The Universal Soldier
John Walker's Passing Bells
22 Jan - 30 April 2000

Passing bells

John Walker 'Passing Bells' Page 13 1998 etching, aquatint
Gift of Orde Poynton Esq. AO CMG 1999 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

The title of John Walker's portfolio of 27 etchings, Passing Bells, is taken from the opening line of Wilfred Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth (1917), one of the Owen poems later used in the libretto of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
- Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

A passing bell was rung when someone was dying, to frighten away evil spirits, and to call Christians to pray (orisons are prayers) for the departing soul's safe passage into paradise; or after death it was rung once for each year of life. Either way it was an amenity denied soldiers herded to their deaths in the trenches of World War I.

John Walker's father fought in the 1916 battle of the Somme (in which 11 other men from his family died) and at Passchendaele the following year. Wounded and repatriated to Birmingham, the young soldier could not reconcile the tranquillity of his home with the horrors across the Channel:

When [my father] was wounded at Somme he was brought home and placed in a chair outside the front door, dressed in uniform by his mother because he couldn't lift his arm … The women in the neighbourhood who had lost husbands or sons … queued up to ask this 19-year-old what had really happened to them … it was a horrendous thing to have to do.

Walker was struck by his father's matter-of-factness; he did not tell stories, but if Walker asked him very direct questions, he might come up with answers:

'Did you have any really good friends?' He said, 'Yes. John Walker.' 'The same name as you?' And he said, 'Yes, we grew up together, and we went to school together and then we went in the army [together].' And I asked him what happened to John Walker. He said, 'His head fell into my lap.'

Passing Bells

John Walker 'Passing Bells' Page 25 1998 etching, aquatint
Gift of Orde Poynton Esq. AO CMG 1999
Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

In Walker's etchings there may be echoes of Goya's The Disasters of War and of the work of German Expressionists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix, although Walker's work tends not to directly evoke anger at the folly of war, as do Grosz's prints, or a sense of ghoulishness, as do Dix's, but suggests an empathy with his father's ordeals.

Walker felt his father to be representative of the prime participant in every conflict - the universal soldier who, even when victor, is also a victim. In her 1964 song The Universal Soldier, Buffy Sainte-Marie went further and argued that soldiers are the agents of their own suffering:

He's the one who gives his body as a weapon of the war,
And without him all this killing can't go on.

The image of a sheep's skull in many of these etchings implies a reduction of mental capacities - Walker's soldier/father figures are not only physically maimed, but mentally and emotionally shells of their former selves. His father's first-hand recollections led the artist to produce an elegy for all those who had died as sheep. There were apparently so many skulls of all kinds on the battlefields that the soldiers played soccer with them:

I said to [my father], 'What did you do when you came out of the trenches?' 'What do you mean?' he'd say. 'For recreation.' 'Well, we used to play a lot of soccer.' 'Did you have soccer balls? What did you use?' 'We'd go and pick up a skull.'

Walker has heard of soldiers at Verdun who bleated like sheep on the way to the front, 'lest their officers think the soldiers were unaware of their fate'; and he has also recalled a comparison of officers to 'Judas sheep', kept to entice other sheep into the abattoir. Soldiers were likened to sheep by another World War I poet, David Jones, in his In Parenthesis, which was also used by Walker as a primary inspiration for this series. For example:


Passing bells

John Walker Passing Bells Page 8 1998 etching, aquatint Gift of Orde Poynton Esq. AO CMG 1999 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

They bunch, a bewildered half dozen, like sheep where the wall
is tumbled - but high-perched Brandenburghers / from their leafy
vantage-tops observe / that kind of folly …

When Walker puts a figure with a sheep's skull against a background of crosses, he is almost certainly associating the sacrifice of soldiers with the sacrifice of Christ the Lamb of God.

The sheep idea connects, too, with another of Wilfred Owen's war poems, The Parable of the Young Man and the Old. Taking the biblical story of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham's sacrifice - where, through divine intervention, Abraham slays a sheep instead of his son - Owen reverses the account:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

The sheep-skull also resembles a gas mask, as does the bandage-bound head in other images.

The newly-mechanised warfare of World War I heightened the vulnerability of the human body and the irrelevance of human capacities for action. The almost ghost-like soldier/father figures in Walker's etchings are not doing anything heroic. They are hardly doing anything at all. Rather, they are passive, while things are being done to them. They are portrayed as helpless, as victims, knocked about by forces beyond their control.

The army is always held up as the epitome of order, but these etchings show soldiers with no sense of order at all. They are outside the ordinary coordinates of space and time in some grotesquely disordered universe. It is very hard to believe that the artist was not there, that this is not trench art, in the way that Owen's poetry was trench poetry.

This is John Walker's major work to date in printmaking - a field in which he has been working for over 20 years. It has been said of earlier etchings by Walker that it seemed that the plates themselves had been 'wounded'; in Passing Bells he has continued to exploit etching's potential for visual equivalents to the personal damage caused by war:

This is evident in the rawness of the drawn lines, which at times are like exposed nerves, and in the way the corrosive action of the acid on the plate is made to eat away at our sensibilities just as they did the metal 1

Passing bells

John Walker Passing Bells Page 12 1998 etching, aquatint
Gift of Orde Poynton Esq. AO CMG 1999 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Viewing the prints is like reading a letter or a book, their small scale drawing us into close physical and emotional relations with them. With a growing intimacy we may be led to revise our initial impression of ugliness and horror, uncovering an amazing tenderness.

After making his name as an abstract painter in the 1960s, Walker introduced figurative elements into his works, many of which in the late 1970s and early 1980s had art-historical references. In the mid-1980s he increased the emotional weight of his work until, in the last few years, he has been tackling literary and historical subjects of the greatest pathos.

When he left art school he sometimes depicted tormented soldiers in his paintings and drawings, nearly all of which he later burned. What prompted his return to those figures in 1996 was his re-reading of the poetry of David Jones and Wilfred Owen:

When [I] read sentences from their poems, occasionally it sounded just like my father talking. The poetry makes me feel - because of the shared experience - very close to my father.

Walker's custom in printmaking is to explore and condense themes first announced in his paintings, but in this suite all the Walker trademarks and stock images have been eliminated in favour of the new devices of the sheep-skull and the bandaged cripple. The one exception appears in the final plate: it is Walker's familiar image of himself at his easel, but this time his head is a sheep's skull too, a sign of loving identification with his father.

Roy Forward

1 Jack Flam, 'John Walker: Passing Bells 1998', preface to the portfolio Passing Bells, New York: Tyler Graphics, 1998.

This article can be found in Artonview,issue no. 20, Summer, 1999-2000, pp. 42-43.