Paul Nash at Tate Britain: searching for a different angle of vision

Paul Nash at Tate Britain: searching for a different angle of vision

Paul Nash first discovered Wittenham Clumps, two ‘dome-like hills’ in Oxfordshire with a ‘curiously symmetrical sculptural form’  in 1911. Between 1912 and 1946 he would paint them repeatedly as he sought to encapsulate there and in other places (such as the South Downs and the stone circles of Aylesbury) the idea of a ‘spirit of place’. Yet his engagement with the mystery and magic he found in certain landscapes was only one strand in the rich legacy of work left by Paul Nash. In his time he was official war artist in two world wars, and a pioneering figure at the heart of a group of artists who brought surrealism into British art, a painter who utilised photography, collage and assemblage in pursuit of his vision.

All of these aspects of Paul Nash’s work are explored in depth in Tate Britain’s vast and definitive exhibition which we saw while in London. It is a huge show of more than 160 works which convincingly presents Nash as not only a war artist of great importance, and a pioneering figure of the British avant-garde in the 1930s, but also as a romantic in the tradition of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, who, like them, created visionary landscapes drenched in symbolism and painted as if in a dream. Continue reading “Paul Nash at Tate Britain: searching for a different angle of vision”

Matisse in Focus at Tate Liverpool: The Snail’s last outing

Matisse in Focus at Tate Liverpool: The Snail’s last outing

Matisse in Focus at Tate Liverpool brings together fifteen paintings from the Tate collection to provide an overview of the artist’s work across five decades. Its centrepiece is The Snail, the largest and most popular of Matisse’s cut-out works; after this show closes, it will never travel outside London again. Continue reading “Matisse in Focus at Tate Liverpool: The Snail’s last outing”

York Art Gallery: a bit potty

York Art Gallery: a bit potty

I went over to York last week to visit my sister, and while I was there we popped into York Art Gallery which recently reopened to the public after an £8 million revamp. However, my sister and a good number of York residents are justifiably outraged by the fact that it now costs £7.50 to visit the gallery. Compare this with Leeds Art Gallery or the Tate and the Walker in Liverpool where entrance to the permanent displays remains free. Continue reading “York Art Gallery: a bit potty”

Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at IWM (part 1)

Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at IWM (part 1)

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)”

At Manchester Art Gallery: The Sensory War 1914-2014

At Manchester Art Gallery: The Sensory War 1914-2014

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

CWR Nevinson, Howitzer Gun in Elevation, 1917

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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’.

Making Soldiers: Bringing In Prisoners circa 1917 by Eric Kennington

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.

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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.

CWR Nevinson, La Guerre des Trous (The Underground War, 1915)

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

CRW Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, engraving, 1916

David Bomberg, Study for 'Sappers at Work A Canadian Tunnelling

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.

CWR Nevinson, Making Aircraft Making the Engine 1917

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

 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, Study for 'The Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal'
George Clausen, Study for ‘The Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal’, c.1919

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.

Female Factories

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

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.

Nevinson, Making Aircraft Acetylene Welding 1917
CRW Nevinson, Making Aircraft: Acetylene Welding, 1917

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.

Women's Work: On Munitions - Dangerous Work (Packing T.N.T.) circa 1917 by Archibald Standish Hartrick 1864-1950

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.

Women's Work: On the Railway - Engine and Carriage Cleaners circa 1917 by Archibald Standish Hartrick 1864-1950

Archibald Standish Hartrick , Women’s Work: On the Railways, Engine and Carriage Cleaners, 1917

Women's Work: On Munitions - Heavy Work (Drilling and Casting) circa 1917 by Archibald Standish Hartrick 1864-1950

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

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.

(c) Mrs Henrietta Phipps; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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

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 Williamson, A German Attack on a Wet Morning, April 1918

 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
Williamson.

Advanced Dressing Station in France circa 1917 by Claude Shepperson 1867-1921

Claude A Shepperson, Tending the Wounded: Advanced Dressing station, France, 1917

Detraining in England circa 1917 by Claude Shepperson 1867-1921

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

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, 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

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

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

 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

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 Pietro Morando, At the prison camp of Komarom, Hungary, 1918

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.

Abu Ghraib by Richard Serra

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

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

Pietro Morando, Thoughtful, On the Carso, 1917

Otto Dix, The Madwoman of St.-Marie-a-Py

 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

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

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.

Kruppel 1920 Heinrich HoerleKruppel 1920 Heinrich Hoerle, The Married Couple

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

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, 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

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)

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)

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

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.

See also

Ivor Gurney: The Poet Who Loved the War

Ivor Gurney: The Poet Who Loved the War

Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney was the least-known to me of the War Poets – at least until this week’s excellent BBC 4 documentary, The Poet Who Loved the War, presented by University of Exeter Professor Tim Kendall who argued for a major re-evaluation of the Gloucestershire poet’s work. Unusually, Gurney wasn’t an officer like most of the rest of the famous war poets (with the exception of Isaac Rosenberg), but a private who bizarrely joined up in the hope that the discipline and routines of army life would help ease a mental health condition. Initially this shock therapy worked but, invalided home after being shot and gassed, he spent the last 15 years of his life in a mental asylum.

The documentary was done well, with sensitive readings from Gurney’s poems and Gurney’s music  on the soundtrack (he was a highly successful composer, and is best known for this aspect of his work). The use of nostalgic and romantic dramatic reconstruction in which the poet was seen skipping along Gloucestershire lanes was thankfully limited.  With the help of knowledgeable expert witnesses, Kendall presented a serious account of Gurney’s deeply sad life.  Above it all it was the poetry that gripped your attention – poetry that powerfully captured the experience of the ordinary soldier and which, Kendall argued,  is the equal of the work of any of the more well-known soldier-poets of World War One.

Gurney was one of four children from a poor Gloucestershire family, a musically gifted boy who first gained a chorister scholarship to the King’s School Gloucester, and then to the Royal College of Music.  By 1912, Gurney was recognised as a composer of great promise, who had begun setting poems to music.  At about that time he began to write poetry himself.

At the same time, Gurney was already experiencing mental health issues, eventually leading to a breakdown. In 1914 he was keen to enlist, but was rejected by the army on grounds of defective eyesight, but a year later he was accepted and, in May 1916, crossed to France with the 2nd/5th Gloucesters. In the film, Professor Kendall argued that Gurney’s sole motivation for enlisting was his belief that the discipline of army life would help him overcome his mental instability.

The letters, poetry and the music that Gurney wrote while serving on the Somme suggest, argued Kendall, that his time at the front was, in fact, the happiest of his life:

The war years were pretty much the most stable of Gurney’s adult life, and it was after the war that he broke down completely. He associated war with all the horror and brutality, but also with the comradeship, that sense of belonging, that sense of place.  That’s why Gurney thought, when war broke out, ‘This is going to help me, the whole discipline of army life.’ Army life gave him that sense of regimentation and discipline that otherwise he wouldn’t have.

By 1917, Gurney had enough poems for a first book, called Severn and Somme.  Kendall discussed how in these poems, deeply sensitive to the landscape and natural world around him, Gurney reveals ‘an intense attention to place’. He sees the meandering river Severn of his Gloucestershire childhood mirrored in the the one that had given its name to the battle in which he had been fighting.  One from that first collection, read during the programme, was ‘Trees’ which name-checks Cooper’s Hill, near Cranham in Gloucestershire.  It brought to mind the haunting war paintings of ‘torn trees’ by Paul Nash, who also expressed his rage at the waste of life in images of the violation of nature:

(“You cannot think how ghastly these battle-fields look under a grey sky. Torn trees are the most terrible things I have ever seen. Absolute blight and curse is on the face of everything.”)

The dead land oppressed me;
I turned my thoughts away,
And went where hill and meadow
Are shadowless and gay.

Where Coopers stands by Cranham,
Where the hill-gashes white
Show golden in the sunshine,
Our sunshine — God’s delight.

Beauty my feet stayed at last
Where green was most cool,
Trees worthy of all worship
I worshipped then, O fool,

Let my thoughts slide unwitting
To other, dreadful trees,
And found me standing, staring
Sick of heart — at these!

Paul Nash, Inverness Copse, 1919

Paul Nash, Inverness Copse, watercolour, 1919

On Good Friday, 1917, at Passchendaele, Gurney was first wounded (though not seriously), then gassed.  He was sent home.  Two years later he produced his second collection, War’s Embers, that contained the poem ‘To His Love’ that is considered his masterpiece, the song-like elegy composed for his friend from childhood, Will Harvey, who Gurney believed to be dead (in fact Harvey had been captured by the Germans and was a prisoner of war):

He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn River
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now…
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

That raw, colloquial ‘red wet / Thing’ of the final stanza has as much shattering force as anything in the body of First World War poetry.

Despite the pain and horror of war, Gurney had relished the camaraderie of the war.  In his poems he captures the voices of the soldiers, whether from Gloucestershire – or the men of Wales, ‘Hiding in sandbag ditches,whispering consolatory / Soft foreign things’ in ‘First Time In:

After the dread tales and red yams of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome;
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next days’ guns
Nor any line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War’s rout,
Candles they gave us precious and shared over-rations —
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
‘David of the white rock’, the’ Slumber Song’ so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung — but never more beautiful than here under the guns’ noise.

Another example of his delight in the varieties of human voice – listening with a musician’s ear, perhaps – comes in ‘The Silent One’, with its ‘lovely chatter of Bucks accent’ and the ‘finicking accent’ of the officer. The poem emerged from an incident experienced by Gurney during an advance on German lines:

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two –
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes – and ended.
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line- to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice – a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there’s a hole.’
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied –
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole, no way to be seen
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing –
And thought of music – and swore deep heart’s oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated a second time, faced the screen.

One aspect of Gurney’s poetry that distinguishes him from other war poets, Professor Kendall observed, is his naming of people and places, and his itemising of the small, ordinary things of the soldiers’ days.  ‘Laventie’ (named for a small town on the front line near Lille) illustrates this:

One would remember still
Meadows and low hill
Laventie was, as to the line and elm row
Growing through green strength wounded, as home elms grow.
Shimmer of summer there and blue autumn mists
Seen from trench-ditch winding in mazy twists.
The Australian gunners in close flowery hiding
Cunning found out at last, and smashed in the unspeakable lists.
And the guns in the smashed wood thumping and grinding.

The letters written there, and received there,
Books, cakes, cigarettes in a parish of famine,
And leaks in rainy times with general all-damning.
The crater, and carrying of gas cylinders on two sticks
(Pain past comparison and far past right agony gone,)
Strained hopelessly of heart and frame at first fix.

Cafe au lait in dugouts on Tommies cookers,
Cursed minnie werfs, thirst in 18 hour summer.
The Australian miners clayed, and the being afraid
Before strafes, sultry August dusk time than Death dumber —
And the cooler hush after the strafe, and the long night wait —
The relief of first dawn, the crawling out to look at it,
Wonder divine of Dawn, man hesitating before Heaven’s gate.
(Though not on Coopers where music fire took at it,
Though not as at Framilode beauty where body did shake at it)
Yet the dawn with aeroplanes crawling high at Heaven’s gate
Lovely aerial beetles of wonderful scintillate
Strangest interest, and puffs of soft purest white —
Soaking light, dispersing colouring for fancy’s delight.

Of Maconachie, Paxton, Tickler, and Gloucester’s Stephens;
Fray Bentos, Spiller and Baker, Odds and evens
Of trench food, but the everlasting clean craving
For bread, the pure thing, blessed beyond saving.
Canteen disappointments, and the keen boy braving
Bullets or such for grouse roused surprisingly through (Halfway) Stand-to.
And the shell nearly blunted my razor at shaving;
Tilleloy, Pauquissart, Neuve Chapelle, and mud like glue.

But Laventie, most of all, I think is to soldiers
The Town itself with plane trees, and small-spa air;
And vin, rouge-blanc, chocolats, citron, grenadine:
One might buy in small delectable cafes there.
The broken church, and vegetable fields bare;
Neat French market town look so clean,
And the clarity, amiability of North French air.
Like water flowing beneath the dark plough and high Heaven,
Music’s delight to please the poet pack-marching there.

Or the memory of marching, in October 1916, ‘Towards Lillers’, just a few miles along from Laventie, dreaming of ‘a quench for thirsty frames’, estaminets and ‘longed for cool wine or cold beer’, but remembering ‘two ditches of heart-sick men’, barb-wire to the front, and ‘the times scientific, as evil as ever again’:

 In October marching, taking the sweet air.
Packs riding lightly, and homethoughts soft coming,
‘This is right marching, we are even glad to be here,
Or very glad?’ But looking upward to dark smoke foaming,
Chimneys on the clear crest, no more shades for roaming,
Smoke covering sooty what man’s heart holds dear,
Lillers we approached, a quench for thirsty frames,
And looked once more between houses and at queer names
Of estaminets, longed for cool wine or cold beer.
This was war; we understood; moving and shifting about;
To stand or be withstood in the mixed rout
Of fight to come after this. But that was a good dream
Of justice or strength-test with steel tool a gleam
Made to the hand. But barb-wire lay to the front,
Tiny aeroplanes circled as ever their wont
High over the two ditches of heart-sick men:
The times scientific, as evil as ever again.
October lovely bathing with sweet air the plain

Back in Gloucester after the war, Gurney faced a seemingly hopeless future: instability and depression had descended into a profound mental collapse. From 1919 to 1922 Gurney drove himself hard, physically as well as creatively, taking jobs where his labours included digging, delving and felling trees, believing that physical exertion was essential to settle his nerves and to still the imagined voices and radio waves with which he now felt himself to be bombarded.

He alarmed his family with his terrified conviction that the police were torturing him, bombarding him with radio waves. Medical help was sought, and in September 1922 Gurney was certified insane and admitted to Barnwood House mental hospital in Gloucester.  Gurney made a desperate night-time escape from Barnwood, running off in his pyjamas (this made me think of John Clare). He was recaptured by the police, and transferred to the City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford, where he wrote and composed with feverish intensity, at one point producing a poem a day for a year.

Incarcerated for the last 15 years of his life, Gurney was all but forgotten, though he received visits from friends.  There was Marion Scott (the writer and musicologist who had met Gurney at the Royal College of Music; they had formed an enduring friendship recounted in the documentary, with Scott championing both his music and his poetry.  His old friend Will Harvey visited  – and Helen Thomas, the widow of Edward Thomas. She discovered that Gurney refused to go into the asylum’s grounds because ‘it was not his idea of the country at all – the fields, woods, water-meadows and footpaths he loved so well, and he would have nothing to do with that travesty of something sacred to him’. In the BBC 4 film, Kendall read this moving extract from her diary, describing one of her visits:

We arrived at the asylum which looked like – as indeed it was – a prison. [… ]We were walking along a bare corridor when we were met by a tall gaunt dishevelled man clad in pyjamas and dressing gown, to whom Miss Scott introduced me. He
gazed with an intense stare into my face and took me silently by the hand. Then I gave him the flowers which he took with the same deeply moving intensity and silence. He then said: ‘You are Helen, Edward’s widow and Edward is dead.’ I said, ‘Yes, let us talk of him’ [. . .]

We spoke of country that he knew and which Edward knew too and he evidently identified Edward with the English countryside, especially that of Gloucestershire. […] The next time I went I took with me one of Edward’s own well-used Ordnance maps of Gloucester where he had often walked. This proved to have been a sort of inspiration, for Ivor at once spread it out on his bed and he and I spent the whole time I was there tracing with our fingers the lanes and byeways and villages of which he knew every step and over which Edward had walked. He spent that hour in re-visiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity. He trod, in a way we who were sane could not emulate, the lanes and fields he knew and loved so well, his guide being his finger tracing the way on the map. It was most deeply moving, and I knew that I had hit on an idea that gave him more pleasure than anything else I could have thought of.

During those last fifteen years in the asylum, Gurney constantly wished for death; as Professor Kendall explained, he felt forgotten, betrayed, exiled from his native Gloucestershire and condemned to a lingering torture. He died of tuberculosis on Boxing Day, 1937, aged 47. Only then did he return to his beloved Gloucestershire to be buried near Twigworth.

Ivor Gurney gravestone

The songs I had are withered
Or vanished clean,
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been,

And there grow flowers
For other’s delight.
Think well, O singer,
Soon comes night.

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’

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’

Paul Nash was 25 at the outbreak of the First World War. He would come to see himself as a messenger to those who wanted the war to go on for ever, creating some of the most devastating landscapes of war ever painted, his outrage at the waste of life expressed through his depiction of the violation of nature in landscapes that were both visionary and terrifyingly realistic.

He had been a member of that remarkable pre-war cohort at the Slade School of Art that included Christopher Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, William Roberts, Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth.  Nash had already gained a reputation as a painter of nocturnes and visionary landscapes when he reluctantly volunteered in September 1914, first joining the London Regiment (Artists’ Rifles) for home service only.  But in February 1917, having completed officer training, he embarked for France, arriving in the Ypres Sector soon after.

Along with Nevinson and Spencer, Paul Nash is the First World War artist whom I most admire, so I was interested in Paul Gough’s account of his war years in A Terrible Beauty: British Artists in the First World War which I finished reading recently.

Paul Nash, We Are Making a New World, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘We Are Making a New World’, 1918

Nash arrived at the Ypres Salient at an unusually quiet time (though nowhere in the trenches could be considered safe or particularly quiet). At twilight, as he patrolled the trenches, Nash had time to absorb the strange beauty of the battlefront landscape.  He was impressed by the powerful continuity of nature in the midst of the bombed and battered countryside.In a letter home he wrote:

Twilight quivers above, shrinking into night, and a perfect crescent moon sits uncannily below pale stars.  As the dark gathers, the horizon brightens and again vanishes as the Very lights rise and fall, shedding their weird greenish glare over the land. … At intervals we send up Very lights, and the ghastly face of No Man’s Land leaps up in the garish light , then, as the rocket falls, the great shadows flow back, shutting it into darkness again.  … Maybe you can feel something of the weird beauty from this little letter.

Paul Nash, Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood’, 1917

Nash, like many other artists, writers and poets on the Western Front found himself, as Gough observes, ‘wrestling with the cruel irony that the destruction and depravity all around him was actually feeding his imagination. His early drawings from this period use a bright, even colourful, palette, depicting natural scenes which appeared undisturbed by war.  In a letter home he wrote:

Everywhere are old farms, rambling and untidy, some of course ruined and deserted, all have red or yellow or green roofs and on a sunny day they look fine. The willows are orange, the poplars carmine with buds, the streams gleam brightest blue and flights of pigeons go wheeling about the field. Mixed up with all this normal beauty of nature you see the strange beauty of war. Trudging along the road you become gradually aware of a humming in the air, a sound rising and falling in the wind. You look up and after a second’s search you can see a gleaming shaft in the blue like a burnished silver dart, another and then another…

Paul Nash, Existence, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Existence’, 1917

Nash’s sensitivity to the incongruity of spring unfolding amid the destruction is very similar to words that the poet Edward Thomas put down in his diary that same spring while stationed not far away, outside Arras:

Linnets and chaffinches sing in waste trenched ground with trees and water tanks between us and Arras. Magpies over No Man’s Land in pairs.

On another day Thomas records watching a French farmer ploughing a field just behind the lines, driving his team right up to a crest that was in full view of the German gunners at Beaurains, before turning slowly around. It’s impossible not to be reminded of the exquisite poem Thomas had written just before leaving for the front, ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’:

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away? ‘
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out? ‘ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps? ‘
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…Have many gone
From here? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost? ‘ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

Paul Nash, Ruined Country, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Ruined Country’, 1917

Imagine a wide landscape flat and scantily wooded and what trees remain blasted and torn, naked and scarred and riddled. The ground for miles around furrowed into trenches, pitted with yawning holes in which the water lies still and cold or heaped with mounds of earth, tangles of rusty wire, tin plates, stakes, sandbags and all the refuse of war… In the midst of this strange country… men are living in their narrow ditches.

Nash wrote those words on Good Friday, 6 April 1917. Fifty miles to the south, Edward Thomas noted ‘infantry with yellow patches behind marching soaked up to line’. The Battle of Arras was about to begin, and on Easter Monday, as the British infantry attack began, Thomas was knocked down by the blast from an enemy shell, and killed instantly. ‘Thomas is dead…’ Nash wrote some time later after hearing the news. ‘I brood on it dully.’

Paul Nash, Indians in Belgium, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Indians in Belgium’, 1917

After only three months at the front Nash was injured after falling into a trench and invalided back to England. Convalescing at home a week later, Nash learned that his division had been virtually annihilated – with most of his fellow-officers killed – in an attack on the infamous Hill 60 that presaged the Messines Ridge offensive.

While on leave, Nash exhibited some war drawings in London. The work was noticed by the War Artists Advisory Committee and so, when he returned to France later that year, it was as an official war artist. He arrived in the aftermath of the Battle of Passchendaele, ‘the blindest slaughter of a blind war’ in the words of AJP Taylor, and now his eyes were truly opened to the horrors of war. In his notes he wrote:

I realise no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like.  They cannot imagine the daily and nightly background of the fighter.  If I can, I will show them….

Paul Gough’s account draws heavily upon Nash’s writing, revealing it to be amongst the most vivid to come out of the war. In late 1917, for instance, he wrote to his wife:

I have just returned, last night, from a visit to Brigade Headquarters up the line and I shall not forget it as long as I live. I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature, unspeakable, utterly indescribable. In the fifteen drawings I have made I may give you some idea of its horror, but only being in it and of it can ever make you sensible of its dreadful nature and of what our men in France have to face. We all have a vague notion of the terrors of a battle, and can conjure up with the aid of some of the more inspired war correspondents and the pictures in the Daily Mirror some vision of battlefield; but no pen or drawing can convey this country – the normal setting of the battles taking place, day and night, month after month. Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all through the bitter black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease. They alone plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses and mules, annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave that is this land; one huge grave, and cast up on it the poor dead. It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.

As the messenger, Paul Nash created some of the most devastating landscapes of war ever painted, his outrage at the waste of life was expressed through his depiction of the violation of nature in landscapes that were both visionary and terrifyingly realistic.  In a perceptive opening to his chapter on Nash, Paul Gough observes that ‘of all British artists of the last century, Paul Nash is perhaps the one most readily associated with the sanctity and loveliness of trees’. As a visionary painter, Nash sensed the metaphysical power of trees – how they ‘linked the underworld, the earth’s surface and the skies’.  Nash was sensitive, not only to the human carnage he witnessed, but also to the devastation of the verdant plains of Flanders, Artois and Picardy, where trees had offered ‘vantage and protection, raw materials and nourishment’, in thick forests and neat copses.

Once cherished as a place of refuge and shade, copses or small woods now became death traps, infamous killing grounds.  Trees were cleared for safety by artillery shelling or felled for military use.  Nash saw all this, writes Gough:

He was aghast at the sight of splintered copses and dismembered trees, seeing in their shattered limbs an equivalent for the human carnage that lay all around or even hung in shreds from the eviscerated treetops.  In so many of his war pictures, the trees remain inert and gaunt, failing to respond to the shafts of sunlight; their branches dangle lifelessly ‘like melancholy tresses of hair’, mourning the death of the world and its values that Nash held so dear’.

Myfanwy Piper later observed that:

The drawings he made then, of shorn trees in ruined and flooded landscapes, were the works that made Nash’s reputation. They were shown at the Leicester Galleries in 1918 together with his first efforts at oil painting, in which he was self-taught and quickly successful, though his drawings made in the field had more immediate public impact. His poetic imagination, instead of being crushed by the terrible circumstances of war, had expanded to produce terrible images – terrible because of their combination of detached, almost abstract, appreciation and their truth to appearance.

Paul Nash, After the Battle, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘After the Battle’, 1918

Paul Nash, Rain: Lake Zillebeke, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Rain: Lake Zillebeke’, 1917

Nash’s anger, writes Gough, was converted into a suite of taut drawings, ‘each one scooped out of the muddy places, barren ridge lines, and filthy puddles of the Salient’.  In works such as Rain: Lake Zillebeke or After the Battle, Nash ‘created a new calligraphy of war’:

His drawings are scored and scratched with uncompromising diagonals, the incessant rain is engraved in stabbing lines across the surface, the ashen wastes of the battlefield are dense with impenetrable strokes of his pen. […] Nash had created a distinctive vision of war, one that brought new insights into the way that artists could depict the absences, the emptiness, the abraded surfaces, and the defiled hollows that were the essence of the Western Front.

Paul Nash, Poster for Void of War Exhibition, May 1918

Paul Nash, Poster for The Void of War exhibition, May 1918

In May 1918 The Void of War, an exhibition of pictures by Paul Nash, opened in London.  The most acclaimed work in the exhibition was the heavily ironic We Are Making a New World (above), ‘a brazenly symbolic canvas developed from a drawing of a sunrise at Inverness Copse, a derelict woodland deep in the Ypres Salient’.  The painting has become one of the most memorable images of the First World War, the title mocking the ambitions of the war, as the sun rises on a scene of the total desolation.

Paul Nash, Sunrise Inverness Copse, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘Sunrise Inverness Copse’, 1918

5.1.5

Paul Nash, ‘Void’, 1918

In these key drawings and paintings, Nash was beginning to work out a means of portraying the battlefield in concrete terms.  His use of colour had become more ambitious, and in Void, one of the most powerful paintings exhibited in London, acidic colours depict the total devastation of war in a shocking, hellish scene that, far from commemorating valour, rather reveals the desolation, destruction, and terror of war.

Paul Nash, The Ypres Salient at Night, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘The Ypres Salient at Night’, 1918

The Ypres Salient at Night shows three soldiers on the fire step of a trench surprised by a brilliant star shell lighting up the view over the battlefield. The painting shows us a fragmented world of chaos, where the demarcation of day and night, order and disorder, no longer exists as bombing continues throughout the night.

Paul Nash, The Mule Track, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘The Mule Track’, 1918

In The Mule Track, Nash presents the viewer with another terrifying scene. Amidst the chaos of a heavy bombardment the small figures of a mule train are trying to cross the battlefield. They are reduced to defenceless puppets at the mercy of terrible forces. The animals rear and panic at nearby explosions, as the water in the flooded trenches wells up like geysers and rubble is thrown high into a sky obscured by large clouds of yellow and grey smoke.

Paul Nash, Men Marching at Night, 1918
Paul Nash, ‘Men Marching at Night’, 1918

In a very fine drawing from this period, Nash shows a view along a straight road lined with tall trees that loom over a column of British soldiers marching down the road. The rain drives across the composition from the left, and the soldiers huddle beneath cloaks whilst marching. There are echoes in this work of CRW Nevinson’s handling of a similar subject matter in his war work, Column on the March from 1914 (see my earlier post). Nash certainly admired Nevinson, and recorded in a letter in July 1917 that they had just met.

Paul Nash, Wire, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘Wire’, 1918

Wire is a poignant watercolour of a desolate landscape, described by the artist and writer Deanna Petherbridge in these terms:

Great bomb craters filled with sullen waters, possibly concealing rotten corpses; the pitiful paths up and down dunes that speak of some hidden human presence; the pall of smoke partly filling the sky; the imagined stench. We assume that it is winter from the degraded palette, but it could just be the winter of the soul – war allows no other season than that of desolation. What makes this painful watercolour so memorable is the blasted tree, a great ripped phallic symbol enmeshed with barbed wire. There is a long tradition in Western landscape art of decaying tree stumps as symbols of destroyed civilisations. In sixteenth and seventeenth-century landscapes such signs of decay signify renewal, but in this modern work about the horrors of war, rebirth has been suspended.

Paul Nash, The Menin Road, 1919

Paul Nash, ‘The Menin Road’, 1919

A month before the London exhibition opened, Nash had been commissioned by the Ministry of Information to make a large oil painting – originally to have been called A Flanders Battlefield – that was to feature in the planned Hall of Remembrance, alongside paintings by William Orpen and John Singer Sargent. The intention was that both the art and the setting would celebrate national ideals of heroism and sacrifice. However, the Hall of Remembrance was never built and the artists’ work ended up with the Imperial War Museum.

Nash worked on the painting from June 1918 to February 1919, choosing as his subject the main road between Ypres and Menin.  He would remember it as a road in name only, torn up by shellfire and deserted in daylight. It was one of the most dangerous parts of the Western Front with notorious sites of battle – Sanctuary Wood, Hooge Crater, Inverness Copse and Hellfire Corner – strung out along the road. (As an inscription for the painting, Nash suggested: ‘The picture shows a tract of country near Gheluvelt village in the sinister district of ‘Tower Hamlets’, perhaps the most dreaded and disastrous locality of any area in any of the theatres of War.’)

Gough discusses the ‘highly sophisticated image’ that resulted from months of work in a temporary studio at Chalfont St Giles shared with his brother in these terms:

By subtly dividing the canvas into three broad bands – a deep foreground of water-filled craters, the lateral axis of the road in the middle band, and the shattered landscape in the distance – [Nash] drew out the different directional properties in each of the three zones without losing either the phantasmagoric properties of the emptied landscape, nor the nullity of a place that had been relentlessly stripped of its former identity.

As so often in Nash’s war work, the foreground is crammed with insurmountable obstacles – pools of water that cannot easily be crossed, pyramidal blocks that bar the way into the interior space of the painting, piles of debris that clutter the ground plane.

The viewer, writes Gough, seeks a way through the obstructions ‘into the distance where the ‘Promised Land’ of the horizon is unreachable, locked in some unimaginable future’.

Nash considered The Menin Road to be the best thing he had ever done. ‘He was right’, argues Gough, concluding that Nash had emerged from the war as by far the most important and original young artist in Britain (he was just 28 at the war’s end).  Ahead, wrote Nash in 1919, lay the ‘struggles of a war artist without a war’.  He could not have known then that in another 20 years he would, once again, be appointed an official war artist.

History and war in the 20th century: a storm blowing from Paradise

History and war in the 20th century: a storm blowing from Paradise

Angelus Ovus, Paul Klee and photo of Walter Benjamin

Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Ovus’, and photograph of Walter Benjamin

With the centenary of the onset of World War One approaching (as we are reminded daily), I’m thinking a great deal and reading about the war. Michael Gove knows what he is doing when he sets his sights on ‘left-wing academics … happy to feed myths’ about the war. I’m from the generation that came to maturity half a century after the war had ended –  a generation for whom the Great War seemed as relevant as the war then raging in Vietnam. What Gove is attempting to do is refashion the collective memory of the war and its interpretation so that it can be read as being simply about (in his words) ‘patriotism, honour and courage’.

But for a great many of those who experienced the war – whether painters, poets or the common foot-soldiers who met their end, Blackadder-style, in a fusillade of machine-gun bullets going over the top – the war was endured, with a courage and bravery we can only imagine, as the bloodiest conflagration in human history up to that time: as pointless and horrible carnage.  In those four years a great many people ceased to believe in the idea of progress – or in the verities of patriotism and the glory of dying for one’s country.

Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish literary critic and philosopher writing in 1940, gave expression to this sense of historical progress being a cruel illusion in a much-quoted passage. Benjamin, then aged 48, had lived through World War I and its aftermath – economic collapse, failed revolution and the rise of fascism – and saw it as a ‘catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin’.

In 1921, Benjamin had purchased a Paul Klee drawing, The Angel of History. It was his most prized possession and continued to obsess him as the Nazi regime closed in.  In 1940, a few months before his death, Benjamin penned a very personal interpretation of the drawing, not obvious to most viewers I would guess, but a powerful statement nonetheless of how the events of the 20th century – world war and Holocaust – shattered the 19th century certainty that history represented human progress:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940

Benjamin was destined, only months after he had written these words, to become one more lifeless body among the  millions of those lost in the catastrophe of the 20th century.  In 1940, seized by the fascist authorities in Spain as he attempted to escape across the Pyrenees from France, he committed suicide.

Spencer Gore, From a Window in Cambrian Road, Richmond, 1913

Spencer Gore, From a Window in Cambrian Road, Richmond, 1913

For this post, I thought I would offer a sequence of poems in which the authors give voice to their premonition of impending conflagration, or of the onset of war marking a turning point, a catastrophe that would transform everything.  Beginning with an extract from TS Eliot’s Preludes, written in 1910-11:

I

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.


II

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed + Sound, 1913–1914
Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed + Sound, 1913–1914

‘Prophecy’ was written by the German Expressionist poet Alfred Lichtenstein in 1913:

Soon there’ll come — the signs are fair —
A death-storm from the distant north.
Stink of corpses everywhere,
Mass assassins marching forth.The lump of sky in dark eclipse,
Storm-death lifts his clawpaws first.
All the scallywags collapse.
Mimics split and virgins burst.With a crash a stable falls.
Insects vainly duck their heads.
Handsome homosexuals
Tumble rolling from their beds.Walls in houses crack and bend.
Fishes rot in every burn.
All things reach a sticky end.
Buses, screeching overturn. 

—translated from German by Christopher Middleton

Volunteers queuing in front of a recruitment office in London, 1914

Volunteers queuing in front of a recruitment office in London, 1914

No doubt ‘MCMXIV’, written in 1964 by Phillip Larkin will be anthologised endlessly during this centennial year.  It’s a great poem that, filtering impressions from old photographs and newsreels, has almost single-handedly come to define our image of those August days in 1914:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day—

And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Alfred Lichtenstein

Alfred Lichtenstein

The mood of enthusiastic patriotism swept across Europe, and it was during those days that Alfred Lichtenstein wrote ‘Leaving for the Front’ with its deep sense of foreboding:

Before I die I must just find this rhyme.
Be quiet, my friends, and do not waste my time.
We’re marching off in company with death.
I only wish my girl would hold her breath.
There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m glad to leave.
Now mother’s crying too. There’s no reprieve.
And now look how the sun’s begun to set.
A nice mass-grave is all that I shall get.
Once more the good old sunset’s glowing red.
In thirteen days I’ll probably be dead.

The poem was penned on 7 August 1914: seven weeks later Lichtenstein was dead.

German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914

German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914

Tom Paulin has suggested that Ted Hughes, born in 1930, belonged to ‘that slightly different species’ – a generation ‘who took in the blood of the First World War with their mother’s milk, and who up to their middle age knew Britain only as a country always at war, or inwardly expecting and preparing for war.’

Hughes’s father had come through the First World War, psychologically scarred by his ordeal and the trauma of witnessing the slaughter of nearly all his friends and fellow soldiers at Gallipoli in 1915. He was one of just two per cent of his regiment to survive. Hughes’ poem ‘Six Young Men’ articulates a sense of the futility of war, but also of mortality in general: one day all that will be left of us will be a face in a photograph.

The celluloid of a photograph holds them well –
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride –
Six months after this picture they were all dead.

All are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt. I know
That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall,
Which are there yet and not changed; From where these sit
You hear the water of seven streams fall
To the roarer in the bottom and through all
The leafy valley a rumouring of air go.
Pictured here, their expressions listen yet,
And still that valley has not changed its sound
Though their faces are four decades under the ground.

This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin-cans in no-man’s-land,
Fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away.
The rest, nobody knows what they came to,
But come to the worst they must have done, and held it
Closer than their hope; all were killed.

Here see a man’s photograph,
The locket of a smile, turned overnight
Into the hospital of his mangled last
Agony and hours; see bundled in it
His mightier-than-a-man dead bulk weight:
And on this one place which keeps him alive
(In his Sunday best) see fall war’s worst
Thinkable flash and rending, onto his smile
Forty years rotting into soil.

That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or, fabulous beast more dead;
No thought so vivid as their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One’s own body from its instant and heat.

George Grosz, Explosion, 1917

George Grosz, Explosion, 1917

Yvan Goll was a German citizen with Jewish antecedents, born in 1891 in Alsace-Lorraine – the borderland disputed between France and Germany. His wandering life as an exile was to reflect the turmoil in Europe in the first half of the century. Goll identified himself with the new wave of German expressionism that flourished in Berlin before the First World War.  Like Kathe Kollwitz, he was a socialist pacifist and in 1914, to escape conscription into the German army, he took refuge in Switzerland. There he published poems and articles critical of the war – including, in 1915, ‘Requiem for the Dead of Europe’. In 1939, to escape Nazi persecution, he emigrated to the USA, where he continued to write.  In 1947, dying from leukaemia, he returned to Paris. Despite sixteen poets from countries across the world giving him their blood, he died there in February 1950.

Let me lament the exodus of so many men from their time;
Let me lament the women whose warbling hearts now scream;
Every lament let me note and add to the list,
When young widows sit by lamplight mourning for husbands lost;
I hear the blonde-voiced children crying for God their father at bedtime;
On every mantelpiece stand photographs wreathed with ivy, smiling, true to the past;
At every window stand lonely girls whose burning eyes are bright with tears;
In every garden lilies are growing, as though there’s a grave to prepare;
In every street the cars are moving more slowly, as though to a funeral;
In every city of every land you can hear the passing-bell;
In every heart there’s a single plaint,
I hear it more clearly every day.

Paul Nash, Ruined Country, 1917

Paul Nash, Ruined Country. Old battlefield, Vimy, near La Folie wood, 1917

American poet Carl Sandburg, the son of migrants from Sweden, was born in the Mid West, drove a milk wagon and later worked as a bricklayer and a farm labourer on the wheat plains of Kansas.  He became an active socialist, involved in working class struggles and the civil rights movement.  In 1898, he had volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War. ‘Grass’ was published in a 1918 collection of Sandburg’s poetry, and is a timeless meditation on war in the ageless voice of nature:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –

I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

I

CWR Nevinson, The Harvest of Battle, 1921

‘The Second Coming’ by William Butler Yeats was written after the war was over, in 1919. It gives powerful expression to Benjamin’s later vision of a storm blowing from Paradise, rousing a ‘rough beast’ from slumber – an apocalyptic vision of 20th century horrors yet to come:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight; somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

British Masters: In search of England

British Masters: In search of England

What a dispiriting programme this was, the second in the British Masters series presented by James Fox. It offered a survey of British art in the inter-war years, an interesting period in British art when artists were facing up to challenging  continental currents in artistic expression, and responding to the aftermath of the War, growing social distress and intensified class conflict.

But, as in last week’s episode, Fox dealt in elision and hyperbole, determined to shoehorn glimpses of artists and their work into his argument that British artists collectively came to define what it meant to be British – to such a degree, he implied, that they helped Britain win the Second World War:

It was their paintings together that gave us a vision of the England that we were fighting for. In an age of anxiety, artists helped Britain find itself again.  In their paintings they remembered a country to which we could escape; they invented a country that all of us could love. And in the shadow of a new war, they forged a country for which all of us could fight.

While it is true that an argument can be made that artists such as John Nash, Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and others helped define an image of England in the public mind, this largely came about as a result of a phenomenon not mentioned by Fox – the outstanding and iconic images  produced for Shell and London Transport posters by these artists and others during the 1930s. Here is a selection:

 

Graham Sutherland

A Staurt-Hill

Paul Nash

Vanessa Bell

Edward McKnight Kauffer

Eric Ravilious produced a series of acclaimed woodcuts for London Transport, and although Train Landscape (above) was not used as a poster, it might have been.

The image chosen to open and close the episode – The Cornfield by John Nash (top) was painted as a response to war, though not, as Fox implied, the Second World War.  John Nash and his brother Paul had served at the Western Front in the Great War. On their return to England, they rented a studio in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, where John painted The Cornfield, a poignant contrast to the brothers’ paintings of devastation and death at the front they were working on as commissions at the same time.  John later said that they used to paint for their own pleasure only after six o’clock, when their work as war artists was over for the day. This explains the long shadows cast by the evening sun across the  golden field of corn that is the focus of the painting.   John Burnside’s wrote a beautiful meditation on The Cornfield for the Tate blog:

Nothing is as it was
in childhood, when we had to learn the names
of objects and colours,

and yet the eye can navigate a field,
loving the way a random stook of corn
is orphaned
– not by shadows; not by light –

but softly, like the tinder in a children’s
story-book, the stalled world raised to life
around a spark: that tenderness in presence,

pale as the flame a sniper waits to catch
across the yards of razor-wire and ditching;
thin as the light that falls from chapel doors,

so everything, it seems,
is resurrected;
not for a moment, not in the sway of the now,

but always,
as the evening we can see
is all the others, all of history:

the man climbing up from the tomb
in a mantle of sulphur,

the struck match whiting his hands
in a blister of light.

In the last four stanzas it’s as if Burnside has moved on to contemplate another painting discussed by Fox in the programme – Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection, Cookham (below).

After the usual tour of Cookham and the details of Resurrection, Fox quickly moved on to consider Spencer’s sex life, spending some time poring over Double Nude Portrait- The Artist with His Second Wife and what it tells us about his two marriages. Fascinating, perhaps, but more pertinent to Fox’s thesis about artists contributing to a sense of national unity during wartime would have been the eight panels he painted while working as a war artist at Lithgows Shipyard in Port Glasgow, on the Clyde in 1940.

These works seem much more relevant to the question of how British people saw themselves in relation to the war effort.  Spencer depicts an egalitarian working environment, one operating through co-operation and co-ordination. There are no foremen. It’s a vision of a new social order and a challenge to the existing order, and articulates a mood that emerged during the war and was expressed ultimately in the Labour landslide in the 1945 election.

Perhaps Spencer’s complicated sex life was the sort of thing that Fox was referring to in his blog on the BBC website when he wrote in advance of the series, ‘I promise you that there will be some jaw-dropping stories’.  Or perhaps it was the story of the obnoxious president  of the Royal Academy and painter of endless horse portraits, Sir Alfred Munnings, getting pissed before making a speech in the presence of Winston Churchill in which he savaged modernists. But Dr Fox loves Munnings – he, too, helped define true Englishness.

The final work that Fox considered was John Piper’s Interior, Coventry Cathedral (below), painted in the immediate aftermath of the German bombing raid on the city on 14 November 1940. For the 12 hours German bombers laid waste to the city below, destroying thousands of buildings and killing hundreds of civilians.  Early the following morning, Piper, an official war artist, painted the aftermath of the attack.

James Fox said of the painting:

It shows the city’s great medieval cathedral in ruins. The roof has collapsed, the windows are smashed, and the rubble is still smouldering.  It was a metaphor for the entire British nation as it teetered on the brink of annihilation. In the darkest hour of World War 2, the public actually saw it as an image of defiance. Because in the face of all that terrible destruction, those old English walls are standing firm. And if a building won’t give up, neither will the people.

The story is a good one, and the contextualisation was appropriate.  But surely, in a series about art, there should be more of a focus on the art itself?  What makes this a great piece of art – apart from the circumstances of its creation?  How does it relate to Piper’s other work and his artistic strategies?  This is not a new complaint about art documentaries on TV,  and the response is usually along the lines of: to attract and hold an audience it’s necessary to focus on drama and personalities, rather than abstractions. And there isn’t time to go into all the twists and turns of art movements.

But how long would it take to outline the role that artists like Paul Nash or John Piper played at this time in creating something new – a blend of abstraction and an older tradition of landscape painting to produce an approach that was distinctively British?  Surely that is an interesting story – not the fanciful idea that they helped win the Second World War?

It’s a story that Alexandra Harris tells in her prize-winning book Romantic Moderns. She writes that ‘Piper is so well-known today for his romantic vision of churches and country houses that it can be difficult to imagine him as a leader of the abstract movement’. In Breakwaters at Seaford (1937, below), jetties and waves are inked ‘with calligraphic sketchiness’ and paper is torn and ripped, leaving raw edges exposed, to evoke a sense of winter wind and waves.

A painting like this that is part-collage reveals the influence on Piper of the Cubist practice (Braque, for instance) of pasting pieces of paper, newsprint and so on into a painting.  This can be seen clearly in Beach with Starfish (below).
But, says Harris, ‘whereas Braque and Picasso made their collages indoors, arranging wallpapers and veneers with infinite deliberation to signify tables, bottles, and guitars, Piper sat outside with a board on his knees, opening his work to nature and to chance’.

Piper crystallised his ideas in an essay, ‘Abstraction on the Beach’, in which he argued that ‘abstraction is a luxury’ – and as old as the hills.  He wrote that,

The early Christian sculptors, wall-painters and glass-painters had a sensible attitude towards abstraction. However hard one tries … one cannot catch them out indulging in pure abstraction. Their abstraction, such as it is, is always subservient to an end – the Christian end, as it happened.  Abstraction is a luxury that has been left to the present day to exploit It is a luxury just as any single ideal is, and like a single ideal it should be approached all the time, but not pre-supposed all the time. To pre-suppose it always, if you are a painter is to paint the same picture always: or else to give up painting altogether because there is nothing left to paint….

Piper was determined to renew the connection between art and life, that would look for the sacred in ordinary, local things.On the beach, for example:

At the edge of the sea, sand. Then, unwashed by the waves at low tide, grey-blue shingle against the warm brown sand: an intense contradiction in colour, in the same tone, on the same plane. Fringing this, dark seaweed, an irregular litter of it, with a jagged edge towards the sea broken here and there by washed-up objects; boxes, tins, waterlogged sand shoes, banana skins, starfish, cuttlefish, dead seagulls, sides of boxes with THIS SIDE UP on them, fragments of sea-chewed linoleum with a washed-out pattern. This line of magnificent wreckage vanishes out of sight in the distance, but it is a continous line that girdles England, and can be seen reappearing on the skyline in the other direction along this flat beach. Behind this rich and constricting belt against the sand dunes there is drier sand, sparser shingle, unwashed even at high tides, with dirty banana skins now and sides of boxes with the THIS SIDE UP almost unreadable. That, in whatever direction you look, is a subject worthy of contemporary painting. Pure abstraction is undernourished. It should at least be allowed to feed bare on a beach with tins and broken bottles.

This tension between nationalism and internationalism, between abstraction and the English landscape tradition, in British art of the period makes for an interesting story, and challenging questions. Has British art been at its best when drawing on influences from abroad? Or when it draws strength from native customs and traditions?

Paul Nash was a pioneer of modernism in Britain, promoting the avant-garde European styles of abstraction and Surrealism in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1933 he co-founded the influential modern art movement Unit One with fellow artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (no mention of them by Fox), and the critic Herbert Read. It was a short-lived but important move towards the revitalisation of English art in the inter-war period.  But then, in Axis, England’s most adventurous art magazine at the time, Paul Nash expressed his desire to be a modernist while still working in a native tradition:

Whether it is possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today […] The battle lines have been drawn up: internationalism versus an indigenous culture; renovation versus conservatism; the industrial versus the pastoral; the functional versus the futile.

He explained why he was ‘For, but Not With’ the abstract painters, able to appreciate abstraction, but ultimately more satisfied by nature: by stones and leaves, trees and waves.  Nash wanted to create a national identity for modern art, and began by exploring the coastline of Dorset, its cliffs studded with fossils, and the chalk downland marked by paths like mysterious engravings on the land.

Nash was a member of the English Surrealist movement, and his greatest paintings were symbolic representations of specific landscapes – the Dorset coast (above), the ancient stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire, and of other ancient sites in England including Wittemham Clumps (below).  The Clumps – the two dome-shaped hills topped by a thick clump of trees – had been familiar to Nash since spending family holidays nearby from 1909. He painted the Clumps in a series of dream-like works, three of which present the vernal (or spring) equinox, with the sun and moon depicted simultaneously in the sky.

Like Piper, Nash wanted to reconcile modernity with Britishness. Having tried abstraction, he returned to painting of natural forms – stones, leaves and trees. Although he greatly admired (and in many cases rubbed shoulders with) Picasso, Max Ernst, Magritte and other modernists, he continued to find inspiration in nature and the British landscape. He saw himself in the tradition of English mystical painters such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer.

The 1935 painting Equivalents for the Megaliths (above) shows Nash working in both traditions – juxtaposing avant-garde with the mystical spirit of a place in the English landscape. Near the horizon a hill-fort or barrow is visible, while dominating the foreground are his equivalents for the megaliths, the Avebury standing stones.  Assembled in a cornfield are the powerful geometric forms of a gridded screen, standing and lying cylinders, and a steel-grey girder.  Alexandra Harris explains that equivalents was a word that Roger Fry ‘often used to explain the goal of non-representational art, arguing that instead of mimicking the world the picture must be allowed to make its own, equivalent, reality’.

Nash was not the only artist ‘worried that they might be heading for … abstract oblivion’. Another was Ivon Hitchens.  For Hitchens, the landscape was important as ‘a peg on which to hang a painting’. In other words,he wanted to paint something more than the landscape in front of him. After his house was bombed in 1940, Hitchens moved to a patch of woodland near Petworth in Sussex, living at first in a caravan. Here, using just patches of colour and brush strokes, he created landscapes (below) with a sense of movement, depth and space.

Eric Ravilious followed a similar path, working to create a traditional, non-chauvinistic sort of Englishness, and became one of the best-known artists of the 1930s.  Inspired by the landscape of the South Downs, his paintings featured, in his words, ‘lighthouses, rowing-boats, beds, beaches, greenhouses’.  Some dismissed Ravilious’s art as cosy or parochial, but he was a masterful watercolourist whose paintings are never merely pretty. They reveal the same complicated relationship with modernism as the work of Nash or Sutherland. ‘I like definite shapes’, he wrote, and his landscapes approach the abstract with their flat planes and hard lines and patterns.

A far less well-known painter in the inter-war years was David Bomberg.  He had studied at the Slade alongside Stanley Spencer and C.R.W. Nevinson and in his early work had been greatly influenced by cubism.  But in the post-war years his work, too, became increasingly dominated by landscapes drawn from nature that combined abstract, expressionist forms with naturalism.  During and shortly after the Second World War he spent time in Cornwall, where he painted Tregor and Tregoff (below).

In 1944 he painted Evening in the City of London, which, like Piper’s painting of the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral, seemed to express optimism through its strong blocks of warm colour. It has been described as the ‘most moving of all paintings of wartime Britain’.  Bomberg once said: ‘I want to translate the life of a great city … into art that shall not be photographic, but expressive’. Andrew Graham Dixon writes:

Like many another wartime Londoner, Bomberg was struck by the seemingly miraculous way in which Christopher Wren’s great cathedral of St Paul’s had survived the incessant bombing attacks of the Nazis. He took care to show the cathedral from a distance, framed by the desolation around it. According to the artist’s wife, Lilian Bomberg, “He got permission to climb to the top of a church, in Cheapside, I think, and painted St Paul’s from its east side.” The church in question was probably St Bride’s. Access to public buildings deemed to be prime targets for enemy attack was severely restricted.

The tension between realism and abstraction can also be seen in the work of Henry Moore. In his sculpture he had moved steadily from classicism to abstraction and his work became a target for the popular press.  When his abstract Mother and Child in stone was put on display in a front garden in Hampstead, the work proved controversial with local residents and the local press ran a campaign against the piece for two years.

Yet the Shelter Drawings, created by Moore after he was commissioned as an official war artist, transformed his reputation. Along with the coalmining drawings also produced during the war, they transformed miners and London’s working class sheltering in the Underground into heroic figures, stoic and quietly determined.

James Fox touched on the two traditions of painting and photography that mingled from the 1930s onwards. There was often collaboration between photographers and documentary film-makers – such as Humphrey Spender, Bill Brandt and John Grierson – and painters, including Stanley Spencer, and the example Fox chose, William Coldstream.

I didn’t find the Coldstream images especially interesting (Fox observed that his early work was ‘rather pedestrian’, but I love the photos that Spender took in 1937-38, when he went to Bolton on behalf of Mass Observation, the ‘fact-finding body’ set up by Humphrey Jennings and Tom Harrison to document the lives of ordinary British people. As Spender saw it, his role as photographer was to provide visual “information” to complement the written accounts.  This is his famous ‘Washing Line’ shot:

James Fox mentioned how Bill Brandt was photographing the Sitwells at Renishaw Hall at the same time as John Piper was painting the great house.  Brandt photographed people in all kinds of circumstances in the 1930s:

Finally, what about some art produced by people at the other end of the social scale to the likes of Piper, Spencer or Nash?  The Ashington group consisted of Northumberland miners who first came together in 1934 through the Workers Education Association to study ‘something different’ – art appreciation. In an effort to understand what it was all about, their tutor Robert Lyon encouraged them to learn by doing it themselves.

The images that the group produced were fascinating and  captured every aspect of life in and around their mining community – above and below ground, from scenes around the kitchen table and on their allotments, to the dangerous and dirty world of the coal face.  Was this the England for which James Fox was searching?

Leslie Brownrigg – The Miner, c.1935

Harry Wilson – Committee Meeting, c.1937

George Blessed – Whippets

Fred Laidler – Fish and Chips

British Masters: We Are Making a New World

We Are Making a New World, Paul Nash, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘We Are Making a New World’, 1918

Last night BBC 4 launched a new three-part series on 20th century British artists, British Masters, presented by art historian James Fox. I enjoyed seeing some favourite works by artists such as Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer, but I wasn’t convinced by either Fox’s presenting style or his thesis.

Once again, a BBC documentary series is spoiled by the determination to make a drama out of everything.  Discussing Walter Sickert’s Mornington Crescent Nude (below), Fox drooled, ‘The killer is still in the room: you are the killer…You arrive at this painting innocent. And you leave it… guilty.’ He concluded that Sickert’s painting  was ‘not a painting at all but a crime scene’.   OK – so Sickert did give this and three other paintings the group title The Camden Town Murder, but he was probably only up to the same as Fox – drawing an audience.

Fox also had a go at the controversial Vorticist Percy Wyndham Lewis. Now Wyndham Lewis did hold some pretty nauseous political views, but did he really possess ‘one of the most poisonous minds of the 20th century’ as Fox over-excitedly asserted whilst holding the artist’s pickled brain?  His conclusion was that ‘Bad men can be great artists.’

The trouble with all this is that it draws attention away from the art, so – strangely for a series with an art history thesis – there was far too little focus on the paintings and what makes them great.  Fox’s thesis is that, in the period between the First World War and the 1970s, British artists produced paintings that outshone work that emerged from the art movements of Europe and America.

Workshop circa 1914-5 by Wyndham Lewis 1882-1957

Wyndham Lewis, ‘Workshop’, 1914-5

The problem with this is that much of the art that he is examining in the series is now recognised as being amongst the greatest of the 20th century, whilst in his presentation British art seemed to exist in a vacuum, untouched by the European avant-garde. Cubism and its crucial influence didn’t get a mention. Picasso might never have lived.  When discussing Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists, Fox made no reference to the Italian Futurists, who at the time were barking up the same tree.

The Mud Bath 1914 by David Bomberg 1890-1957

David Bromberg: ‘The Mud Bath’, 1914

After considering David Bomberg’s The Mud Bath (above) – with again no mention of the influence of Cubism and the Italian Futurists on his work –  Fox moved on to look at three artists – Christopher Nevinson, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer – who reconciled elements of the pre-War avant-garde with Britain’s realist tradition to create powerful images of the First World War.

La Mitrailleuse 1915 by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson 1889-1946

C. R. W. Nevinson, ‘Machine-gun’, 1915

Speaking of Nevinson’s Machine-Gun (above), Fox couldn’t keep the sneer out of his voice as he described Nevinson’s exploits at the front and the ill-health that forced his return to England, where this and other paintings that drew on his wartime experience gained a rapturous public reception.  This is how the Art of the First World War website assesses Nevinson’s significance:

Nevinson (1889-1946) emerged as one of the major painters of the Great War, on a par with Léger in France and Dix in Germany. The son of a journalist and famous war correspondent, Nevinson went to Paris in 1911, where he discovered Cubism, which was to have a lasting influence on him and which taught him all about construction and the geometry of modern forms. His representation of the machine-gun and its operator is exemplary: the hard lines of the machinery dictate those of the robotised soldiers who become as one with the killing machine. The painting caused quite a stir, in France as well as in Britain. Apollinaire praised its painter as being one who “translates the mechanical aspect of modern warfare where man and machine combine to form a single force of nature. His painting Machine-gun conveys this idea exactly. Nevinson belongs to the school of the English avant-garde influenced by both the young Italian and French schools.

Paul Nash was discussed more sympathetically, although Fox made some oddly pedestrian remarks about We Are Making a New World (top).  Introducing what he called the greatest masterpieces of Nash’s career, Fox quoted Nash’s superb statement of his intent as an artist:

I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.

Paul Nash, ‘The Ypres Salient at Night’

Paul Nash, ‘The Menin Road’

Paul Nash, ‘The Mule Track’, 1918

The programme concluded with a look at another work that emerged from experiences  in the Great War:  Stanley Spencer‘s ambitious cycle of 19 wall paintings for the Sandham Memorial Chapel, which took five years to complete.

Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire, was commissioned in memory of Henry Willoughby Sandham, who died in 1919 as a result of an illness he contracted during the Macedonian campaign, and is based on Spencer’s own experiences during the First World War, also in Macedonia. Stanley served as a medical orderly, first at Beaufort Hospital in Bristol, and then, like Sandham, in Macedonia, where he subsequently transferred to the infantry.

The mixture of daily routine and the spiritual in these paintings is typical of Spencer’s greatest work.  The chapel, now in the care of the National Trust.

Stanley Spencer, ‘The Resurrection’, Sandham Memorial Chapel

Stanley Spencer, ‘Tea in the Hospital Ward’, Sandham Memorial Chapel, 1932

Stanley Spencer, ‘Map Reading’, Sandham Memorial Chapel

Stanley Spencer, ‘Ablutions’, Sandham Memorial Chapel

There’s a wonderful gallery of Englishmen Working by Stanley Spencer on the blog, It’s About Time.

The Art of War

The Art of War

Last night’s Channel 4 documentary, The Art of War, presented by Jon Snow, was an impassioned and absorbing survey of the ways in which British artists have responded to the horrors of war and, since the First World War, challenged the idea that war art should simply celebrate valour, victory and glory. Snow traced this critical tradition from the artists of the First World War – Richard Nevinson and Paul Nash – via the work of Stanley Spencer and Henry Moore in the Second World War, to the work of contemporary artists such as Jeremy Deller and Steve McQueen.  He demonstrated how Britain’s war artists have pushed the boundaries in their determination to express the pain and tragedy of war.

Richard Nevinson was under the spell of the Italian Futurists movement when he was appointed an official war artist in 1917. At first his paintings expressed the Futurists’ exultation in the drama and modernity of war, but their tenor soon changed, as a result of his experience as an ambulance driver.  His painting Paths of Glory (above) was initially banned by the military censors, but Nevinson managed to display it during the war, attracting attention by taping ‘censored’ across the image.  The ‘paths of glory’ have led these soldiers to death in a wasteland, imprisoned by barbed wire, faces down, anonymous and unrecognisable, slowly decomposing into the landscape.

In La Patrie (above), Nevinson used his own memories of what he had seen as an ambulance driver in Dunkirk following the early fighting around Ypres.

The artistic reputation of Paul Nash was just beginning to take off when the war broke out. Nash joined the Artists’ Rifles and saw service in the Ypres Salient before being invalided home. While he was recovering he exhibited works that depicted the desolate landscapes of the trenches, which led to Nash becoming an official war artist. We Are Making a New World (above) is one of the most memorable images of the First World War, the title mocking the ambitions of the war, as the sun rises on a scene of the total desolation.

In early 1918 he was commissioned to paint a Flanders battlefield for a Hall of Remembrance (which was never completed). In depicting one of the most battle-scarred areas of the Ypres sector, Nash shows two human figures overwhelmed by a hellish landscape of flooded shell craters, shattered trees, concrete blocks and corrugated iron.

Paul Nash also responded to the Second World War, most memorably with Totes Meer (above).  This painting, the title of which is German for ‘dead sea’, was inspired by a dump of wrecked aircraft at Cowley in Oxfordshire. Nash based the image on photographs he took there: ‘The thing looked to me suddenly, like a great inundating sea … the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain. And then, no: nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead’.

In The Art of War, Jon Snow was most visibly moved when visiting the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire, which is decorated with an outstanding series of large-scale paintings by Stanley Spencer (above).  The images were inspired by his experiences as a First World War medical orderly and soldier in Macedonia,  and are considered to be among his finest achievements.

The chapel was commissioned by Mary and  Louis Behrends as a memorial to Mary’s brother, who died in Macedonia.  The main painting,  The Resurrection of the Soldiers (above), shows soldiers climbing out of their graves bearing white crosses and embracing their dead comrades. One man kneels at Christ’s side, his head in his lap, one man caresses a turtle, while another clasps a dove to his chest. Spencer wrote of the painting:

During the war, I felt the only way to end the ghastly experience would be if everyone suddenly decided to indulge in every degree or form of sexual love, carnal love, bestiality, anything you like to call it. These are the joyful inheritances of mankind.

In his film, Snow said:

Had his paintings been for a Wren church in the city, Spencer might even now be celebrated as the creator of our own Sistine Chapel. From the outside, the Sandham Memorial Chapel is unremarkable. Step inside and you are drawn into an account of war no artist has ever previously conjured.

Some of the best-known art works of the Second World War are Henry Moore’s sketches and watercolours of Londoners sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz.   After the outbreak of war in 1939, Moore commuted from his home in Kent to London where he was teaching at the Chelsea School of Art. He began making drawings of people sheltering in the Underground during the German bombing raids and these came to the attention of the War Artists Advisory Committee, chaired by Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery.  Moore was commissioned to make larger and more finished versions. When the drawings were exhibited in 1940 and 1941 they proved very popular with the public.

Returning to the work of Stanley Spencer, Jon Snow discussed his eight epic Second World War friezes, Shipbuilding on the Clyde, which depict the various stages of  work in the shipyard- from riveting and pipe-bending to welding and rope making.  Spencer was commissioned to paint civilian war efforts and he immersed himself in every aspect of the Glaswegian shipbuilding process to produce these images.

Snow concluded his survey by examining British Artists’ responses to recent conflicts.  He discussed Jeremy Deller’s Baghdad, 5 March 2007 (aka It Is What It Is) with the artist, who described his experience of taking the work – a car destroyed in a 2007 truck bomb attack among the book stalls of Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad – on tour around the United States.

Jeremy Deller, It Is What It Is

Of this work, Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian:

With his new work, Baghdad, 5 March 2007, at the Imperial War Museum, he makes us see real death. It is the closest he could get, within the parameters of public display, to laying out the bodies of Iraq’s killed on the floor of the gallery.

A dismembered body is what you immediately think of when you come into the museum and see a car destroyed in a 2007 truck bomb attack among the book stalls of Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, an attack that killed 38 people. Lying among the missiles, tanks and war planes in the museum’s main hall is the eviscerated corpse of what was once a car. It is more than wrecked. It appears to have been flung in the air, crushed, then burned in an inferno. It suggests a human body in a deeply perturbing way. First, because it is so flattened, with viscera of pipes and tanks sticking out. Then again it is scorched by fire to a colour that evokes dried blood. It looks curiously like Lindow Man in the British Museum.

That visual suggestiveness is not the work of a sculptor in a studio. Deller did not make this. He had the idea of exhibiting a car from a Baghdad bombing, was able to get his hands on one, and toured it around America as an object of curiosity before the Imperial War Museum made the brave decision to show it in their displays. The horrible sculptural quality of this relic is accidental, and it forces you to confront the real suffering of the people killed and wounded in Baghdad on that particular day. It is a simple enough thought: if the bomb did this to metal, what did it do to flesh?

The truth stares you in the face, while gleaming machines of death loom above. It makes you imagine not just this reality, but all the realities those weapons created, from a burned-out Panzer on the eastern front to a London street just hit by a V1. Deller has often created works of populist social theatre, but here he achieves something new: the most serious and thoughtful response to the Iraq war by any British artist.

Poet Abdul Zahra Zaki recites a poem outside the shell of the Al-Shahbandar café as part of a protest by artists and writers against the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street, March 8, 2007

The final piece chosen by Jon Snow was Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country. McQueen, collaborated with 160 families whose loved ones lost their lives in Iraq. He created a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets, each one dedicated to a deceased soldier. The Art Fund, the UK’s leading art charity, presented this cabinet to the Imperial War Museum in November 2007 and toured the work around the UK between 2007 and 2010.

Queen and Country was created by Steve McQueen in response to a visit he made to Iraq in 2003 following his appointment by the Imperial War Museum’s Art Commissions Committee as an official UK war artist. During the six days McQueen spent in Iraq, he was moved and inspired by the camaraderie of the servicemen and women that he met. He proposed that portraits of those who have lost their lives during the conflict be issued as stamps by Royal Mail.

An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in defence of our national ideals.  The stamps would form an intimate reflection of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the everyday – every household and every office.

While discussions were under way with Royal Mail, Steve made Queen and Country – a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets bearing multiple portrait heads, each one dedicated to an individual, with details of name, regiment, age and date of death printed in the margin. The images were chosen by the families of the deceased.Viewers are invited to pull out the double-sided panels bearing the sheets from a wooden box and thereby create an intimate space to contemplate the imagery.

Steve McQueen Queen and Country (detail)

Steve McQueen: ‘Queen and Country’ (detail)

Until Royal Mail agrees to issue the stamps, the artist considers the overall work incomplete. The Art Fund is spearheading the campaign to gain public support for McQueen’s vision for Royal Mail to officially issue the stamps.

Steve McQueen with Queen and Country

Steve McQueen with ‘Queen and Country’

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Deep Rooted: How Trees Shape Our Lives

We spent a day in Manchester on Thursday, and for the first time visited the Whitworth Gallery out along Oxford Road in the University district. What had drawn us was the current exhibition, Deep Rooted: How Trees Shape Our Lives,  drawn from the Whitworth’s own collection of watercolours and drawings, and exploring how trees and woodland shape our lives, physically and emotionally.

The exhibits include works that depict many different uses of trees, from timbercarts to tanning, from shelter to shipbuilding. It celebrates how artists have connected emotionally with trees, and in particular focuses on the oak tree as an enduring symbol of British identity. The exhibition includes work by J.M.W. Turner, Thomas Gainsborough, John Robert Cozens, William Hogarth and Paul Nash.

For me, the highlights were the woodcuts from the 1930s, by Clare Leighton (such as  ‘Cutting’, above) and Paul Nash (‘Paths into the Wood’ and ‘Winter Wood’, below).

Of Clare Leighton’s ‘Cutting’, the exhibition caption said:

This stark graphic image of two men felling a massive evergreen tree is one a series of six wood engravings made by Leighton following a week-long expedition to a Canadian lumber camp in 1931 . Set in the depths of winter the lumberjacks use a two-handed saw to cut through the thick trunk. Leighton was a pioneer among British printmakers, and in this print she successfully captures the contrast between the saw’s sharp teeth and the amorphous quality of the snow. Leighton was amongst a number of artists, including Eric Ravilious, John and Paul Nash, and Gertrude Hermes, who revived the practice of wood engraving in the early twentieth century.

Also on display was a copy of Clare Leighton’s book, Four Hedges – A Gardener’s Chronicle (1935), in which these images appear:

The rationale of the exhibition was explained in an introductory panel:

In our day-to-day lives we are surrounded by trees, yet only rarely do we pay close attention to these magnificent, solid structures which shelter us from rain showers, provide habitats for numerous creatures, and enrich our parks, neighbourhoods, and landscapes. The trees that we now take for granted were given a level of prominence in ancient societies that is hard to imagine today. Thousands of years ago it was believed that trees imprisoned spirits and had a life and personality of their own. Their magical powers have continued to appear in folklore and literature, from references to the green man and tree spirits, to tales set in the depths of the forest told by the Brothers Grimm.

In Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries trees were  associated with longevity and patriotism, and aristocrats frequently commissioned portraits of themselves beneath their sprawling branches. Also, in France during the French Revolution trees were heavily politicised. In the 1790s the Tree of Liberty became a central feature in Revolutionary ceremonies, and thousands of oaks and poplars were planted throughout the cities and countryside. Today the tree can be symbolic of the fragility of the natural world. Globally, in the second half of the 20th century there has been an unprecedented level of destruction of woodlands which has been cleared due to the needs of human society: agriculture, housing, roads, and industry. A number of contemporary artists have drawn attention to the long-term environmental consequences of this, such as global climate change. Gustav Metzger’s Flailing Trees, which can be seen outside the Gallery, starkly highlights the fragility of woodland which we take so much for granted.

One section of the exhibition was entitled ‘The Sacred Oak’, and was introduced as follows:

Described as the ‘pride and glory of the forest’, the oak has taken on a remarkable range of meanings in this country. Chaucer’s Oak in Donnington Park and the Royal Oak in Windsor Great Park are amongst the ancient oaks associated with significant national figures.

Other great oaks relate to historic events. Queen Elizabeth I heard of her succession sitting beneath what is known as Queen Elizabeth’s Oak in Hatfield Park, whilst the Boscobel Oak in Shropshire concealed Charles II when he was on the run from the Parliamentarian army in 1651  The Royal Oak, as it is more commonly known, is one of the most historic trees, and its name has been adopted by public houses throughout the country. Present across the English landscape the oak also appears in town and country crests and  has been adopted as the symbol of the National Trust and, more recently, the Conservative Party.

Outside the gallery was Gustav Metzger’s installation, ‘Flailing Trees’, a sculpture of 21 willow trees that have been stripped of their branches, inverted and plunged into concrete to leave their dying roots stretching up to the sky. It was first seen last year in Manchester’s Peace Garden during the International Festival.

‘Flailing Trees speaks with stentorian authority about a world turned on its head and the violence humanity inflicts upon nature’
– Marisa Bartolucci, Artinfo

The piece explores the desperate need for change in the way humans interact with nature, inspired by the destruction of rainforests and the growing threat of climate change. It’s a metaphor for what Metzger sees as the urgent need for debate about the increasing brutalization of the world.  He has  said: “When we now reflect on nature, it is with considerable doubt and uncertainty. A good deal of fear is involved. We constantly ask: what will happen next?”  Born in Germany, Metzger came as a child to the UK as a refugee from the Nazis on the kindertransport. He was taught by David Bromberg and his work is renowned for pushing the boundaries of the avant-garde.

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