Book Review – Pantheon De La Guerre: Reconfiguring a Panorama of The Great War

Mark Levitch, Pantheon De La Guerre: Reconfiguring a Panorama of The Great War. Kansas City, MO: University of Missouri Press and The National World War One Museum, 2006.

Personal memory of war is most often painful but is often coloured by feelings of comradeship, mutuality, satisfaction and even pleasure. The State tends only to remember victory in war and as an occasion to paint the national canvass in the rich but deceitful colours of glory, patriotism and the fixing of national identity. Such triumphalism soon looks to posterity as anachronistic vainglory and puff. At the end of the First World War the scale of personal loss was such that there was little stomach for national public statements of the kind which had greeted the war on all sides at its outset in August 1914 when, with flags flying and drums beating, the nation’s went to war. Few national projects aimed to fix memory in terms of a celebration of victory. Those that did were rarely realised or quietly shelved. In Britain, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior standing for the commonality of death in battle provided a focus for grief with the Cenotaph in Whitehall offering the solace of resurrection to people who strove for meaning in the war to compensate them for their losses. Thus was the war both redemptive and redeemed.

One project that got away was the vast Pantheon de la guerre in France. Conceived and executed on a gigantic scale under the direction of the French artists Pierre Carrier-Belleuse and Auguste-Francois Gorguet with a team of twenty others, work began in September 1914 in the afterglow of Joffre’s  ‘miracle on the Marne’ when civilisation was saved from the new dark age of an impending Imperial German victory in the west. Alternatively, that at least was the contemporary mood that impelled the work of the Pantheon, which would grow to be the largest painting in the world and would depict some five thousand Allied principals as well as many ordinary soldiers based on real individuals who would thus be immortalised. The artists saw the painting as practically ‘war work’ and although a private venture their work always had a semi- official imprimatur. The twin foci of the painting were a huge ‘temple of glory’ including a ‘staircase of heroes’ and a monument to the dead under the words ‘pro patria’. Displayed in a purpose-built and government-funded building close to L’Hotel Des Invalides in Paris, the Pantheon de la Guerre opened to national triumph and public acclaim.

Thereafter its tortuous fate was to be remade and it would fetch up at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, shorn of most of its figures and all of its meaning. Why, how and to what end is chronicled superbly by Mark Levitch.

Throughout most of the Twenties, it basked in glory where French citizens and visitors saw it alike, including many Americans. Among these was Kansas City artist Daniel MacMorris. As was the way with European works of art before the Crash it was first admired and then acquired by American money and was shipped to New York in May 1927. From there it went on a USA-wide commercial tour, never making enough money for those who had originally invested and after a final exhibition in San Francisco in 1940, the canvas went into storage until 1952.

MacMorris saw that the painting should go to Kansas City to become a central part of his redecoration of Liberty Hall, albeit in a dramatically reduced and altered form. He cut the painting into strips, discarding those he could not use or thought no longer relevant and painted in new figures to enhance the representation of the USA and turned it into, in Mark Levitch’s words, “a Cold War cut-and-paste” with America as the new defender of Liberty. He painted new backgrounds and removed many whose friends and relatives must have thought their memories were assured. Bits left over have recently even appeared on e-Bay.

As meaning changes so memory is changed and as history is rewritten in the image of each new generation so remembrance becomes an adaptable and disposable commodity – a moveable feast. The fate of the Pantheon shows how memory is forgotten and history is affirmed and validated by the new victors in each age.

By Dr Bob Bushaway, Honorary Research Fellow in War Studies, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

Printable version is downloadable here.

One response to “Book Review – Pantheon De La Guerre: Reconfiguring a Panorama of The Great War

  1. Pingback: Get your Book Reviewed! « Birmingham "On War"·

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