La Bataille d'Arras 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 La Bataille d'Arras is based depicts a street of blackened and shelled buildings dominated by a large chimney which veers precariously to the right. There is a large hole in the bottom half of the chimney. The road is strewn with rubble. The scene is deserted of people; the buildings appear uninhabitable.
Dean’s notes give the date of the image as 1917 after the second Battle of Arras which destroyed most of the northern French city. She describes the scene as the penultimate image in her film: ‘postman walks down street and exits scene ... pan to take in chimney ... chimney collapses ... let the dust settle then cut ... only one chance = get it right’. The sound effects that accompany the action are ‘silence then crash’.
Dean’s notes comment on the ‘gratuitous destruction’ of warfare. She points out that the poet and essayist Edward Thomas (1878-1917) died at the Battle of Arras and quotes lines from his 1916 poem ‘Lights Out’: ‘I have come to the borders of sleep, / The unfathomable deep / Forest where all must lose / Their way ... They cannot choose’.
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 p.48.
Jordan Kantor, ‘Tacita Dean’, Artforum, vol.40, no.7, March 2002, p.138.