, Americans. Certainly this is a view inherited from the previous wars America took part in, including World War II. In her book Sculpting Doughboys: Memory, Gender and Taste in America’s World War I Memorials, Jennifer Wingate notes that ever since the Civil War, few American women artists have chosen to create war memorials, as “many viewed the creation of war memorials as an inherently unfeminine pursuit” – this despite “the major role [women] had played since colonial times as ‘keepers of memory’”, passing on traditions via song, fashion, literature and visual arts. Wingate names Bashka Paeff and Sally James Farnham as the main American female sculptors who took on World War I.

The painter Cecilia Beaux said at the time:

Americans are a busy and cheerful people. We shall not become morbid over our dead. Let our memorials be such as to turn us aside, for the moment of pity, love and pride. The American soldier of the Great War must be permanently and visibly on record in many places, as he looked and was.

It is a sentiment that in fifty years would sound hollow and overly gung-ho to American ears. In the same vein, Farnham cast a sailor and a soldier in bronze for her mischievously titled sculpture ‘Like Hell You Can!’, saying about her work: “ I am so happy to be able to make it a simple memorial and not a sculpture of good little Sunday School boys, or soldiers and sailors dying.” Male critics admired her for “the ‘masculine spirit’ she had embodied in it.” (source) In this case, by imitating the rules set by male sculptors for war memorials, Farnham was able to build a succesful career. There was no real reason for her to break the mold.

Sally James Farnham’s sculpture ‘Like Hell You Can!’ in Fultonville, New York, US. Source:

A precursor to the idea of the countermonument is a noteworthy sculpture by Bashka Paeff. About her sculpture ‘The Sacrifices of War’, which shows a grieving mother amidst dying soldiers, Bashka Paeff said, opposing the patriotic sentiment of ‘Like Hell You Can!’: “I hope most of all that we shall not erect memorials to glorify war… We forget what suffering and horror it brought. We should set up memorials that would make us loathe war instead of admire it.” It seems Maya Lin succeeded on that account, at least for part of the population. She captured the ambivalence the American people felt towards the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War.

Bashka Paeff’s sculpture ‘The Sacrifices of War’ in John Paul John’s Memorial Park in Kittery, Maine, US. Source: Flickr

With women and children making up a large part of the casualties as well as the armed forces during World War I, why were female sculptors still considered more unfit to portray the essence of battle than men who themselves had not seen any action? It reinforces the idea that those who did not literally offer up their lives on the battlefield were not patriots, and thus didn’t deserve to be remembered. Maya Lin believed the different aspects of who she is – Chinese, female, young, a citizen – detracted from her identity as an American. Her critics think this takes away her authority to comment on the war – it is not ‘her’ war. But with war spilling over into citizens’ lives, whose war does it become? Who can lay claim to a war, and to its legacy?

Does it matter that two women designed memorials to the Vietnam War? I think it does. I believe that the question of who gets to be remembered stretches further than who or what is being depicted, and includes the identity of the sculptors. What they create is also a memorial to their minds, their art, and their identities.

Female sculptors and World War II memorials
I wondered, then, if there were any female sculptors who, like Maya Lin, created countermonuments, stretching the boundaries of what a war memorial could be when it came to World War II. It took me much longer than I expected to compile the list below. This has to do, I believe, with the prevailing image we have of the war. Where WWI memorials still vacillate between plucky young doughboys and the shock of mechanical mass slaughter, WWII memorials often are far less ambivalent, matching the idea we have of the war being mainly white male soldiers shooting Nazis or Japs in an unambiguous good-versus-evil conflict. Memorials dedicated to this war are indeed usually “transparent and upright about celebrating wars, masculinity, heroism”, and what Nguyen calls “the depth of attachment” to what the memorial portrays is often lacking in the design and the context of these memorials.

Still, I found a few WWII memorials sculpted or designed by women that reiterate what Goodacre and Lin show with their Vietnam War memorials – that women too endured on the front line – and that flip the idea that the front line is where most of the suffering takes place.

1 Anilore Bannon – Les Braves (2004)

Probably the most famous is the memorial at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. Called Les Braves, it was designed by Anilore Banon, a French sculptor, and unveiled in 2004 on the 60th anniversary of D-Day. The sculpture commemorates those who died during the D-Day landings, on both sides. Stainless steel columns, some straight, some curving upwards, evoke the metal crosses placed on the beach by the Germans prior to the invasions, as well as the waves, and the curvy blades of scimitars. The three groups of columns represent “Wings of Hope, the Rise of Freedom, and the Wings of Fraternity.” With her sculpture, Bannon unambiguously mourns those who died, no matter which side they fought on.

Les Braves on Omaha Beach. © Jantine Broek

2 Käthe Kollwitz: Mother with her Dead Son (Pietà)

A temple-like former guardhouse along Berlin’s Unter den Linden called Neue Wache houses Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture Mother with her dead son. It is a pietà, used to commemorate, in the words of the artist, “the victims of war and tyranny”. It is believed that Kollwitz, who had made a name for herself with many anti-war works of art following World War I, starting working on this sculpture in 1937, by the time the Nazis were perfecting their cultural policies. An enlarged version now sits in the former guardhouse. The mother, larger than her son, sits huddled and touches his hand; with the other she appears to be wiping her nose. Though impressionistic, this gesture makes the statue realistic and sympathetic. It takes the classic theme of a mother mourning for her son, but the size of the mother emphasizes her importance: she as a woman looms larger than her son, emphasizing that she, too, is a victim of war and tyranny – not just the soldiers.

Mother with Dead Son in Berlin. Source: Flickr

3 Susan Schwartzenberg – Rosie the Riveter Memorial

The Rosie the Riveter Memorial sits in Marina Bay Park in San Francisco, which was an active shipyard during World War II. The shape of the memorial suggests the deconstructed parts of a ship under construction, and is completed with plaques and photos that tell the story of the more than 80,000 women who worked in the war industry, and highlights white, black, Asian and Latina women. The memorial is part of a memorial route that tells the story of the shipyards, but is the first to honour the labour of American women. It was created by visual artist Susan Schwartzenberg and landscape architect/environmental sculptor Cheryl Barton.

The Rosie the Riveter Memorial in Marina Bay Park. Source: wikimedia

4 Ruth Asawa – Japanese American internment memorial (1994)

Asawa’s Japanese-American Internment Memorial is located in San Jose, California, where the internment of Japanese-Americans was the order of the day beginning after the attack on Pearl Harbor. A Hieronymus Bosch-like confusion of figures populates the bronze bas relief, which shows the history of the Japanese in the United States, including scenes of immigration, internment during World War II and current Japanese-American life. It is informative rather than explicitly commemorative, providing text panels with a list of the camps and historical background information. The internment camps are a shameful blot on the pages of American history, one that I saw readily admitted to in the WWII Museum in New Orleans, though many people know nothing about it.

The Japanese-American Internment memorial in San Jose. Source: Flickr

5 Anne Ferguson – Australian Servicewomen’s Memorial (1999)

Ferguson’s memorial honours the Australian women who were in the army, navy and air force during World War II. Ferguson has moved away from any conventional materials or symbols like cenotaphs or figures. Instead, the memorial is a bare platform of coloured stones that are divided into by a curved trench. It’s reminiscent of a river seen from above, curving through a landscape. According to her website, Ferguson wants the viewer to interact with the memorial, “to walk right into the middle of the work, to experience a sense of empathy with the women it celebrates.” This memorial, too, features the insignias of servicemembers, but they are displayed along the sides, discreetly, rather than made the focal point of the memorial: “Ceremony is far less important than the human dimension,” says Ferguson. The changed ways of living and thinking that women in the armed forces had adopted during and after the war are represented by the coloured stones, which stand for the different backgrounds and experiences of the women. It is a foundation for the society that was built upon it.

The Australian Servicewomen’s Memorial. Source: © Australian War Memorial

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