French artist Eric Monbel with his painting on a stretcher at La Piscine Museum, Roubaix (Photo: Centenary News)

L'Adieu aux Armes - Roubaix remembers First World War with 4-year art show

Posted on on 03 October 2014
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Centenary News Deputy Editor, Peter Alhadeff, has visited the French city of Roubaix for the launch of a four-year programme of art exhibitions, dedicated to the First World War, in a former art deco swimming pool.

One hundred years ago, the cities of France's northern industrial heartland, among them Roubaix, fell under German occupation as the battle lines extended towards the coast in what became known as the Race to the Sea.

To mark the Centenary, Roubaix is hosting a series of exhibitions at La Piscine, a converted 1920s swimming pool and municipal bathhouse which is now the home of a leading art gallery in this former centre of the French textile industry.

Haunting images of war dominate the first of the events being held here, under the title of 'L'Adieu aux Armes,' in two small galleries overlooking what was once the pool. 

An ink drawing of a dying, or dead, man faces two figures in gas masks, one of them a nurse. The impression is unsettling, slightly sinister even, in the close confines of a former cubicle little wider than a trench.

The masked faces are a hallmark of the work of Eric Monbel, the artist from nearby Lille featured in this exhibition, who points out that he grew up in the landscape of the First World War.

Eric Monbel, Explosion, 2005. Huile sur toile.100 x 100 cm (Photo: Alain Leprince)

Monbel, 47, vividly recalls listening to family stories of the conflict told by those who'd served in the French Army or lived through the hardships of the occupation of Lille. On country walks, his father would warn him of the danger of unexploded munitions in the fields.

"For me it's like a very large familial portrait, a big space of experiment and of course work about memory, and war," he says.

Television pictures of doctors treating casualties of the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s were also a major formative influence on Mondel's painting.

While visiting the second-hand markets, or brocantes, of northern France, Monbel spotted a stretcher for sale and saw its potential for use as a canvas.

Both of the galleries showcasing his work at La Piscine are dominated by painted First World War stretchers, one French, the other British.

One of them features two French soldiers, walking together, their boots and uniforms splattered with mud, the grey colour suggesting the clay of Flanders.

Eric Monbel deliberately avoids painting their faces. For him, distance lends an essential mark of respect, and the viewer is left to speculate about what happened to these two men.

One of the soldiers grips the apparently limp arm of the other suggesting injury. The companion stretcher in the other gallery of this exhibition shows a uniformed man with a red cross arm band. Directly opposite is another hallmark of Eric Mondel's work, a powerful explosion.

Eric Monbel's exhibition 'Distances' can be seen at La Piscine, Roubaix, until December 1st 2014. The programme, L'Adieu aux Armes, runs until May 2018, featuring the work of 11 artists. More details can be found here.

Eric Monbel will be taking part in a forthcoming Centenary exhibition in London. 'Crossing the Field: WWI, Football & the Christmas Truce' opens at Pitzhanger Manor House & Gallery in Ealing on November 8th 2014. More information is available here.

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