Grayson Perry at the Cambridge Union in 2004. Photograph: Getty Images
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Grayson Perry: “I joined the cadets. I loved running around with guns”

The NS Interview.

Your latest work is a series of tapestries that explore class and taste in modern Britain. Why tapestries?
Do you want the real reason, or the reason that sounds really good?

Both, please.
One reason is that I could put on a large exhi­bition relatively quickly. It would take me two years to fill this room with pots, whereas the drawings for the tapestries took me three months. But I also chose tapestries because they were the status symbols of the super-rich, and they tell the stories of big national dramas and battles. I thought it would be interesting to show more everyday drama on them.

You have a reputation for being one of the least pretentious contemporary artists.
Sometimes people are scared of the truth. They are scared that it’s like The Wizard of Oz: that if they told the truth it would pull the curtain back and you’d find out they were just this little person who was making it behind. Trying to justify yourself with false intellectualism is one of the most annoying habits artists have.

Have you ever thought that a piece of contemporary art is just rubbish?
Oh, yes, all the time. Once I was listening to Bill Viola on the radio, years ago, and he was talking about a piece and he said, “It’s about the human condition.” It might have been about the human condition, but that’s almost like calling something profound – you don’t do it. You let people come to that conclusion themselves. Show not tell, as they say.

Is there an element of “emperor’s new clothes” about some art?
Artists are remarkably good at being the weavers of the emperor’s new clothes as well as being the emperor. Sometimes they clothe themselves in this stuff but they don’t need to. Often the best artists are totally honest about why they make stuff.

What is the most important aspect of what you make?
Being amusing is one part of it. I want people to be seduced by the material and to enjoy the colour and the texture, almost like the possess­ibility of the object and the richness of it.

Is there such a thing as good taste?
Everybody has an idea of good taste and it’s shaped by the group they are in.

So it’s just conformism?
It depends, doesn’t it? Some people’s good taste is more conformist than others’, because in the art world good taste wouldn’t be conformist. Good taste in the art world is to be quite revolutionary and innovative.

So you’re conforming by not conforming?
Yes. And that’s something I slightly trade on, because I slightly mock artists for their desire for novelty the whole time.

Is that why you use traditional media such as tapestry and pottery?
I don’t innovate. I never break the boundary of a tradition. My tapestries are not unusual tapestries; they’re the right shape, the right size, they haven’t got things growing out of them. I’m interested in the content, not the form.

By cross-dressing from an early age were you rejecting convention?
There’s an element of that. I think that’s why gay people often find it easier to be alternative in their tastes, because they’ve already been forced out of the convention by their sexuality.

Do you ever suffer from impostor syndrome?
I used to have it terribly when I first had exhi­bitions. I remember waiting in the foyer of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam for the curator to come and pick me up to start organising a show. I had this strong sense that someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and say, “There’s been a mistake.” Particularly if you come from a working-class background, you have low expectations of yourself.

Your wife is a psychotherapist. Has that informed your art?
Hugely. I did therapy for six years.

How did that change how you work?
I describe it as somebody clearing up your tool shed – suddenly I had access to my whole personality.

Did you once say that you could have been a serial killer if you hadn’t become an artist?
Yes. I was quite an angry young man. I joined the cadets; I loved it. I loved all that running around with guns. I can understand how people end up like that. But of course I went to art school, so it was fine.

Is there anything you’d like to forget?
I can’t remember.

Are we all doomed?
Yes, we are, because human beings aren’t capable of acting in a cohesive way to solve something that they can’t see in front of their faces. Global warming and all that sort of stuff – it’s too abstract, isn’t it?

Defining Moments

1960 Born in Chelmsford, Essex. Starts cross-dressing at an early age
1982 BA, fine art, Portsmouth Polytechnic
1983 Moves to London and takes pottery lessons at Central Institute
2003 Wins Turner Prize – first time it has gone to a ceramicist
2005 Presents Channel 4 documentary on men who wear women’s clothes
2009 Thames & Hudson publishes Jacky Klein’s anthology of his work

 

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle