World War I, The Battle of the Somme, 1916, resonates in our hearts and minds. We may know of someone in our family who was there or have read accounts of the horrors of the battle. Some believe Irish soldiers should have stayed home to join the Easter Rising instead of spilling blood on foreign soil, even if they fought believing that fighting for the freedom of small nations would result in Home Rule for their own.
Following my mothers death, I was with the grave diggers preparing the family plot to receive her coffin. As they dug, the remains of long since interred family members were mingled with the newly aired soil. A scapula and ribs with bullet still embedded in the bone, sparked the story of my own great uncle Matthew who died on the Somme in August 1916 and who, like a generation of Irishmen, had been all but forgotten. Since then ‘Uncle Matt’ has been disinterred from the well of family oblivion and has had, at least some of, his story retold. It was Uncle Matt’s story that sparked in turn my interest in the Chiens Bleus, Chiens Gris exhibition.
One muggy evening in late July, my daughter and I went to see the opening of LEYHO’s Bande Dessinée (BD in France or Comic Book in it’s glorious English lost-in-translation) album Chiens Bleus, Chiens Gris (Blue Dogs, Grey Dogs) exhibition at the Olivier Cornet Gallery in Great Denmark Street, Dublin 1.
LEYHO was inspired by the story of his great grand uncle who fought and died at the Battle of the Somme in World War 1. While on a visit to Dublin, LEYHO was also inspired by the exhibition of William Orpen’s World War I paintings from the Somme battlefield in the National Gallery. Both Orpen and LEYHO’s great uncle were assigned to the same area of the front where Irish and French forces fought side by side at the Somme in 1916.
The owner and curator of the eponymous gallery instrumental in putting it all together, Olivier Cornet, provided photographs taken at the same battle by his own great grand uncle, Francois, who was assigned there as the official French army photographer. These provided further detail for LEYHO’s meticulously researched and crafted graphics, and accompany the exhibition.
LEYHO combined his great grand uncle’s story, inspiration from William Orpen’s work, and detail from the photographs by Olivier’s grandfather to produce this exquisitely executed work unifying the historical with the human, emotional, and psychic disaster that was WW1. Perhaps all three of our great and grand uncles met, perhaps not, but French and Irish soldiers fought together against German and Austrian soldiers in one of Europe’s most shameful internecine episodes – unfortunately since topped by World War II and more recently the conflict in the Balkans.
In Chiens Bleus, Chiens Gris, LEYHO tells the story of Francis, his great grand uncle, a school teacher who goes to war. The story begins with the end where Francis’ sister, Henriette, arrives at the war field cemetery in the Somme to reclaim her brothers body for re-interment in their family plot. The story then winds back in time to the innocence of the newly enlisted soldier going to the front to fight for freedom and country. The first shattering experiences at the front are followed by furlough and a love affair that rekindles the soldier’s desire to live.
The return to the front and a devastating discovery later drives the story to a culmination with the backdrop of one of European history’s most savage battles, where the desperation of the struggle for survival reduces everyone to primal instincts. All become savage, all are pushed by uncaring masters who are far from the front line focused on lines moving across a map. Soldiers on all sides become one mass of cannon fodder and we feel the horror of humanity stripped away, pointless slaughter not of numbers but of people we might know. People with their own stories, their joys and sorrows, their hopes and dreams, sent to a wasteland, trodden into the mud, robbed of everything we all hold dear, even life itself.
The art of LEYHO is among the best the BD genre has to offer. The landscapes are lovingly rendered and capture the mood of the characters, whether wistfully taking a farewell look at a beautiful seaside harbour town before returning to war or suffering the destructive horrors of incessant bombardment at the front. The graphics are crisp and lucid while skillfully blending colour and integrating almost dreamy backgrounds in the love affair scenes. The battle scenes are explosive and terrifying but then soulful and sad. The play of light and darkness has echoes of the Flemish masters mixed with Hieronymous Bosch.The transformation of the soldiers in the heat of battle happens almost unnoticeably and then you see it! The return to normality is only complete in the ultimately final outcome.
Chiens Bleus, Chiens Gris, goes beyond concepts of winners and losers to underline the human cost on all sides. It is moving not only because of the masterful story telling and striking graphics, but also because it tells a story about someone like us and illustrates with great emotion the human cost of war. Chiens Bleus, Chiens Gris reminds us we are all interconnected and tells us we must remember who, and what, we all lost as Europeans in this terrible conflict.
It also reminds us (the Balkan, and Syrian refugee crises, together with the dangerous rise globally of the extreme right, tell us we need continual reminders lest we forget) of why it is always so important to continue to forge close bonds with our neighbours not only in Europe, but across our planet, to care for and respect all people. We must work harder to heal and prevent such carnage and loss again anywhere, both now and in the future.
This beautiful exhibition officially ended on August 24, 2018. However, the gallery has scheduled a last look at the exhibition on September 7th and 8th, 2018, so you still have time to get there. If you can’t make it then, you can still have a personal tour of the exhibition with the artist LEYHO and gallery owner Olivier Cornet, in our video, soon to appear, where they explain the genesis of the work and discuss the links between artist and curator, together with the Franco-Irish links, that brought not only the album but also the exhibition into being.
Please feel free to wander through the virtual exhibition with LEYHO and Olivier as your guides when the link appears. If you prefer an audio discussion and guide, you will be able to find it soon here. You may also contact Olivier Cornet if you wish to get copies of the work for your own private perusal and delight.
Copyright © 2018, Tom Halton. All rights reserved.