There is a thin line that bridges the past and the present in François Mayu’s elongated and fragmented sculptures. Each work is born from the remnants of the Great War, found in the fields of Picardie at the crossroads of Le Chemin des Dames in Picardie. This is where he walks each spring, searching for remainders of WWI that still rise to the top of the earth after more then one hundred years.
I take a train one spring morning from Paris and get off in Laon. He meets me at the station and we leave together in his car. We drive through beautiful, plentiful farmer fields. Eventually we stop and begin walking. He has the farmer’s blessing to come and go. After all, he has been coming here since 2000. The farmer sees him, they wave to each other. He collects the twisted, rusted metal pieces that rise to the earth’s surface as it shifts and moves. It's hard to imagine that this peaceful land as a battlefield.
Later, he takes me to a cave in an ancient quarry where we find abandoned wine bottles from a soldier hide out. It's a strange, unreal feeling to imagine scared 19-year-old boys, french, german, english, hiding from shelling. Hanging on to life in a moment of rest. Trying not to die. We come across an intact shell at the edge of a forest. If he comes across an unexploded device, he plants a flag to warn the farmers who will contact the bomb squad. It will be removed at a local army base.
He takes me to a French cemetery where on simple white crosses, I read name after name of young men, boys as young as 18. They have been united in death; Muslim, Jewish, Christian… Death makes no distinction. I think of my nephews, teenage boys that are the same age and imagine them having to fight this war that killed millions. Later, we go to the German cemetery de la Malmaison where rows after rows are marked with the simple black crosses of 11 850 graves from WWII.
The Battle of the Chemin des Dames, also called the Second Battle of the Aisne took place during the First World War. It begins on April 16, 1917 at 6 am with the French attempt to break the German front between Soissons and Reims towards Laon. The battle lasted until October 24, 1917 with very heavy casualties on both sides.
Estimates of nearly 200,000 men on the French side after two months of offensive. Each division lost an average of 2,600 men on the Chemin des Dames. Senegalese riflemen, in particular, lost more than 7,000 men out of the 16,500. As for the balance sheet on the German side, it has been estimated that by June 1917, the German losses were around 300,000 men.
Back in Paris, I meet François at his atelier on rue Robert Fleury. It’s a small space inside an old storefront. A large window lets passers-by peek inside at an artist at work. He shows me his collection of shells, shrapnel casings, barbed wire, helmets, and bullets … rusted but still imbued with somber, omnipresent meaning. Amongst these grim reminders of carnage and death, he will choose pieces that he will weld together to form his sculptures.
On another visit, we meet at the Susse foundry, the oldest in France, whose illustrious clients included Brancusi, Giacometti, Miro. Francois has brought them 50 kilos of shrapnel, a mixture of brass and copper that are melted to thousands of degrees Celsius and poured into a mold. This is a renaissance for metals of destruction.
For 18 years now, Francois returns time and time again to the former battlefields. As a child the tales of the terrible war that destroyed the lives of so many people marked him. His maternal grandfather, Benjamin Bourlier, was one of the hundreds of thousands of wounded Poilus in Verdun. As a child, he became obsessed by this war; television documentaries, photos and articles awakened him to this incomprehensible moment in history where so many lives were lost. When he first came to The Chemin des Dames, he was an adult. At first, he spent 3 years meditating and absorbing the place. He painted the flat plateau, the enigmatic horizon line as he calls it.
I tirelessly survey the plowed fields, saturated with shrapnel, trapped in their rusted shells, the color of Sienna, the land of the Aisne; vestiges of incredible violence, scars of the formidable cannonade. I never dig, never violate the ground, but simply glean, thanks to the involuntary complicity of the farmers, these fragments of steel and lead which constantly question me: what was their devastating story?
Putting them together, erecting now peaceful silhouettes, columns "For what victory? " It is to lose myself in the fog, to sit in the ploughs, to think, to feel, to let myself be absorbed by the earth.
For François, a crucial part of his creative process is that the sculptures be transformative; becoming an agent that supports lives instead of destroying them. He donates parts of his proceeds to the ASP Fondatrice, a palliative support and development foundation. For 18 years now, he has accompanied sick patients to the Curie Institute. It’s a beautiful and pure gesture that seeks redemption for these materials that caused so much pain and suffering.
I travel through the Enigmatic plateau with emotion and respect. These years of impregnation justify my artistic commitment: to assemble these fragments to testify to the unspeakable, to create bruised, universal bodies.
Eventually, I return to live in Canada. Many months pass and I receive an email from Francois.
I have not told you what happened to me during my last stay at Chemin des Dames:
Walking through a plot with two comrades, we discovered two bayonets and cartridges on the edge of the forest. Scratching a bit I came across a fragment of a mandible and a few other bones. We went back on Saturday 10th and cleared the dirt a bit more. Other bones emerged as well as nearly a hundred machine gun cartridges. The gendarmerie being closed, we deposited the remains at the war museum. Last night, December 23, I got confirmation that they had been identified: Mahama Alidji and Francis Tardivel, who died on April 16, 1917. Two 22-year-old kids, born thousands of miles apart, lost together. They will now be able to join their comrades in misfortune in a necropolis.
Particularly moving news during this Christmas period. When art and great history meet.