on October 26, 2003
Daniel J. Sherman brings a background in interdisciplinary studies to this work. It is the second of his major publications, the first being WORTHY MONUMENTS: ART MUSEUMS AND THE POLITICS OF CULTURE IN 19TH CENTURY FRANCE, published in 1989. Through the use of numerous photographs taken by the author and relying on primary and secondary sources, the current work is in some respects a history of public art in France. But to describe Sherman's work soley on such a superficial basis is only to scratch the surface of this complex psychological analysis of French culture.
Sherman imposes a non traditonal approach as he looks at how the French remembered and memorialized World War I. What evolves is a description of the thought processes of the French people used in the conceptualization, financing, placing and building of monuments and the long range impact of these decisions on French culture. Sherman goes beyond the practical aspects of bricks and mortar, architectural plans and the number of francs necessary for the construction of monuments. He deals, however, with space,place and institutions of art and politics along with the mental processes and group dynamics of individual projects. He discusses the impact of tourism associated with the war and how villages sought to return to normalcy while surrounded by battlefields that other considered sacred ground. He writes about the conflicts between families that wanted the return of war dead and the government who wanted them buried in battlefield cemeteries.
With a sprinkling of Sigmund Freud and Michel Foucault, Sherman seemingly puts the French naiton on a couch and delves into its psyche. Like the person who has suffered a tragic loss, Sherman attempts to determine the ramifications of the nation's pain as a result of the Great War and how the collective and individual memories of the war merged. He accomplishes this task by presenting numerous examples, perhaps to many, of individual villages and town and their conflicts with the national government relative to memorializing. At the essence of his duscussion is how the past is fashioned by a society and how commemoration of the Great War is now a part of French culture.
This is not a book for the unskilled reader. Individual sentences are often replete with underlying meanings and could be the subject of hearty debate. The reader should also note that the author sets up his own definitions in the introduction of some of the terms he uses. This introduction also does a good job of setting the historiographic stage for Sherman's thesis which is not merely looking at the monuments but putting them into the perspective the French national memory. Within the context of reading and understanding French history it is a valuable work. Standing alone, one wonders if it is worth the read.