Der Rückzug nach Verdun belongs to a portfolio of twenty black and white photogravures with etching collectively entitled The Russian Ending. The portfolio was printed by Niels Borch Jensen, Copenhagen and published by Peter Blum Editions, New York in an edition of thirty-five; Tate’s copy is the fifth of ten artist’s proofs. Each image in the portfolio is derived from a postcard collected by the artist in her visits to European flea markets. Most of the images depict accidents and disasters, both man-made and natural. Superimposed on each image are white handwritten notes in the style of film directions with instructions for lighting, sound and camera movements, suggesting that the each picture is the working note for a film. The title of the series is taken from a convention in the early years of the Danish film industry when each film was produced in two versions, one with a happy ending for the American market, the other with a tragic ending for Russian audiences. Dean’s interventions encourage viewers to formulate narratives leading up to the tragic denouements in the prints, engaging and implicating the audience in the creative process.
Dean’s interest in narrative and the mechanisms of the film industry are also evident in her other work. Her installation Foley Artist, 1996 (Tate T07870) depicts cinematic sound engineers recording acoustic effects for a short soundtrack. The Roaring Forties: Seven Boards in Seven Days, 1997 (Tate T07613) is a series of chalkboard drawings that use the conventions of the filmic storyboard to suggest dramatic events taking place in tempestuous waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean. The Uncles, 2004 (collection of the artist) is a film about the artist’s own family connections to the first two Chief Executives of Ealing Studios, Basil Dean (1888-1978; Chief Executive 1931-37) and Michael Balcon (1896-1977; Chief Executive 1937-59).
The photograph on which Der Rückzug nach Verdun is based is an aerial view of Verdun, a city in north-east France, after the devastating Battle of Verdun in 1916. One of the bloodiest actions of the First World War, the Battle of Verdun resulted in more than 250,000 casualties. The photograph shows the remains of the city after the German artillery attack which included the use of flamethrowers; a large plume of white smoke rises from the centre of the image. Elsewhere the blackened landscape attests to the destruction.
Dean’s notes on the print suggest various readings of the image. An alternate title and description for the work, ‘L’Héro de Verdun ... a nationalistic French film’ is crossed out in favour of ‘Der Rückzug nach Verdun’ or ‘The retreat at Verdun ... a German film that ends in failure’. Verdun was a disaster for the German army; despite gaining some ground the aim of the German campaign, to capture Verdun and continue the advance to Paris, was not achieved. Dean’s notes dwell on the historical context of the image, describing the image as a ‘lingering shot’ of the ‘smouldering town’. Her directions, ‘exit the Germans back home’ refer to the retreating army rather than technical details of her fictional film.
Clarrie Wallis, Sean Rainbird, Michael Newman, J.G. Ballard, Germaine Greer, Susan Stewart, Friedrich Meschede, Peter Nichols and Simon Crowhurst, Tacita Dean, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, 2001.
Dorothea Dietrich, ‘The space in between: Tacita Dean’s Russian Ending’, Art on Paper, vol.6, no.5, May-June 2002, pp.48-53, reproduced pp.48, 52.
Jordan Kantor, ‘Tacita Dean’, Artforum, vol.40, no.7, March 2002, p.138.