Owen’s Portrait + Preface (Diptych)

By Michelle Cioccoloni

Preface & Portrait


As in the collection of poems planned by Wilfred Owen, the exhibition opens with his Preface, which stands with his well-known Portrait to form a diptych. From afar the two works appear as monumental paintings, but close up are revealed to be made primarily from matchsticks.  In the opening chapter of Harold Owen's biography of his brother, he outlines an occasion when he himself was locked below deck in the dark with only a single match, a match into which he put all his hopes of getting out. The match itself can be seen not only as a symbol of life and warmth, of the home fires burning, but also of the diametrically opposed enemy fire and shell attacks. By joining the two brothers' experiences the artist moves from the single match of Harold's personal experience to the use of thousands of matches amongst which the individual becomes lost.
1  Owen's Preface


The matches used to form the famous draft of Owen's Preface for a collection of war poems that he had hoped to publish in 1919, each placed with great care at the correct angle to recreate his handwriting, are a reference to the way poets intricately shape their words to express their ideas in poetry. Wilfred's untimely death just seven days before the end of the First World War meant that the war poems he wrote came to form the bulk of his life's work. The words of the Preface gradually thin out to be replaced by mud, the mud which permeated the very fabric of the soldiers' lives, the mud the soldiers in the trenches had to endure most of the time.
2. Owen's Portrait


Many many matches lie in more serried ranks, packed tightly together, to form the well-known portrait of Wilfred Owen in uniform, showing how the individual is lost among the thousands in the tragic waste of war. The unfinished nature of the piece hints at it having been left at this point of construction when it could have been layered up, worked on further, whereas the process has been abruptly truncated, just as Owen's life was.


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