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Concrete Castles: Britain’s War defences of 1940, is a new art exhibition at Shire Hall Museum, Monmouth, that explores the ruinous physical remains and emotional associations of Britain’s World War 2 defence structures that were built just over 80 years ago. It features the work of 28 contemporary artists, who through their paintings, prints and drawings, have produced a wide range of visual responses to this neglected yet fascinating subject.
In reaction to the threat of invasion by Nazi Germany in the summer of 1940, Britain hastily constructed a series of defences that included 89,000 pillboxes and these have since been described as 20th century castles.
At the end of the 18th century, writers, tourists and artists rediscovered the great medieval castles after they had fallen into neglect and dilapidation following the Civil Wars of the 1640s. They became places of contemplation and inspiration. The great artists of the Romantic Movement including JMW Turner and John Constable, promoted them as ideal subjects for art and this encouraged a renewed interest in their fabric and stories.
The idea behind this exhibition was for contemporary artists to emulate their predecessors, approaching surviving WW2 defence structures including pillboxes in the same way, for like castles, they have been transformed into historical curiosities and are part of the landscape. While a few of the more impressive examples have been restored and are tourist attractions and others are acknowledged through interpretive signage, some are long-forgotten - even lost. Many have become ruinous and half-hidden by encroaching nature.
They are not valued in the same way as other native built heritage. Perhaps that is affected by the fact that the 1940s are still within living memory. Enigmatic and disconcerting, their associations can be distressing, and their Brutalist, concrete architecture considered ugly. They are still not viewed or appreciated as structures with true historic interest. Surely this attitude will change as the distance in time from 1940 increases. And thought-provoking exhibitions like this will help focus attention on this neglected aspect of Britain’s heritage.
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