While we were in London recently we went to the Imperial War Museum to see Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War. It’s billed as being the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years, and there is certainly a great deal to absorb. I’ll review what for me were the highlights in this and two succeeding posts. As its title suggests, this retrospective encourages us to think about how artists represented the war, and helped commemorate it – but also, how their work still affects our perception of it a century later. Continue reading “Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at IWM (part 1)”
While I was in Manchester today for a book-signing at Waterstones I made some time to visit The Sensory War 1914-2014, a major exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery marking the centenary of the First World War. Taking as its starting point the gallery’s nationally important collection of art of the First World War, the exhibition explores how artists have portrayed the impact of war on the body, mind, environment and human senses during the century that has elapsed since 1914.
At the beginning of the show are two stark paintings by CRW Nevinson. A Howitzer Gun in Elevation (1917) shows a dull-grey artillery barrel thrusting high into an empty sky, while in Explosion (1916) a fountain of earth is blasted skywards on a distant, muddy ridge. Neither painting features human beings: instead Nevinson focusses on the new technology and its capacity for mass destruction.
CWR Nevinson, Howitzer Gun in Elevation, 1917
CRW Nevinson ‘Explosion’ 1916
But war is a human activity and the exhibition’s aim is to show how artists from 1914 onwards depicted the devastating impact of new military technologies on human flesh and minds. It brings together work from a dazzling array of leading artists including, alongside several more paintings by the excellent Nevinson, others by Henry Lamb,Paul Nash, Otto Dix,David Bomberg, and Laura Knight, plus more recent paintings and photography by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Sophie Ristelhueber, and Nina Berman. A gruelling experience in parts, I was interested to discover artists whose work had been unknown to me beforehand.
The argument of the curators is that the invention of devastating military technologies that were deployed during the First World War involved a profound re-configuration of sensory experience and perception. Human lives were destroyed and the environment altered beyond recognition. The war’s legacy has continued and evolved through even more radical forms of destruction over the last hundred years. Throughout the century, artists have struggled to understand the effects of modern technological warfare. Military and press photography have brought a new capacity to coldly document the deadliness of modern warfare, while artists found a different way of seeing.
The exhibition is arranged by theme through several rooms. Here is a selection of works that particularly made an impression on me, with additional information drawn from the exhibition’s explanatory panels.
Militarising Bodies, Manufacturing War
The First World War saw an unprecedented mobilisation of combatants around the world. Some 65 million volunteers and conscripts went from all walks of civilian life to become soldiers. The war was truly global and four million colonial troops and military labourers were drafted into the European and American armed forces. It was fought not only in Europe but in the Middle East and in Africa: wherever there were European colonies.
To turn a factory worker, a farm labourer, a clerk or a student into a fighting machine meant militarising them through training. As the title of Eric Kennington’s series of prints puts it, ‘Making Soldiers’.
Eric Kennington, Making Soldiers: Bringing In Prisoners c 1917
Eric Kennington was born in Liverpool. His biographer, Julian Freeman, writes:
A vital, independent talent in early and mid-twentieth-century British art, Kennington became a formidable draughtsman-painter, printmaker, and sculptor (his working practice evolved roughly in that order), and a great portraitist: his figures were often somewhat idealized, but always boldly executed, and frequently in pastel crayon, a self-taught medium in which he came to excel.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Kennington enlisted with the 13th London Regiment. He fought on the Western Front but was badly wounded and and sent home in June 1915. During his convalescence he produced The Kensingtons at Laventie, a portrait of a group of infantrymen. When exhibited in the spring of 1916 its portrayal of exhausted soldiers created a sensation. Campbell Dodgson wrote that Kennington was ‘a born painter of the nameless heroes of the rank and file’.
The series of lithographs, ‘Making Soldiers’ was commissioned by Charles Masterman who was in charge of visual art commissions at the Department of Information. ‘Making Soldiers’ was part of a morale-boosting propaganda project called ‘Britain’s Efforts and Ideals’. The series was exhibited in London in July 1917.
CRW Nevinson, Motor Lorries 1916
The full inventive and productive power of the modern industrialised world was turned to the war effort. New weapons could create mass casualties in a way not seen before. Flame throwers, grenades, barbed wire, mobile machine guns, tanks, Zeppelins, aeroplanes and large-scale artillery, such as the Howitzer, could annihilate the environment and pulverise bodies. The development of this military technology and the mass production of shells and bombs ushered in a new era of modern war, which was an assault on bodies, minds, and landscapes, filtered through the human sensory realm. The noise of war began on the home front, in the deafening and dangerous armaments factories. Significantly, it was artists who communicated the din of the factories, the sonic pounding of high-powered artillery, the storm of marching ground-troops, and the clashing of bayonets and boots. Artists visually linked the ferocious technology of the war to the process of militarisation.
CWR Nevinson employed his Futurist depiction of the human body to great effect to show how the soldier was turned into a cog in the machine of war. He paints the soldiers in Motor Lorries with the same harsh geometry as the cold hard girders they are carrying in. In all Nevinson’s paintings of this period he used a palette of mud browns and the blues of leaden-skies and cold steel to create a harsh and inhuman world.
CRW Nevinson, La Guerre des Trous (The Underground War), 1915
The French soldiers in this giant fortified trench wait for the call to go over the top (possibly in Woesten, near Ypres, where Nevinson was stationed). The barbed wire – a major new technology used extensively in the First World War – forms a twisted, menacing skyline. The famed writer, Guillaume Apollinaire recognised that Nevinson had outgrown the bravado of Futurism’s machismo, and was instead ‘making palpable the soldiers’ suffering and communicating to others the feelings of pity and horror’
CRW Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, engraving, 1916
David Bomberg, Study for ‘Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company’, 1918
David Bomberg was a pioneer of the English movement Vorticism, founded by Wyndham Lewis, which attempted to create a local version of Futurism. Bomberg served with the Royal Engineers and the 18th King’s Royal Rifles before being asked to commemorate the service of Canadian soldiers. This work, done in black and red chalk on paper, is an abstracted study for a more figurative official commission for the Canadian War Memorials Fund, now in the National Gallery of Canada.
Amongst the new sensory experiences created by the First World War was the experience of waging war by working underground. Canadian and Yorkshire miners (sappers) excavated a tunnel at St Eloi to plant a huge mine under Hill 60 at Messines Ridge, near Ypres. The tunnel took eight months to complete. It was detonated in March 1916 obliterating the landscape and leading to devastating loss of life on the German front line – two whole companies of men were killed. The event was portrayed in the Sebastian Faulks novel, Birdsong.
CRW Nevinson, Making Aircraft: Making the Engine 1917
In Nevinson’s Making the Engine, the machines and men have merged in a picture resonating with the hammering din of the wartime factory. The image seems to vibrate simulating the whirring, deafening noise of industrial spaces reverberating with the production of war machines.
George Clausen, Making Guns: The Furnace, 1917
Several works in the exhibition derive from projects to document the wartime effort of workers in the armaments industries, including two by George Clausen. The lithograph Making Guns: The Furnace implies the future violence of a large gun forged in a blaze of fire and molten steel.
Clausen’s, Study for ‘The Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal’ in pencil, watercolour and pen and brown ink was made in preparation for a large painting commission to document 74,000 munitions workers occupied at this vast factory site. Shades of light permeate the study streaming in and around the centrepiece of the colossal machinery used to mould gun-barrels. The press resembles a gigantic beast against the barely visible workers below.
The mass mobilisation of society meant that women’s bodies were just as critical as men’s in the conduct of Total War. In Britain alone, over seven million women were mobilised into wartime industries and public services, with over one million working in the munitions industry. Around 60,000 served in the armed services, and thousands volunteered for the medical corps. Though munitions work was dangerous and exhausting, and resisted by Trade Unions as ‘only for the duration’, it offered women paid employment, a degree of independence and a feeling of direct involvement in the war effort. The Society for Women Welders, for instance, was formed in 1915 and by 1918 had 630 members.
Laura Knight, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, 1942
In the Second World war, female munitions workers became symbols of modernity by challenging perceptions of women’s capabilities. Wearing men’s dungarees, engaged in both skilled and physical labour, they adapted their bodies and minds to the taxing work of heavy engineering or the risk of making explosives. Artists reflected this temporary change in women’s roles depicting the militarisation and modernity of the female body.
Laura Knight’s heroic depiction of a woman factory worker in the Second World War has become an iconic image. The eponymous Ruby was a skilled machinist in the Royal Ordinance Factory in Newport, Monmouthshire. The breech ring she is lathing was for a Bofors breech gun; a notoriously difficult engineering task to complete to the required precision without making the gun a suicidal hazard to use. The painting was widely discussed on the radio and produced in poster form as a propaganda tool for distribution to other factories. In America the more fictional Rosie the Riveter became equally famous through the distribution of posters.
The two women featured in this lithograph wear protective eye-goggles, aprons and scarves. Nevinson’s skilled use of the graphic technique conveys the sensory elements of flying sparks that almost singe the exposed arms, hands and clothes of the women, and draw in the viewer. Absorbed in their skilled task, the women become anonymous bodies in the war machine, a familiar device in art of the period only usually applied to soldiers’ bodies.
Archibald Standish Hartrick, Women’s Work: On Munitions, Dangerous Work (Packing TNT), 1917
Hartick completed lithographs for the series, ‘Britain’s Efforts and Ideals’ on the theme of women on the Home Front. For the first time women were recruited to the war effort, working in the munitions factories making the very instruments of death which wrought terror in the trenches. The work of the munitionettes or Canary Girls as they were called due to the yellow discolouration of their skin from TNT, was indeed highly dangerous. Many were killed in munitions factory explosions such as the one at the National Shell Filling Factory at Chilwell, Nottingham in 1918 which killed 137.
Archibald Standish Hartrick , Women’s Work: On the Railways, Engine and Carriage Cleaners, 1917
Archibald Standish Hartrick , Women’s Work: On Munitions – Heavy Work (Drilling and Casting), 1917
Pain and Succour
In the First World War over two million soldiers from Britain and the colonies of its Empire were wounded. The medical corps was charged with evacuating the wounded from the battlefield, treating them in field hospitals and at home, so that they could eventually be returned once again to the front-line: an absurdity not lost on those hoping for a ‘blighty wound’ (a light wound but needing treatment at home).
Artists depicted the chaotic flow of patients in the front-line casualty station, the wounded soldier’s experience of pain and helplessness the moments of tenderness as doctors and nurses attempted to alleviate the agony of their wounds, or the shock of witnessing the death of comrades. Succour was often felt as a temporary bond between patient, stretcher-bearer and nurse. Women’s role in front-line surgery and hospital medical care was both professional, publicly contentious and, at times, also intimate. Doctors also shared the personal cost of the war, with thousands killed and wounded.
Artists understood the inhumanity of modern war as a collective experience of horror and indiscriminate maiming that reached across the classes and genders. They depicted the ashen-faced stretcher-bearers carrying their burden under a gangrenous sky, the lone nurse in the darkened space of the casualty theatre, and the arduous journey of evacuation from the frontline to the hospital back home.
Henry Tonks, An Advanced Dressing Station in France, 1918
Here, Henry Tonks dramatises his intimate knowledge of shrapnel wounds to the head and body, and the procedures of frontline evacuation medicine under the chaos of military attack. The sensory qualities of this painting are revealed in the lurid glow of burning buildings and the choking haze of smoke-filled air; in patients’ grimaces; in their endurance of gripping pains, and in the relief that a drink of water brought to the desperately wounded.
Like Henry Lamb, Tonks was a doctor-turned artist. Before the war he was the Director of Drawing at the Slade School of Art where he taught Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and CRW Nevinson, amongst others. He served as a surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Henry Lamb, Advanced Dressing Station on the Struma in 1916, 1921
This painting is a scene of medical aid being given to the wounded man on a stretcher, but is also symbolic of the pain and succour of the entire war with its almost religious composition. Lamb was commissioned in the Royal Army Medical Corps and sent first to Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece with the British Salonika Army in 1916 in late 1917 to Palestine. On his return Lamb, who had won a Military Cross for gallantry, began to turn his experiences into his most important works. A small number of drawings and watercolours were exhibited at Manchester City Art Gallery in 1920. One of these, Succouring the Wounded in a Wood on the Doiran Front prompted the Gallery Director, Lawrence Haward, to commission Lamb to turn it into a major painting as the beginning of a war art collection for Manchester.
The River Struma was the site of a little-known campaign to repulse the Bulgarian invasion of eastern Greece and to achieve the ultimate liberation of Serbia from Bulgaria and the Central Powers.
Paul Nash, Wounded, Passchendaele, 1918
The majority of Nash’s works from the front depict soldiers at a distance engulfed by the blasted landscape. Here Nash’s pathos at the plight of the soldier is more direct as the stretcher-bearers carry the wounded through a poisoned landscape filled with the colours of gangrene and mustard gas.
Harold Sandys Williamson, A German Attack on a Wet Morning, April 1918
Harold Williamson joined the King’s Rifles as a rifleman and was promoted to Lance Corporal in the 8th Battalion. In this painting the artist depicts his own wounding by a grenade during a battle near Villers-Bretonneaux. He hobbles away from the scene, gripping his bleeding hand. A comrade Iies dead in the foreground while the misty haze over the morning assault captures the confusion of battle. Williamson wrote:
In the gloom and rain the storm troops then came over and smashed through our two first lines…Two men are firing a Lewis gun. The wounded man has a poor chance of getting away; he must cross much open country swept by enemy fire, and go through a heavy barrage.
Williamson’s wound was serious enough for him to be repatriated to England. Experiencing and witnessing the extent of suffering in modern war underpinned the intense sensory feel of the work of war artists like
Claude A Shepperson, Tending the Wounded: Advanced Dressing station, France, 1917
Claude A Shepperson, Detraining in England, 1917
Claude Shepperson was an illustrator for various magazines. He created this sensitive series of lithographs depicting the passage of the wounded from the front line to recovery in England as part of the ‘Britain’s Efforts and Ideals’ series of propaganda prints.
Embodied Ruins: Natural and Material Environments
The extensive destruction of rural France and Flanders in the First World War was felt as an atrocity, deeply scarring the collective psyche. The ruined Iandscape came to stand for the dead themselves. Artists like Paul Nash and William Orpen expressed their feelings for the loss of men through depicting the aftermath of the battlefields in images of putrid mud, charred and torn trees, and waterlogged shell-holes. The churned earth appeared as gangrenous wounds, ruined buildings like injured faces, and destroyed military hardware as ruptured corpses. At times, these desolate environments have a terrible beauty. Nature was violated but it was also resilient.
In contemporary works this use of landscape as metaphor is seen in Sophie Ristelhueber’s photographs of the disfigured territory of the West Bank and in Simon Norfolk’s carcass-like military hardware strewn across the deserts of Afghanistan.
Paul Nash, The Field of Passchendaele, 1917
Nash enlisted in 1914, but only arrived at the front in February 1917. In May he fell into a trench and was injured badly enough to be sent home again. When he returned in late October he witnessed the final stages of the battle of Passchendaele, which was fought over the summer months into November. His regiment, the Hampshires, had been almost completely wiped out in the battle for Hill 60 in August. The drawings he made, such as this one, were all begun on site. The landscape of battle debris, churned mud and rancid water-filled craters in the undraining Flanders clay after the heavy summer rains touched Nash deeply. He was able to make these landscapes of the aftermath of war into metaphors for the human body destroyed by conflict.
William Orpen, The Great Mine, La Boiselle, 1917
William Orpen first visited the Somme in April 1917 as an Official War Artist under the auspices of the Department of Information after the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. His principal task was to draw and paint the officers but he had time to wander the battlefields. Returning to the Somme again after the summer he was amazed to find, ‘The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure – dazzling white. White daisies, red poppies and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles’. La Boiselle is the site of one of the giant craters created by huge mines laid under the German trenches.
William Orpen, Village: Evening, 1917
Artists were not only struck by these vast wastelands, they also felt the terrifying impact of war on the domestic front. They depicted the ruin of the material and built environment in Flanders – roads, villages and churches where shattered homes and putrefying corpses are equated with ruined bodies.
Sophie Ristelhueber, WB #8, 2005
The apocalyptic imagination is refracted through Sophie Ristelhueber’s approach to the landscapes of recent conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the West Bank. The WB series depicts roadblocks with deeply ambivalent sensations. In WB #8, the viewer stands before the gritty impasse; slowly the eye travels beyond, only to be confronted with an impenetrable set of barriers, and further still, a settlement on the horizon appears impossibly faraway. The artificial topography of man-made violence in zones of conflict and disputed territory is strangely sensual and fleshy. The barricades appear as brutal, jagged scars on an ancient geological body.
Shocking the Senses
Modern war produced terrifying sights, putrid smells, and nerve-shattering sounds that shocked the human senses. In the confined spaces of tanks trenches and submarines, bodies felt compressed and minds became stressed. ‘Thousand-yard stares’ panicked expressions, nervous ticks, and hysterical gaits were physical responses to emotional and sensory trauma.
In 1915 British neurologist C.S. Myers invented the term ‘shell shock’. The term aptly conveyed the sensory assault of artillery bombardments and the repercussions on the individual of industrialised modern warfare. Military medicine lost control of the term as it entered the public vernacular and its psychological and emotional complexities were distilled into the myth that shellfire was the sole cause of shell shock. Unlike the stigma attached to psychiatric disorder, shell shock enabled families to preserve the dignity and heroic sacrifice of loved ones.
Artists and writers, many of whom were afflicted with shell shock, were crucial figures in translating its symptoms to audiences and rendering visible this disturbing yet invisible wound. Siegfried Sassoon described the unceasing ‘thud’ of bombardments: ‘I want to go out and screech at them to stop…I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.’
Repatriated home, CRW Nevinson recalled his ‘delayed shock’ as ‘uncontrollable tremblings’ and vomiting, a sense of foreboding and rage. Terrified faces and distressed bodies became the subject of artistic empathy during the First World War.
Over the century, artists have been combatants, captive prisoners and anti-war activists, engaging with other people’s suffering and visualising the repetitive nightmare of trauma. Some have confronted torture, executions, and genocide as the abyss reached when human lives are seen as barely human. Artists have also been compelled to show that trauma is not the preserve of soldiers. The shocking sights of agonised women and children, of rape, disease and starvation, and the powerlessness of grief, have entered the darkest artistic imaginings.
Otto Dix, Der Krieg 28: Seen on the Escarpment at Clery-sur- Somme, 1924
The hellish,visceral and hallucinatory quality of Der Krieg is undeniable and the artist created perhaps the most powerful, and sensory, anti-war works of art of the twentieth century. Dix consciously took inspiration from Francesco Goya’s series of prints, The Disasters of War which recorded the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the Spanish War of independence from 1808-1814.
Pietro Morando, One of the brave struck down, San Marco, 1917
In Britain, we know little about the Italian Front in the First World War, fought in the mountainous borderlands between Austro-Hungary and Italy. In freezing conditions, this front was soon bogged down in trench stalemate. In 1916-17 Pietro Morando fought as a volunteer in the Arditi (Italian elite troops) on the front-line in the limestone Karst country bordering Italy and Slovenia. He made drawings on any pieces of paper he could find. His works have an immediacy of perception and a sense of the artist’s urgent need to note down the painful and deadly events at the front and in the prison camps of Austro-Hungary.
Pietro Morando, At the prison camp of Komarom, Hungary, 1918
Morando was captured during the retreat from the Piave River in 1918. His charcoal sketches (from an album dated 1915-1918) describe the torture, executions, cholera and starvation he witnessed while imprisoned in the Hungarian camp of Nagymegyer and in the city of Komarom. In addition to the privations of military prisoners, during the conflict thousands of Italian civilians were interned and died of malnutrition.
Richard Serra, Abu Ghraib, 2004
Serra transformed the horrific, mass-circulated image of torture into a lithograph of the faceless, nameless Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib. Another, larger, version of this print is more directly a protest work and bears the words ‘Stop Bush’.
Eric Kennington, Bewitched, Bemused and Bewildered 1917
This depiction of an exhausted, sleep-deprived and disoriented soldier was also titled Via Crucis (The Way of the Cross). The censors tried to prevent it from being exhibited in Kennington’s exhibition of war art at the Leicester Galleries in July 1918. The title Bewitched, Bemused and Bewildered comes from lines to a popular song of the day. Kennington wrote: ‘Must the soldiers endure the most hideous agony and the civilian not be permitted to think of it second-hand?’
Pietro Morando, Thoughtful, On the Carso, 1917
Otto Dix, Der Krieg 35: The Madwoman of St.-Marie-a-Py, 1924
The shocking impact of bombardments on civilians is powerfully conveyed in The Mad Woman of St-Marie-a-Py. Her baby lies dead among her ruined home while she beats her bare breast in the agony and powerlessness of grief. This is a rare but stark moment of Dix’s sorrow for the innocent casualties of men’s wars as we are forced to share in her state of absolute distress.
Conrad Felixmoller, Soldier in the Madhouse, 1918
Gripping the asylum cell window, and perhaps even chained to the bed, Conrad Felixmoller’s Soldier in the Madhouse has jagged furrows in his forehead; the work portrays the desperate isolation of the shell-shocked patient.
Rupture and Rehabilitation: Disability and the Wounds of War
Away from the battlefield artists depicted the impact of wounding on the body. Modern medicine saved soldiers lives, though they often survived with terrible, disfiguring wounds. The artists who served as medical illustrators in the First World War were closely involved with the new field of plastic surgery as it attempted facial and bodily reconstructions. In delicate pastels and watercolours intended as medical studies they also saw the fragile humanity of those with such horrific wounds. They found amputees and blinded men recovering in hospital, undergoing physical and vocational rehabilitation. In many of these works we see a compassionate rapport between the wounded sitter and the artist, sensitive to the intimate depths of suffering as pained eyes meet our gaze. The courage, pride and silent dignity of the wounded are deeply moving.
In the 1920s wounded soldiers were fitted with artificial prosthetic limbs. Artists were sceptical of this revolution in prosthetics which held out a fantasy of the cyborg – half man and half machine. It promised that the body destroyed by modern technology could be reconstructed into a hyper-masculine, superhuman being. However artists like the German Heinrich Hoerle saw the reality of living with disability and approached the notion of the superhuman man-machine with bitter irony. More recently, as women have entered the war zone as combatants, artists have highlighted both the frailty and resilience of disabled veterans of both genders.
Henry Tonks, Saline Infusion: An incident in the British Red Cross hospital, Arc-en-Barrois, 1915
Tonks’ medical training, his understanding of wounds and their treatment and his sensitive use of pastel come together ‘in this study made in northern France. Tonks turns the secular scene into a work with religious overtones, arranging the composition as a Descent from the Cross. Tonks is most well known for his medical studies of facial wounds in pastel – a subject which has featured in the novels of Pat Barker such as Toby’s Room.
Heinrich Hoerle, Help the Cripple, 1920
The Cripple Portfolio was published in 1920 by Cologne Dada artist, Heinrich Hoerle, in the context of the 2.7 million disabled German veterans who had returned home from the Front. 67,000 of these veterans were also amputees. The Weimar Republic instituted a system of rehabilitation and employment, which caused resentment amongst the able-bodied as the Great Depression of the 1930s took hold. Some 90 per cent of disabled soldiers were employed. The subject of Hoerle’s portfolio of prints is the intimate suffering of the lives of the disabled in the aftermath of war. It is divided into six scenes of the everyday life of the wounded veteran and six of his dreams and nightmares.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Michael Jernigan, Marine Corporal, 2006
Michael Jernigan lost his sight in an attack with an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) while serving in Iraq. Like so many marriages, Jernigan’s failed when he returned home so badly injured. In Greenfield-Sanders’ photograph, attention is drawn directly to the diamonds from his wife’s wedding ring which Jernigan had set into one of his eight prosthetic eyes.
Nina Berman, Marine wedding, 2006
Nina Berman is a documentary photographer, author and educator. Much of her photographic work focuses upon the American political and social landscape, including the militarization of American life and the dialogue around war, patriotism and sacrifice.
Her 2006 photo Marine Wedding, probably one of her most recognizable works, is a haunting picture. The bride, in a red-trimmed wedding gown with beading on the bodice and skirt, holds a crimson bouquet, and the groom wears his navy-colored military dress uniform. But neither smiles – they look past the camera in opposite directions. And the groom, an Iraq War veteran, has no ears, nose, or chin. His face looks like it is covered with a plastic mask. Severely burned in 2004 after a suicide bomber attacked his truck, his skin melted when he was trapped inside. Marine Wedding won a 2006 World Press Award.
Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin (2 January 1918), 1918
I had never encountered the work of Rosine Cahen before, but I found her delicate portrayals, in charcoal, pastel and white chalk, of wounded and disabled soldiers among the most memorable of the exhibition.
Born in Alsace and trained at the Academy Julian in Paris, Rosine Cahen (who was mostly known as a print-maker) turned to delicate pastel, chalk and charcoal to draw the wounded and disabled soldiers she visited in French hospitals during the war. In her sketches, the observer is so discrete we are never allowed to gawk at the men’s wounds, but rather it is their faces in a state of almost serene despair that she portrays. These works exude great calmness both in the men’s expression and in the way the artist alludes to the intimate relationship of these captured moments.
Cahen gives these wounded men their dignity – they are never just medical objects. She was 59 years old in 191 6 when she began visiting the war hospitals of Paris and Monte Carlo. She continued her visits on numerous occasions over the following three years. The age difference enabled her to build a personal rapport with the soldiers while they ‘sat’ for her, quietly recovering.
In Hospital Villemin, 2 January 1918, the facially wounded patient is disguised under bandages, contrasting with his luminous purple shirt. A solitary eye peers out, as he tries to eat some thing from his tray.
Rosine Cahen, Hospital Rollin (October 1918), 1918
This is a portrait of an amputee from the 17th InfantryRegiment, wounded on 21 August 1918, near Soissons in Picardy. Preoccupied with reading his gazette, a little blue slipper juts out of his trouser leg. The space next to it is empty and crutches reveal his early stage of recovery.
Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin (8 April 1919), 1919
A blind soldier practices Braille while sitting in bed recovering from his injuries. Wounded soldiers were
expected to begin the rehabilitation before they were fully recovered. In the background are little sketches of the same patient, perhaps completed on other occasions.
Rosine Cahen, The Amputees’ Workshop, 1918
This study reveals the temporary wooden leg of an amputee which juts out awkwardly, uncomfortably, under the table. His left hand is also amputated. Cahen captures him absorbed in his writing task.
- Otto Dix’s War: unflinching and disturbing, but dedicated to truth
- Kathe Kollwitz’s ‘Grieving Parents’ at Vladslo: ‘Seed Corn Must Not Be Ground’
- The Art of War
- A Terrible Beauty: British artists in the First World War
- Stanley Spencer’s Sandham murals: ‘a heaven in a hell of war’
- Paul Nash and World War One: ‘I am no longer an artist, I am a messenger to those who want the war to go on for ever… and may it burn their lousy souls’
- The Great War in Portraits: patriotism is not enough
- History and war in the 20th century: a storm blowing from Paradise
- Leeds art: pain, war, atonement and dance
William Tickle volunteered aged 16 and died 22 months later on the third day of the Battle of the Somme
The recognition that something terrible, something overwhelming, something irreversible had happened in the Great War explains its enduring significance for those born after the Armistice. For this war was not only the most important and far-reaching political and military event of the century, it was also the most important imaginative event.
– Jay Winter, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century
The Great War mobilised 70 million people, killed over 9 million on active service, and left behind 3 million widows and 10 million orphans. It was also, as Jay Winter observes, an event that seared itself into the European imagination, as The Great War in Portraits, the excellent exhibition currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery, clearly demonstrates. I saw it when in London recently.
Jacob Epstein, Torso in Metal from ‘The Rock Drill’, 1916
The Great War represented a fracture in the narrative of progress: a leap into modernity that was also a fire-storm of barbarity. It accelerated the momentum towards a world dominated by machines of unparalleled power whilst at the same time precipitating a descent into barbarity on an industrial scale. Perhaps no work of art represents this paradox more clearly than Jacob Epstein’s altered 1916 version of The Rock Drill, exhibited here as a prelude to the exhibition.
In its original form it was the product of the experimental pre-war days of 1913, when Epstein was associated with the short-lived Vorticism movement, enraptured by visions of technological power and transformation. Then the figure exuded power and virility, but in 1916, in response to his growing horror of the conflict, Epstein discarded the drill, dismembered the figure and cut it in half, leaving a one-armed torso. The truncated version appears defenceless and melancholic, evocative of the wounded soldiers who were returning home from the trenches in startling numbers; as the gallery caption puts it:
Thus transformed it evokes the way the experience of war shattered initial expectations – aggression giving way to a sense of loss.
Jonathan Jones writing in the Guardian in 2011 summed up the meaning of the The Rock Drill with these words:
During the first world war, as the reality of trench warfare as industrialised slaughter became clear to a world that at first welcomed the conflict, Epstein cast the torso of his eerie creation in metal. Robbed of its legs and towering tripod-drill, with damaged bronze limbs, The Rock Drill becomes a nightmare image of the future as remorseless, unending war. It is more moving than the original, because it is a wounded machine, a human machine.
In its dismembered 1916 form Torso in Metal echoes Self-portrait as a Soldier by Ludwig Kirchner, encountered later in the show.
The Great War in Portraits brings together images of individuals involved in the conflict from the National Portrait Gallery and other collections, including material from the Imperial War Museum. The exhibition presents a wide range of visual responses to the war: alongside paintings and drawings, there are photographs, posters, memorabilia and examples of how the war was represented in the newest art form of the time – film.
At the culmination of the exhibition we come face to face with the shocking violence of Expressionist masterpieces by Beckmann and Kirchner, drawings of young soldiers with grotesque facial wounds, and an entire wall upon which is displayed a grid of forty photographs, representing the wide diversity of individuals from across the world who were sucked into the vortex of war. The exhibition is crammed into a small space, and when I was there people were packed shoulder to shoulder. But no-one spoke. There was complete silence: the shocked and sorrowful silence of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
All of the survivors are gone now – yet, as the centenary of the outbreak of the war approaches, the cultural memory of the Great War remains potent, and is indeed reinforced by this exhibition. The concept of ‘cultural memory’ has become central to much of the historical writing about the war in the last 50 years. Jay Winter’s book, quoted earlier, is one example – and itself owed a debt to the classic work of Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory. Central to the idea of cultural memory is the argument that personal memories are not the product of solitary reflection alone, but are shaped by ideas and actions within the groups to which we belong – family, workplace and nation, for instance – and conveyed through writings, monuments and cultural artefacts. This exhibition demonstrates how this process of shaping our memory of the war began even before the war had ended.
Gavrilo Princip in a police photograph taken after he had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand
‘Royalty and the Assassin’, the first room in the exhibition, focuses on the leaders of the main countries involved in the war. Here are conventional portraits of royalty in which the prevailing tone is of grandeur and pride. Alongside is a photograph of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie taken in Sarajevo on 28 June 2014 an hour or so before their deaths at the hand of their assassin, the Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip whose police mug shot, taken after his arrest, is also displayed.
William Orpen, Portrait of Haig at General Headquarters, France, 1917
In the next section, ‘Leaders and Followers’, formal and traditional portraits of the military leaders face anonymous portraits of ordinary soldiers on the other side of the room. Here, for instance is France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Allied Comamnder, the German Chief of General Staff Paul von Hindenburg, and Field Marshal Douglas Haig, ‘the colossal blunderer, the self-deceived optimist, of the Somme massacre of 1916’ (Vera Brittain’s words). Despite the vast number of casualties in that disaster of a few months earlier, no trace of trauma can be found in William Orpen’s 1917 portrait. Upright and garlanded with medals, he stares out with bland assurance.
William Orpen was a financially successful pre-war society portraitist, appointed an official war artist in 1917, who made drawings and paintings of privates and German prisoners of war as well as official portraits of generals and politicians like this one. The official ‘power portraits’ of military leaders were widely reproduced, notably as collectable postcards, and a selection are displayed here.
William Orpen, A Grenadier Guardsman, 1917
On the opposite walls are portraits of ordinary soldiers – in battle, at rest and waiting to be laid to rest. The contrast is between the authority figures who are celebrated and the ordinary soldier who is invariably depersonalised and anonymous. As a curator’s caption notes:
A hierarchical order of seniority, influence and role was clear in the various images of the participants that were created. Irrespective of nationality, formal portraits of commanding officers are essentially traditional images that emphasise the personal profile of the depicted individual. This is manifest in their attitude of authority and, often, an impressive array of medals signifying power and gallantry. The depiction of ordinary servicemen was markedly different – a more down to earth view, depicted either as anonymous or as generic ‘types’. The impression conveyed is one of a depersonalised, shared experience in which duty is a central assumption.
Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, La Mitrailleuse, 1915
The presence, in this section, of Nevinson’s La Mitrailleuse is evidence that for this show the curators are drawing on a wide definition of ‘portrait’. Completed while he was on home on leave from the Royal Army Medical Corps, Nevinson’s painting depicts a French machine gun team bent over their weapon. The painting invites comparison with Epstein’s Torso in Metal for, as a pre-war Futurist, Nevinson had also initially celebrated and embraced the violence and mechanised speed of the modern age. But his experience as an ambulance driver in the First World War changed his view. In his painting the soldiers appear almost like machines themselves, losing their individuality, even their humanity, as they seem to fuse with the machine gun which gives the painting its title.
Walter Sickert, The Integrity of Belgium, 1914
Sickert painted The Integrity of Belgium as a tribute to the courage of the Belgians in the defence of Liège, and sold it to raise money for the Belgian Relief Fund. Sickert never visited the front, and painted the work in his studio in London. He had been appalled by reports of German atrocities against Belgian citizens and relied on press reports and newspaper images. He was convinced that Germany had to be overpowered and that ‘the wearing effect of [the war] is worse for us non-combatants than for a soldier’. He was too old to enlist.
William Orpen, Royal Irish Fusiliers ‘Just come from the Chemical Works, Roeux, 21st May 1917′
There’s quite a lot of Orpen in this exhibition, with his sensitive drawings and paintings of other ranks being the main interest for me. Royal Irish Fusiliers ‘Just come from the Chemical Works, Roeux, 21st May 1917 is a study of an exhausted soldier slumped in a sitting position, his steel helmet balanced on his knee and his arms hanging loosely by his sides. He’s unnamed (like the Grenadier Guardsman in his oil painting on the opposite wall), but was later identified as a Sergeant Slater who was killed later in the war.
William Orpen, Sir Winston Churchill, 1916
A very different work by Orpen – though no less sensitive – is his portrait of Churchill looking weary and despondent, done in 1916 after Churchill had been blamed for the disastrous 1915 Dardanelles (or Gallipoli) campaign. Forced to resign his ministerial post in the wartime coalition government, Orpen described his painting as ‘a portrait of dejection’. (Churchill was later exonerated by a Commission of Enquiry).
Isaac Rosenberg, Self Portrait, 1915
Familiar as I was with Isaac Rosenberg’s poetry, I must admit I wasn’t aware that he also painted. So I was brought to a halt by his arresting self portrait, made in 1915. Before the war Rosenberg had been undecided whether art or poetry was his real vocation but had attend the Slade School of Fine Art, a member of that astonishing pre-war cohort that included his good friend David Bomberg, along with future luminaries such as Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth, Dora Carrington, William Roberts, and Christopher Nevinson.
When war was declared, Rosenberg was actually in South Africa, living there with his sister in the hope that the warmer climate would cure his chronic bronchitis. The poem he wrote there – ‘On Receiving News of the War’ – is very unusual amongst early poetic responses in being decidedly anti-war:
Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has asked of bud or bird
For Winter’s cost.
Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.
In all men’s hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.
Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.
O! ancient crimson curse!
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.
Critical of the war from the outset, Rosenberg had no patriotic desire to enlist, but needing work to support his mother, he returned to Britain where, in the autumn of 1915, he enlisted in the Army. This was the moment when he painted this self portrait.
Assigned to the King’s Own Royal Lancasters, in June 1916 he was sent with his Battalion to serve on the Western Front in France. The miseries of war began when his boots rubbed all the skin off his feet. As a soldier, he suffered more privations than the officer-poets of the First World War, enduring appalling food, atrocious hygiene and tyrannical discipline. He continued to write poetry while serving in the trenches, including ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, ‘Returning we Hear the Larks’, and ‘Dead Man’s Dump’. He was killed by sniper fire, aged 28, on 1 April 1918.
Dead Man’s Dump
The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
Earth has waited for them,
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended–stopped and held.
What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you!
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their soul’s sack
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?
None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.
What of us who, flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.
The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
Those dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called `An end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.
Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,
Which man’s self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?
A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.
They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.
Burnt black by strange decay
Their sinister faces lie,
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.
Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.
Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight.
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.
Gilbert Rogers, The Dead Stretcher-Bearer, 1919
Gilbert Rogers’ The Dead Stretcher-Bearer is a shocking image, comparable Nevinson’s Paths of Glory, and is a reminder of the controversy surrounding the depiction of dead British soldiers while the war was on. When Nevinson portrayed dead infantrymen sprawled near a trench in 1917, his painting was banned. It was only after the war that the official line softened, allowing Gilbert Rogers to paint this large and harrowing picture with its blunt title. Lying in the mud, his body across the shattered remains of the stretcher on which he ferried other victims of the conflict, the man cannot be identified. His face is covered in a rain-drenched sheet, and one hand hangs above a first aid box that can now render no assistance.
Lovis Corinth, Portrait of Hermann Struck, 1915
In the next section of the exhibition, ‘The Valiant and the Damned’, are grouped paintings which reflect the growing disillusionment that replaced patriotic euphoria as the war dragged on. War was now perceived as a lottery, a vortex of violence, with common humanity at the mercy of circumstance. Some achieved distinction as heroes and medal-winners. Others, shattered by their experience, returned home mutilated by wounds, or were annihilated on the field of battle.
In 1915, Lovis Corinth painted a portrait of his friend and fellow-artist, Hermann Struck. Nothing could be further removed from the image of gung-ho patriotic certainty. Corinth was co-founderr of Die Brucke, the group which had been the focus for the development of German experssionism. Struck posed for Corinth wearing the uniform of the officer he had become. Neither the subject nor the painter give in to the exalted belligerency of the moment. Instead, the painting depicts the worry, melancholy and unease of the artist in his soldier’s garb. After the war, Struck, a fervent Zionist left Europe and settled in Palestine.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier, 1915
There is another portrait here by a member of Die Brucke – also painted in 1915 and reflecting the same sense of deep anxiety and psychological disturbance as that of Hermann Struck. It’s a self-portrait by Ernst Kirchner, a key figure of the Expressionist movement whose members sought new and more direct forms of pictorial self-expression. ‘I paint,’ Kirchner said, ‘with my nerves and my blood.’
As in Corinth’s portrait of Struck, Kirchner has portrayed himself in his soldier’s uniform, in his studio before an unfinished painting and a nude model. But as if with a fearful premonition, Kirchner depicts himself as a mutilated artist, his right arm a bloody and useless stump. Kirchner was an unwilling soldier. In the spring of 1915, to avoid being conscripted into the regular infantry, he signed on as an artillery driver. Soon afterwards, he seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown, and he was declared unfit for military service that autumn. At some point during those months of mental turmoil he paintedthis self portrait. Andrew Graham-Dixon offers a revealing analysis of the painting on his website:
The setting is the artist’s studio. An unfinished painting, raw as a wound, is leaned up against one of the walls, while at the room’s centre a model poses against a black screen. Kirchner believed that study of the nude figure “in a free, natural state” was “the foundation of all visual art”. But the painter’s green-tinged, neurasthenic face is averted both from his work and its sources of inspiration. He turns instead to confront the spectator. He wears the uniform of Field Artillery Regiment No. 75, depicted with historical accuracy: dark blue uniform, trimmed with red, with red epaulets; matching cap embossed with two cockades representing Prussia and the German Reich. A cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth and he has black unseeing eyes. According to the conventions of self-portraiture, he might have been expected to show himself holding his palette and brush. But his claw-like left hand is empty and in place of his right hand he brandishes a bloody, gangrenous stump.
Of course, the very existence of the image contradicts the situation which it apparently describes. This strikes me as an important, if generally overlooked, part of its meaning. The apparently disabled painter has painted a picture: this picture. He has evidently not been totally paralysed as an artist by his experiences in war (Kirchner was never injured and seems never to have seen active service). In my interpretation, the painting is a celebration of that fact, rather than the gloomy commemoration of a psychic wounding. I don’t even think it is, strictly speaking, a self-portrait. I think it is a portrait of the self Kirchner has escaped becoming, the self he has deliberately disabled. It is the image of the soldier whose role he refused to play. The severed hand, in my view, stands not for his inability to paint, but for his inability to fight – an inability which he welcomed and perhaps even engineered. He cannot swing a sword or fire a gun; but he can wield a brush, as the picture testifies. Through military incapacity he has preserved his potency as an artist. The picture proclaims that he could have become this hollow man, this empty warlike idol, but did not.The painting is the defiant, triumphant manifesto of a conscientious objector.
Max Beckmann, The Way Home, from the series Hell, 1919
Like Kirchner, Max Beckmann volunteered, but suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged. The Way Home belongs to Hell, a series of lithographs in which Beckmann chronicled the lawlessness and turmoil that engulfed Germany after the November revolution of 1918. He depicts himself confronting a soldier, a disfigured amputee, returning to a vanquished nation. Beckmann reaches out to touch the amputee’s artificial arm, and gazes at the victim with profound compassion. Dedicated to portraying his pitifully damaged countrymen, he wrote in 1920: ‘We must surrender our heart and our nerves to the dreadful screams of pain of the poor disillusioned people.’
William Orpen, The Receiving Room the 42nd Stationary Hospital, 1917
As the exhibition draws to a close the images become ever more disturbing. Here is William Orpen again with a drawing done in the same year as his portrait of Churchill. It’s a study of the Receiving Room at the 42nd Stationary Hospital where he himself had been admitted, suffering from scabies. His sketch focuses on three haggard soldiers slumped on a bench waiting for treatment. ‘How more people did not die in that hospital beats me,’ remembered Orpen. ‘I personally never got any sleep, and left in a fortnight nearly dead.’
Henry Tonks, pastel portraits of soldiers with facial wounds
Still more harrowing are the images of young soldiers with grotesque facial wounds made by Henry Tonks. After the Battle of the Somme in 1916, a young surgeon named Harold Gillies became responsible for the treatment of ever-increasing numbers of soldiers who had suffered very severe damage to their faces. He established a pioneering unit at the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup where he began to develop the techniques of plastic surgery. Gillies invited Henry Tonks to draw pastel portraits of patients before and after surgery. Tonks, formerly a professor at the Slade School of Fine Art, produced pastel drawings which are being shown for the first time here, alongside photographs taken of the soldiers at the unit run by Gillies.
Eric Kennington, Gassed and Wounded, 1918
Eric Kennington (who was born in Liverpool) was 26 at the outbreak of war, a highly skilled painter widely recognised for his technical virtuosity and exceptional draughtsmanship, and a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy. He enlisted with the 13th London Regiment and, lodged in poorly-maintained trenches near the village of Laventie on the Lys Valley, experienced at first-hand the privations of front-line infantry work.
He fought on the Western Front but was badly wounded and and sent home in June 1915. During his convalescence he produced The Kensingtons at Laventie, a portrait of a group of infantrymen. When exhibited in the spring of 1916 its portrayal of exhausted soldiers created a sensation.Kennington went back to France in 1917 as an Official War Artist and concentrated on depicting the common soldier; one critic wrote that Kennington was ‘a born painter of the nameless heroes of the rank and file’. After the war he designed many war memorials.
The work displayed here – Gassed and Wounded – is a scene at a field hospital where gassed and wounded soldiers are lying on stretchers. In the foreground there is a soldier with his eyes bandaged and his mouth open in pain. The painting is based on drawings Kennington made at a Casualty Clearing Station near Peronne during 1918, just as the Germans were bombarding the English lines in a prelude to their last big offensive. The painting powerfully conveys the cramped conditions and darkness of the station.
Alongside paintings and drawings, the exhibition presents examples of contemporary film and photography. The centrepiece of the show is an installation of 40 photos, arranged in grid formation, of a wide range of war participants. All of them are details cropped from vintage photographs. They depict the enormous diversity of those involved. The installation is presented as a ‘homogenised visual spectacle without identification or hierarchy … the anonymity intended to evoke a common humanity’. However, an accompanying booklet provides information about each person depicted – men and women of all nations, renowned and unknown, anonymous and famous.
Some are familiar (Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen; Baron von Richthofen; Mata Hari), others less so. Here is Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British army. There is Billie Nevill, a captain who kicked a football across No Man’s Land during the battle of the Somme; Maria Botchkareva, leader of Russia’s Women’s Battalion who ended up being shot by a Bolshevik firing squad; and Harry Farr, the shell-shocked private executed for desertion in 1916 (and officially pardoned in 2006).
There are images of unidentified individuals: an unknown Gurkha; a member of the Maori Contingent; and an unidentified German prisoner, captured during the battle of Menin Road Bridge in September 1917. I noticed Paul Cadbury, a Quaker conscientious objector and volunteer with the Friends Ambulance Unit; Elsie Knocker, ambulance driver and first-aider; Edith Cavell, shot by a German firing squad on 12 October 1915; and Captain Noel Chavasse from Liverpool, one of only three people to be awarded a Victoria Cross twice. The grouping of these images underscores the indiscriminate way in which the Great War sucked people from all backgrounds into its vortex.
In an acerbic review for the Evening Standard, Brian Sewell wrote:
These images and others of their generation – of nurses, a Quaker conscientious objector, and of Harry Farr, at 25, one of the shell-shocked, witless and terrified soldiers shot for cowardice – confront us in ways beyond the reach of formal portraiture. Compare these snapshots with the life-size presence in oil on canvas of the King, the Kaiser and the aged Emperor of Austria, stern in their various panoplies of office, compare them with the slick, shallow and ill-considered portraits of the great, the good and the ordinary bloke by William Orpen (of which there are far too many in this exhibition), and ask which are the speaking likenesses, which tell the truer tale.
Frame from The Battle of the Somme, sequence 34: ‘British Tommies rescuing a comrade under shell fire’
In the final room footage from the documentary film The Battle of the Somme, released in cinemas in 1916, is screened. Made by Geoffrey Malins and John McDonell, the government did not produce the film, but they did approve it. It was highly controversial because the battle scenes were so shocking, and unlike anything screened before. Many observers felt it was too graphic. Nevertheless, 20 million people flocked to see the silent film – nearly half the population of Britain at the time.
The frame shown above is from the most memorable sequence – ‘British Tommies rescuing a comrade under shell fire’ – used in documentaries about the war ever since. The wounded soldier died 30 minutes after reaching the trenches.
Newspaper advert for a screening of The Battle of the Somme
The curators allow us to compare this British documentary with a German propagandist film, With Our Heroes on the Somme, made in 1917. It differs by not being filmed on location and the inclusion of faked shots and footage that predated the battle of the Somme. (Though the academic consensus is that one of the most famous scenes from The Battle of the Somme – of soldiers climbing out of their trench and advancing towards the enemy with some cut down by enemy fire – was not filmed during the Battle of the Somme. Rather it seems likely that Geoffrey Malins captured this scene at a training facility later.
Nearby are photographs of young men who died in the conflict. John Travers Cornwell was 15 when he joined the Navy, and 16 when, on HMS Chester, he was mortally wounded in the Battle of Jutland (he earned the Victoria Cross for his bravery). Ivor Evans also enlisted at 15, fought at Gallipoli was killed in France, aged just 18. William Cecil Tickle volunteered aged 16 and died 22 months later on the third day of the Battle of the Somme. His photo (top) poignantly bears a hand-written tribute from a member of his family.
The final exhibit is also a photograph – not the portrait of a person, but an image captured by Jules Gervais Courtellemont depicting a deserted, battle-scarred landscape. The gallery’s caption states that this is ‘the only work in the exhibition not to depict people; this poignant image is, in effect, a portrait of absence.’
Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, Devastated landscape at the French lines, c 1915
The Great War in Portraits is a poignant and challenging exhibition, though it has been forced into far too cramped a space, inexplicably pushed to the sidelines by a display of images by photographer David Bailey. Yet on the afternoon I visited the Great War in Portraits was packed, while there was hardly a soul at the David Bailey show.
In the exhibition catalogue Sebastian Faulks has written an introduction that discusses the way in which this war has come to be defined in the British memory. He notes, for instance, how the war’s last survivor Harry Patch, who believed that war was simply ‘organised murder’, was feted at his death. He quotes Wittgenstein (who fought for Austro-Hungarian Empire on the Russian front), who wrote, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. Yet there are images here that would shatter any silence, recalling words of the 19th century German dramatist and poet George Buchner: ‘Do you not hear this horrible scream all around you that people usually call silence?’
Outside in the sunshine, I paused to look at the national memorial to Edith Cavell which stands ust opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery. Cavell grew up in Norfolk, before moving to London to train as a nurse in 1896. In 1907, she moved to Brussels to become the director of a training school for nurses but was caught behind enemy lines after the German invasion in 1914. The school became part of a network of safe houses created to shelter Allied soldiers before smuggling them into the Netherlands. Less than a year after the invasion, Cavell was captured by the Germans and on 12 October 1915, was executed by firing squad. Her final words were, ‘I am glad to die for my country.’ There is a story that one of the Germans in the firing squad refused to take part in the execution, throwing down his rifle when ordered to fire. He was shot by a German officer for refusing to obey orders. Inscribed on the memorial are the words she spoke to the Anglican chaplain who had been allowed to see her and to give her Holy Communion on the night before her execution:
Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.
The memorial to Edith Cavell in St Martin’s Place, London
- The Great War in Portraits: NPG website (features podcast in which curator Paul Moorhouse introduces the key themes and works in the exhibition)
- The Great War in Portraits review: Guardian
- Gassed by John Singer Sargent: article by Andrew Graham-Dixon (Telegraph)
- A Terrible Beauty: British artists in the First World War