The legend is startling: After the Armistice of 1918, crops on the eastern French border grew at an unprecedented rate. The soil was so saturated with the blood of dead soldiers that the nutrients from their slaughtered bodies fertilized the fields. Whatever the truth of this story, World War I was among the most devastating episodes in human history. Europeans once thought of war as a glorious expression of courage and loyalty. “The Great War” changed all that, annihilating landscapes, ruining economies, reordering society, and traumatizing an entire generation. In countless ways, it was World War I that ushered in the modern era.
It is fitting that the Alianza Francesa presents “Desde Las Trincheras,” a small exhibit dedicated to the French artist and author Jacques Tardi, to commemorate the centennial of World War I. Tardi published his history of the war, “C’Était la Guerre des Trenchée” (“It Was the War of Trenches”) in 1993. The Alianza Francesa has hung large prints of his drawings in its one-room gallery and provided an introduction to his work, along with Spanish translations of the French text. The drawings are not photo-realistic, but their portrayal of trench warfare is gritty and vivid.
In recent decades, “graphic novels” have become powerful tools for nonfiction storytelling. The term “sequential art” has elevated the form from superhero comics to works of literature. Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” is among the most celebrated books to document the Holocaust. Had Marjane Satrapi written a regular memoir about her childhood in Iran, U.S. readers might have ignored her, but her “Persepolis” has become a global sensation and even an animated film. There is something about the still drawings, rendered in stark pen and ink with an all-too-human hand, that stirs readers differently than words or photographs. Artists portray exactly what they want to portray, and they reimagine the true story with a personal style and flourish.
Tardi spares no detail. His drawings are filled with severed limbs, disfigured faces, and muddy wastelands. In one sequence, a man is shot through the face. For France, World War I was a particularly bitter experience; the nation lost more than a million soldiers to fighting, plus hundreds of thousands of civilians, and the scars of war lingered for years. But Tardi provides the specifics of daily life that history books often leave out:
It was a respite. Some days, in the back of this village, [we felt] security compared to the trenches and the possibility of being slightly alone, to escape… meanwhile, this country house where they were going to arrive, it was like a barracks room, the “buddies” greeted each other obscenely, the congestion of bodies, the heaviness of their spirits, and throughout… the odors.
It’s hard to imagine a country more anti-war than Costa Rica, but “Trenches” is also a good opportunity to remind patrons why wars should not be fought. Tardi gives the subject the gravity – and humanity – it deserves. The Alianza Francesa recently hosted a similar exhibit of “Tintin” comics, and Hergé’s adventuresome journalist is certainly worthy of display, but “Trenches” is far more serious and moving. World War I was not “the war to end all wars,” as so many hoped. But thanks to artists like Tardi, we can still learn its lessons 100 years later.
“Desde las Trincheras” continues through Oct. 30 at Alianza Francesa, Barrio Amón. Free. Info: Alianza Francesa website.