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”
Alan Yentob’s film for the BBC’s Imagine strand last week made a powerful case for Anthony Gormley being one of the most original and profound of British artists at work today. In Antony Gormley: Being Human, Alan Yentob followed the sculptor to recent exhibitions of his work in Paris and Florence, and explored the influences that have shaped his life and work. Continue reading “Antony Gormley: Being Human”
In anticipation of tomorrow’s great astronomical event, I have been recalling the last (and only) time I witnessed a total solar eclipse.
In Cornwall on 11 August 1999 we saw the last total eclipse that was visible over the UK (though, last time, totality was only fully visible along a limited path that crossed northern France and Cornwall). Typically, being Britain, the skies were cloudy, and we didn’t get to see the disc of the moon passing across the sun. But, at 11 minutes past 11 in the morning, standing on the cliffs above Sennen Cove in Cornwall, it did go spookily dark – not total darkness, but the dark of deep dusk. And we did see the moon’s shadow advancing towards us from the west, and the receding to the east. Continue reading “Total eclipse: darkness and light”
Käthe Kollwitz, ‘Mother with her Dead Son’, Neue Wache, Berlin
This week Neil MacGregor’s superb series for BBC Radio 4, Germany: Memories of a Nation, reaches its conclusion – fittingly timed to coincide with Germany’s Schicksalstag, or Fateful Day, the ninth of November. In our lifetime it’s the opening of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989 that we all remember. But, strangely, a succession of significant events in German history have occurred on 9 November. In 1938, in the Kristallnacht, synagogues and Jewish property were burned and destroyed on a large scale; in 1923 it was Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch, marking the early emergence of his Nazi Party on Germany’s political landscape; in Berlin on 9 November 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and two German republics were proclaimed – the social democratic one that was eventually known as the Weimar Republic, and Karl Liebknecht’s Free Socialist Republic; further back, in 1848, the year of revolutions, on 9 November Robert Blum, the democratic left liberal leader was executed by Austrian troops, leading to hopes for a united, democratic Germany being extinguished for another half century.
All of these events were touched upon by MacGregor in three weeks of brilliantly concise and impassioned 15 minute essays. Once again – as in A History of the World in 100 Objects and Shakespeare’s Restless World, MacGregor takes often mundane, everyday objects and uses them to tell stories – in this case weaving around them a history of the German nation that was both magisterial and heartfelt. At the conclusion of many episodes I was left awestruck both by MacGregor’s scholarship and his ability to communicate ideas with clarity and feeling, often making connections between seemingly unconnected places and events.
It’s not surprising really, since MacGregor studied German at Oxford, and has had a lifelong passion for German history and culture. But what really made this series gripping listening was his keen sense of the role that the German people have played in European history – and the personal interpretation he brought to that history, one deeply rooted in strongly-held values.
I’ve always been strongly drawn to Germany, its history and its culture. The country and its people made a deep impression during a week-long stay in Cologne with students in the 1990s, and a visit to Berlin on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Wall felt like walking through the history of the 20th century. All around were the remains of that history: of the terrible years of Nazi rule, wartime damage and destruction, Cold War division and then reunification. What was striking in 1998 was the evidence of a nation at last striving to come to terms with its past after the post-war years of forgetting. Everywhere there were memorials that required Berliners, Germans – Europeans – to come to terms with their past. I particularly remember Kathe Kollwitz’s Pieta, ‘Mother with Dead Son’ chosen as the centrepiece for the German Memorial for the Victims of War and Dictatorship, housed in the Neue Wache, the old imperial guardhouse. And Micha Ullman’s memorial on Bebelplatz to the Nazi book burnings of 1933.
What impressed me then – and came across strongly in Neil MacGregor’s essays as they moved into the 20th century – is how strenuous have been German efforts in the last three decades to face up to their past and the memory of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Berlin’s memorials explain why I feel so drawn to Germany: the terrible history of the Nazi years and the Holocaust is a lesson not only for Germans, but for all Europeans.
The gate at Buchenwald: ‘Jedem Das Seine’ (‘To Each What They Are Due’)
Every episode in this magnificent series was enthralling, but, for me, the most powerful essays were those in which MacGregor reflected on Germany’s 20th century horror. Outside Weimar, strolling along a pleasant tree-lined avenue where Goethe would often walk – ‘a landscape with deep literary associations for germans, rather like our Lake District’. But it is here that he encountered ‘Beech Wood’, better known as Buchenwald, ‘a place of national shame’:
This where the noble traditions of German civilization – literary and legal, ethical and musical -were brought to nothing. What began here in cruelty and injustice in 1937 ended in the destruction of cities and societies from the Atlantic to the Urals. In death camps like Auschwitz, in genocide and in the killing of millions.
His voice breaking with obvious emotion, MacGregor continued:
No words can adequately carry such brutality and such suffering. There can only be silence.
And there was silence: a full minute of rare radio silence, a pause to allow listeners a moment to think of the unthinkable.
Buchenwald was not an extermination camp – though 50,000 died there – but it was, said MacGregor, a critical step on the road to Hitler’s Final Solution. His object here was the camp’s gate, and its inscription – facing inward, and only meant to be read by the prisoners – the motto, ‘Jedem das Seine’, meaning ‘to each what they are due’. Deliberately designed as a taunt to the prisoners, the words proclaim a high ideal of justice. They were quoted by Luther, and Bach set them to music. ‘Could any three German words have a nobler lineage’, wondered MacGregor.
In a particularly acute way, the words on the Buchenwald Gate raise the unanswerable question of modern German history: how can these different components of the German story fit together? How could all those humane traditions collapse?
Käthe Kollwitz, ‘Mother with her Dead Son’ in theNeue Wache
One answer, of course, lies in the humiliation of Germany by the victorious allies at the end of the First World War and the subsequent instability experienced by all Germans. In ‘Money in Crisis’, Neil MacGregor illustrated that instability by describing the British Museum’s extensive collection of emergency money or notgeld, issued by towns and cities during the hyperinflation of the early 1920s. The next day, MacGregor devoted his talk to Kathe Kollwitz, arguing that she is one of the greatest German artists. Like no other artist of the time, Kollwitz gave voice to the overwhelming sense of personal loss felt by ordinary Germans in the first four decades of the 20th century – ‘the loss of a whole generation, the loss of political stability and of individual dignity’.
MacGregor began the episode in the Neue Wache in Berlin, a building which has served as a war memorial three times – as the Prussian memorial to the Napoleonic Wars, the Weimar Republic’s memorial for the First World War, and the Soviet memorial for the Victims of Fascism and Militarism in the Second World War. Now it serves as a place for Germans – and people of all nationalities – to reflect on the victims of all wars and tyrannies.
In 1993, when the German Federal Republic decided that the Neue Wache should house a central memorial for the victims of war and dictatorship, the Chancellor, Helmut Kohl chose for the memorial Kollwitz’s Mother with her Dead Son, an enlarged version of a smaller statue she made in 1937. In 1914, Kollwitz had encouraged her son, Peter, to enlist. Just weeks later he was dead. On the anniversary of her son’s death, she wrote in her diary in 1937:
I am working on a small sculpture which has developed out of my attempt to make a sculpture of an old person. It has become something like a Pietà. The mother is seated and has her dead son lying between her knees in her lap. There is no longer pain – only reflection.
Her sculpture is, indeed, ‘something like a Pietà’, but, as MacGregor explained, it differs significantly from traditional Christian Pietà representations. In Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture the dead boy is huddled on the ground between her legs, totally enclosed by his mother’s body. It is as if the mother is attempting to shield her son from harm, though he is already dead. The pathos of her futile gesture means, argued MacGregor, that nothing in this image suggests sacrifice to achieve a higher purpose. ‘There is no hint of salvation here; merely grief in the face of slaughter’.
Helmut Kohl was reproached by critics for choosing this sculpture. Some said that one woman mourning her son could not do justice to the victims of the Holocaust and two world wars. But, argued MacGregor, ‘most people can only identify with the personal’. Her monument , he insisted,sums up the suffering of everybody – in all wars, in all tyrannies.
For Kathe Kollwitz felt not just grief at the loss of her son, but also guilt that she, by encouraging him to volunteer, had been complicit in his death. MacGregor suggested that Kohl’s choice of this image of a mother who failed in her central role to protect her child a poignantly appropriate one to address the failure of the German state to protect its citizens – with a similarly fatal outcome, but affecting millions:
Among the critics of Kohl’s choice of sculpture was the doubt: was this one woman with one son enough? Looking at this statue in the Neue Wache one wonders: could any image say more?
The vase by Grete Marks, attacked by Joseph Goebbels as ‘degenerate’
This pot obviously said a lot to Joseph Goebbels. Neil MacGregor chose the Bauhaus-educated Grete Marks’ pottery as the object to illustrate how, in Nazi Germany, such pottery might be deemed politically dangerous, an example of ‘degenerate art’ – books, music, paintings and even pottery – that had to be purged in order to purify German culture. Grete Marks’ ceramic designs were publicly derided as ‘degenerate’ by Joseph Goebbels in his newspaper, Der Angriff. After her factory was seized by the Nazis, Grete fled with her two sons to England. The Nazis continued in their relentless pursuit of degenerate art.
In ‘Purging the Degenerate’, MacGregor stood on Berlin’s Bebelplatz to describe the infamous book burning there in 1933, now commemorated in a plaque inscribed with Heine’s prophetic remark of 1821, ‘where they burn books, they end up burning people too’ and by Micha Ullman’s underground Bibliotek memorial which consists of a window on the surface of the square, under which empty bookshelves are lit and visible. He concluded, ‘the burning is an event that lives on in the German memory as a moment of high shame’.
In Munich in 1937, the Nazis organised an exhibition of 650 works of ‘degenerate art’ by such figures as Klee, Dix, Kandinsky, and Chagall confiscated from German museums. It was followed by similar exhibitions in Berlin and other major German cities. Later around 4,000 works were burnt by the Berlin Fire Brigade. The catalogue of the degenerate art exhibition ‘makes disturbing, sickening reading’, said MacGregor:
In language that is uniformly violent and shrill, it identified the categories of artistic perversion which required rooting out: cultural anarchy, Marxist propaganda, pacifist representations of the horrors of war, Jewish Bolshevik distortions, negroes and South Sea islanders presented as ideal human types, the choice of idiots, paralytics and cretins as models. Chillingly, as you read it, you realise that while the catalogue is talking about objects, these are also the categories of people whom the Third Reich would soon imprison or eliminate. From works of art to people was a short step.
Coins issued by the Count of Lippe Detmold who ruled over fewer than 20,000 in a tiny part of Westphalia
Germany: Memories of a Nation has helped me understand Germany far better than I did before. In the early episodes MacGregor explored how Germany as a nation emerged from a collection of small, independently minded city-states within the Holy Roman Empire. He illustrated this with examples from around 200 different currencies struck in the different territories of Germany. It is, he explained, an immediate and physical way of grasping the complexity of the German lands, because every coin represents a kind of sovereignty. To be able to strike a coin you needed to be the ruler in your territory – and every coin speaks of a particular state, with its particular laws and a whole set of traditions. But this wasn’t simply Medieval history. In every episode, MacGregor pointed up the significance of the past in helping us to understand the Germany of the present: in this case, its federal structure and powerful local traditions and institutions. And he devoted a whole episode to another example of the strength of German regionalism, beer and sausages, explaining how the multitude of regional specialities represent centuries of regional history and diversity.
In Strasbourg, he revealed the significance of Charlemagne (or Karl der Gross) to both France and Germany; in Prague and Kalingrad he took German-speaking Kafka and Kant as examples of lost German lands; in Frankfurt he explored the huge national significance of Goethe for Germans; in London he chose Holbein’s 1532 portrait of Georg Gisze, a Danzig merchant trading in London to exemplify the operation of the Hanseatic League, the great trading alliance of 90 cities, including Lübeck, Hamburg, Danzig, Riga and London.
These are just a few examples from an endlessly-stimulating and wide-ranging series that has been, quite simply, one of the best radio series of recent times. What a great public communicator and educator Neil McGregor has become through his three radio series. His 2010 magnum opus, A History of the World in 100 Objects gained more than 4 million regular listeners and more than 10 million podcast subscribers, half of them from outside the UK (because the programmes are still available, those numbers keep on rising).
Ernst Barlach’s ‘Hovering Angel’ in Güstrow cathedral
Neil MacGregor brought the series to a close with a deeply reflective piece about Ernst Barlach’s sculpture Hovering Angel, a unique war memorial, commissioned in 1926 to hang in the cathedral in Güstrow. It is, he said, an example of the way in which, in the last few decades, Germans have been ‘thinking about the past with an intensity which is very rare’.
Ernst Barlach was one of Germany’s great Expressionist artists of the early 20th century. In 1927, he created for the cathedral in Güstrow, a small town north of Berlin, a war memorial called Der Schwebende (The Hovering Angel), the figure of a grieving mother floating over the battlefield, haunted and grief-stricken. The sculpture is suspended from the ceiling, and is far from the monumental structures that usually commemorate the dead of wars. In 1937, the Nazis declared Der Schwebende ‘degenerate’ and had it melted down to make munitions for the next war. But another copy was secretly cast from the mould, and after World War II it was installed at Güstrow, then in the eastern half of the divided Germany.
There can be few objects, argued MacGregor, which embody so much of German 20th century history as Barlach’s sculpture:
Like Germany itself, it has been dishonoured, destroyed, dismembered and refashioned. But it has always carried in itself the survival of an ideal and a hope of renewal – even when it has been absent.
Last year, after much debate, the congregation of Güstrow Cathedral agreed to lend the statue to the British Museum for the exhibition linked to the radio series. Neil MacGregor made this comment on its meaning:
In Britain we have monuments to things in our past that we are very proud of. The Germans put up monuments to their own shame, and that makes them very different from almost any other country. They do that as a reminder of how they ought to behave in the future.
In the Guardian, MacGregor wrote:
In the exhibition here, Barlach’s Angel will embody the war fever of 1914; pacifism in the 1920s; the humane art of Käthe Kollwitz; the destruction of ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazis; the western front in the first world war and the bombing of Berlin in the second; the postwar division of Germany and the dialogues that were possible in spite of it; the millions of victims of 20th-century conflicts; the continuing painful and difficult conversations between Germany and the rest of the world in the quest for resolution and reconciliation; and unquenchable hope. I can’t think of any other exhibit that has such profound resonance.
On Newsnight, giving a brief conducted tour of the British Museum exhibition, Neil MacGregor spoke of how ‘side by side in the exhibition are Goethe, the Bauhaus and Buchenwald – all in Weimar – and every German has to ask themselves the question – we all have to ask ourselves the question, how can those three things coexist?’
The trouble is – in Britain we rarely ask ourselves such questions. In an excellent article in the New York Times about the British Museum exhibition, Kenan Malik, author of The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics, wrote aboutBritain’s attitude toward Germany over much of the past half-century:
How, asks the exhibition, can anyone understand a nation’s history when burned into our gaze is a darkness as unfathomable as the Holocaust? And how can a nation’s identity be reconstructed after such an episode?
These are questions with which Germany has wrestled for the past seven decades. But they are equally important to Britain. Britain possesses a particularly myopic view of German history — one that reveals a deep lack of self-awareness about its own history. […] Britain’s part in the Allied victory over Hitler’s Germany was its last act as a true world power. That historical moment provided both a means of accessing a seemingly glorious past to buttress a less than glorious present, and a precious asset in promoting a sense of what it still meant to be British. […]
Baiting Germany about defeat, whether on the battlefield or the soccer pitch, became as much part of being British as drinking tea or complaining about a wet summer. From a constant diet of World War II films on TV to excruciating jokes about vacationing Germans always seizing the best lounge chairs by the pool, anti-German chauvinism was stitched into British culture.
A century ago, most educated Britons would have had a deep appreciation of German history, music, philosophy and literature. Today, the role of Germans from the Enlightenment to Modernism in constructing our very conception of the world is barely acknowledged and little understood.
It is not just German history about which Britain lacks insight. While the enormity of the Holocaust has forced Germany to address the darkest aspects of its past, Britain has never had to think about its history in that fashion. From the Opium Wars to the Bengal famine, the shameful episodes of Britain’s imperial past are rarely discussed.
Perhaps nowhere is this blind spot more obvious than in the current debate about World War I. There has been much discussion in Britain about the role of German militarism and imperial ambitions in fomenting war. Rarely acknowledged is that all the great powers of the time had expansionist aims; that in the decades leading to the war, they had carved up the globe among them; that at the centre of the global imperialist network stood not Germany but Britain.
Set against such historical blindness, there is something resonant about Ernst Barlach’s floating sculpture, which embodies so many of the complexities and contradictions of history. The story of the sculpture, as the British Museum’s director Neil MacGregor wrote in The Guardian, “is the biography of Germany in the 20th century,” from the militarism of 1914 and the reaction against it, to the horrors of Nazism, the postwar division of Germany and the continuing quest for reconciliation.
That Barlach’s work can carry so much weight of meaning says much about its haunting power. But it also asks questions of us. Can we carry that weight? Can Britons stop viewing history as black-and-white, and start acknowledging its complexities and contradictions?
While listening to Neil MacGregor’s radio series, and mindful of the approaching 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall I’ve also been reading Cees Nooteboom’s Roads to Berlin, a collection of articles he wrote whilst present in Berlin during those heady weeks in 1989, and at other moments in the decades since. We have also been watching again Edgar Reitz’s monumental series, Heimat, which we first saw when it was broadcast on BBC 2 in 1985. But more about that fine and beautiful series in a future post.
- Germany: Memories of a Nation: episode guide, BBC Radio 4
- Ten objects that made modern Germany: article by Neil MacGregor for the Guardian
- A personal history in 190 objects: from Germany to the British Museum and back again: article by
Paul Kobrak, series producer, on British Museum blog
- Restless Shakespeare unlocked on the BBC
- A History of the World in 100 Objects
- 9 November 1989: ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’
- A kiss seals Honecker’s fate
- The fall of the Berlin Wall: what it meant to be there: essay in today’s Guardian by Timothy Garton-Ash
- Kathe Kollwitz Pieta in Berlin
- Visiting Berlin on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Wall
At the end of my previous post I encountered a giant iron elephant. A day later, picking up my Saturday sour-dough loaf from the incomparable Baltic Bakehouse, I found my way blocked by a giant bronze doll’s head. Such is life.
For several months now I have not been able to eat bread from anywhere but the Baltic Bakehouse, a fairly recent addition to Liverpool’s independent retail scene, where they produce the finest sour-dough loaves. They have names like Moss Lake Wild and Baltic Wild, though my favourite at the moment is their Granary. They also make cakes and croissants to die for. There’s an interesting article about them on the Seven Streets blog.
Staff of life: Baltic Bakehouse bread (photo by Seven Streets)
Last Saturday, turning into Bridgewater Street I found my way blocked by some pretty heavy lifting machinery. Clearly something was going on, so I took a look. A few doors down from the Bakehouse is Castle Fine Arts Foundry, another artisan outfit that, in the words of their website, has been ‘proudly serving sculptors for more than twenty years’. They have cast a fair few pieces that we have seen displayed at Yorkshire Sculpture Park where I had been 24 hours earlier. In Liverpool, the best-known work which came from Castle Fine Arts Foundry is the Hillsborough Memorial on Old Haymarket, created by sculptor Tom Murphy in bronze.
The Hillsborough Memorial on Old Haymarket.
This is what I saw: a giant sculpture being gingerly manoeuvred out of the foundry workshop. It was a very delicate operation: I stood watching for about half an hour, and it took that long to get the whole piece out of the door. Around two that afternoon I was another errand near Penny Lane when I met the head, strapped on a low-loader and heading out of town. It had taken something like four hours to pull it out of the workshop and then lift it onto the low-loader.
Big head blocking road
A delicate operation
Chatting with members of the team who were supervising and filming the delicate operation, I learned that the head was on its way to a park in Oslo. The huge doll’s head had been designed by Norwegian sculptor Marianne Heske to be place on a hillside in Torshovdalen Park in a suburb of Oslo. She had chosen a position from where visitors to the park can sit and have a clear view of both the sculpture and Oslo fjord. Heske selected the spot two years ago, with the help of a giant balloon.
Heske, with the aid of a balloon, marks the spot for her doll’s head
The doll’s head has been major leitmotif of Heske’s work for decades – specifically, a 1920s doll’s head – girlish lips, arched eyebrows, tightly bobbed hair – that she found in Paris in the 1970s. According to Frieze:
Its image recurs throughout her work from that decade, as Heske, in common with other artists practising in mainland Europe at the time, extended the conceptual trajectory started by Fluxus. This mass-produced head became, for her, a symbol of humanity, a representative of the anonymous individual among the masses. In various works and in different media – from photo-montage and lithography to assemblage and even film – she combined its image with scientific diagrams of skulls and phrenological charts and mappings, explorations of the systems used to classify consciousness, and to label individuals.
Marianne Heske with doll’s head maquette
After graduating from Bergen Art College, Marianne Heske left Norway and lived first in Czechoslovakia, still behind the Iron Curtain, where she discovered Land Art, being made by Czech artists who didn’t have access to ordinary art materials because they didn’t conform to the dictates of Soviet official art policy. Then she went to live in Paris, which was where she found the box of doll heads in a flea market. They were pouting papier mache heads with baby-doll faces, pencil-thin eyebrows, and rosebud lips. Heske liked them because ‘they all looked the same, all playing their role, and because dolls are a mirror of society. So I bought the whole box. I brought it home and started to work’.
The Head finally clears the workshop
Head is an enlargement of one of those doll’s heads bought by Heske at the Paris flea market in 1971. It is 7 metres in height and is cast in bronze. The head is hollow, ‘so there’s room for big thoughts’, says Heske.
Hours later, the Head on the low-loader, passes the Anglican cathedral
The official unveiling will take place in Torshovdalen Park, Oslo on 12 June.
‘Iron tree’ by Ai Weiwei outside the chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
At Yorkshire Sculpture Park they recently completed the renovation of a sandstone chapel built in 1744 for the owners of Bretton Hall, the Palladian mansion that stands at the heart of the estate now devoted to art. The chapel was a place of worship for the owners of the estate and the local community for over 200 years until it was deconsecrated in the 1970s. Enter it now and you enter a contemplative space occupied by a new installation by Ai Weiwei, a profound and meditative work by an artist whose government has strictly limited his travel and confiscated his passport.
Fairytale – 1001 Chairs consists of 45 antique Chinese chairs dating from the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), each one different and yet arranged so uniformly in nine orderly rows in the nave, each chair occupying an identical, rigorously-defined space so that they seem to lose their individuality. And this is exactly Ai Weiwei’s point.
Unable to travel to Yorkshire, and working from plans and photographs of the chapel, Ai selected 45 chairs from a project displayed in Kassel in 2007 for which he brought (metaphorically) 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel for 20 days, representing each person (otherwise unable to travel outside China) with an antique chair. Ai Weiwei chose 1001 to make a point about the collective and the individual: 1000 is a mass, one is an individual.
Ai Weiwei, ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)
In the chapel you are invited to choose a chair and sit. You are handed poems to read by Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing (1910-1996). For this is art that is both deeply political and more meditative than any other work by Ai that I have seen. The tranquil space, with its plain stone floor and bare whitewashed walls invokes stillness. As sunlight slants through the unembellished windowpanes, Ai’s Fairytale Chairs and his father’s words combine to provoke thoughts about power, privilege and the freedom of individual. The chapel is a refuge, a sanctuary in which thought can take wing.
The individual: detail from ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)
Each of these chairs is a valuable antique which once would have seated a privileged member of Chinese society, and now might be bought at a great price and leave China to stand in the room of a wealthy individual on the far side of the world. To be invited to sit on a chair like this is a freedom not granted to our Chinese contemporaries. These chairs were once the preserve of the privileged, but now – through Ai Weiwei’s intervention – as the crowds of visitors to the YSP sift through the chapel and sit for a moment’s contemplation, they represent democracy.
Society allows artists to explore what we don’t know in ways that are distinct from the approaches of science, religion and philosophy. As a result, art bears a unique responsibility in the search for truth.
Ai Weiwei’s work repeatedly draws attention to unethical government policies. He gained international attention for his collaborative work on the design of Beijing’s National Stadium,nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, built for the 2008 Olympics (he later said that he was ‘proud of the architecture, but hated the way it was used’). His work has often been angry and controversial, including the series of photographs in which he gave the finger to the Chinese government and other international leaders, and breathtaking installation in Munich created from 9,000 children’s backpacks which was his protest over the thousands of students killed when their schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (he blamed the death toll on the Chinese government corruption that permitted shoddy construction).
For nearly a decade, Ai has been harassed, placed under constant surveillance, and sometimes imprisoned. In 2011, state police seized him, threw a black bag over his head and drove him to an undisclosed location, where he languished for 81 days in a tiny prison cell. He is now banned from leaving China and his home remains under constant surveillance. Despite these restrictions, Ai has continued his criticism of the Chinese Communist leadership – which he regards as repressive, immoral and illegitimate – in works that demonstrate a deepening concern with autocratic power and the absence of human rjghts. Were it not for his international celebrity and the worldwide protests last time he was jailed, Ai would probably be in prison like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence.
Ai’s political activism and confrontational art stem from a tumultuous childhood. In the chapel I sit for a while and read poems by his father, Ai Qing, one of China’s most revered poets, who was imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party in 1932. It was during the three years he spent in jail that Ai Qing began to write poetry. During the Sino-Japanese war (1931-45), swept along by the rising storm of patriotism in China, Ai Qing travelled to Yan’an, in northern China, the centre of the Communist-controlled area. He officially joined the Party in 1941, and was once close to Mao Tse-tung, who talked to him on several occasions about literary policy. His poems from this time reveal an empathy with China’s poor and their harsh existence. One of the poems I had been given to read was ‘The North’, written in 1938 in Tongguan; this is the last stanza:
I love this wretched country,
This age-old country,
That has nourished what I have loved:
The world’s most long-suffering
And most venerable people
Ai Qing’s poems celebrated the natural world and the lives of ordinary people – and the Communist cause, as here in these lines from ‘The Announcement of the Dawn’, another poem available to read in the chapel:
For my sake,
And please tell them
That what they wait for is coming.
Tell them I have come, treading the dew,
Guided by the light of the last star.
I come out of the east,
From the sea of billowing waves.
I shall bring light to the world,
Carry warmth to humankind.
Poet, through the lips of a good man,
Please bring them the message.
Tell those whose eyes smart with longing,
Those distant cities and villages steeped in sorrow.
Let them welcome me,
The harbinger of day, messenger of light.
Open every window to welcome me,
Open all the gates to welcome me.
Please blow every whistle in welcome,
Sound every trumpet in welcome.
Let street-cleaners sweep the streets clean,
Let trucks come to remove the garbage,
Let the workers walk on the streets with big strides,
Let the trams pass the squares in splendid procession.
Let the villages wake up in the damp mist,
And open their gates to welcome me …
Ai Qing joined the Communist Party in 1941, and for a time was close to Mao Tse-tung, with whom he would sometimes discuss literary policy. When Ai Qing returned to Beijing in 1949 he was already a cadre in the new government, and began to concentrate his talents more and more on writing poems in praise of Mao Tse-tung and Stalin. Then, in 1958, he wrote a poem that extolled the virtues of a culture that celebrated rather than repressed multiple voices. For this he was publicly denounced as ‘a rightist’ and exiled with his family to a re-education camp, where he was humiliated, beaten and forced to clean toilets for nearly two decades. Ai Weiwei was one year old and spent his early years in the camp, then another 16 years in exile before the family was allowed to return to Beijing in 1976 following the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution. In an interview with David Sheff in 2013, Ai Weiwei recalled the years of exile:
I’m a person who likes to make an argument rather than just give emotion or expression a form and shape in art. I became an artist only because I was oppressed by society. I was born into a very political society. When I was a child, my father told me, as a joke, “You can be a politician.” I was 10 years old. I didn’t understand it, because I already knew that politicians were the enemy, the ones who crushed him. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But now I understand. I can be political. I can say something even though we grew up without true education, memorizing Chairman Mao’s slogans. I memorized hundreds of them. I can still sing his songs, recite his poetry. Every morning at school we stood in front of his image, memorizing one of his sentences telling what we should do today to make ourselves a better person.
Another poem by Ai Qing that I read as a sit in the stillness and light of the chapel at the YSP is ‘Wall’, written on a visit to Germany in 1979. These are the opening and closing stanzas:
A wall is like a knife
It slices a city in half
One half is on the east
The other half is on the west
How tall is this wall?
How thick is it?
How long is it?
Even if it were taller, thicker and longer
It couldn’t be as tall, as thick and as long
As China’s Great Wall
It is only a vestige of history
A nation’s wound
Nobody likes this wall
And how could it block out
A billion people
Whose thoughts are freer than the wind?
Whose will is more entrenched than the earth?
Whose wishes are more infinite than time?
Ai Weiwei has selected three more works for the chapel. ‘Ruyi’ (which means ‘as as one wishes’ is a vividly-coloured porcelain sculpture in the form of a traditional Chinese sceptre of the same name, used by nobles, monks and scholars for around 2,000 years. Ruyi denoted authority and granted individuals the right to speak and be heard, ‘thus enabling orderly and democratic discourse’.
Ai Weiwei, ‘Map of China’, 2008 (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)
Map of China is a massive piece, carved from wood reclaimed from dismantled Qing dynasty temples. On the wall opposite are displayed two timelines. One consists of some of the terrible dates in China’s history in the last 100 years: the estimated famine deaths across China (five million in 1928-30; 10 million in 1943; 25-45 million after the end of the Great Leap Forward in 1961); troops opening fire on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 1989; the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan province, killing tens of thousands in 2008. In a parallel column are listed dates very personal to the artist: 1932, his father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, begins to write because he cannot paint while imprisoned as a member of the League of Left Wing Artists; 1958, Ai Qing interned in a labour camp as a “rightist” with his family, including the baby Ai Weiwei, where he spends the next 16 years cleaning the village toilets.
Then there are recent dates from the artist’s own life: 2008, artistic adviser for the Olympic stadium; 2009, project to publish all the unacknowledged names of child victims of the earthquake, and cranial surgery following assault by police; 2010, house arrest as ‘Sunflower Seeds’ opens at Tate Modern; 2011, accused of ‘economic crimes’ and imprisoned for 81 days, his Shanghai studio demolished. The most recent date simply reads: ‘2014, passport confiscated’.
Ai Weiwei, Lantern, 2014 (Photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)
Upstairs is ‘Lantern’, carved in marble excavated from the same quarries used by emperors to build the Forbidden City, and more recently, to build Mao’s tomb. For some years the Chinese authorities have surrounded Ai’s home with surveillance cameras and every step he takes outside is recorded and monitored. In a gesture of mockery and defiance, Ai began to decorate the CCTV cameras with red Chinese lanterns. Then he began to carve the ‘Lantern’ series from marble. In this way the ephemeral becomes permanent, or – as Ai has said – ‘The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.’
Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013
One tree, another tree,
Each standing alone and erect.
The wind and air
Tell their distance apart.
But beneath the cover of earth
Their roots reach out
And at depths that cannot be seen
The roots of the trees intertwine.
– Ai Qing, ‘Tree’,1940
Stepping out of the chapel into the sunlight you are confronted by one of Ai’s most recent works – the six-metre high ‘Iron Tree’, the largest and most complex sculpture to date in a tree series begun in 2009, and inspired by pieces of wood sold by street vendors.
Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013, details
The work has been constructed from casts of branches, roots and trunks from different trees. Although like a living tree in form, the sculpture is very obviously pieced and joined together with large iron bolts. ‘Iron Tree’ comprises 97 pieces cast in iron from parts of trees, and interlocked using a classic – and here exaggerated – Chinese method of joining, with prominent nuts and screws. The work ‘expresses Ai’s interest in fragments and the importance of the individual, without which the whole would not exist’.
Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential. Simply put, aside from using one’s own imagination – perhaps more importantly – creativity is the power to act. Only through our actions can our expectations for change turn into reality.
– Ai Weiwei
It’s 25 years since a million protesters demanding democratic freedoms gathered in Tiananmen Square, only for the protests to be brutally crushed. Good piece in the Guardian by author of Beijing Coma, Ma Jian who took part in the protests and is now exiled.
- Ai Wei Wei: the unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
- Ai Weiwei: throwing stones at autocracy
- Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seeds at Tate Modern
- Ai Weiwei: ‘I have to speak for people who are afraid’
William Tickle volunteered aged 16 and died 22 months later on the third day of the Battle of the Somme
The recognition that something terrible, something overwhelming, something irreversible had happened in the Great War explains its enduring significance for those born after the Armistice. For this war was not only the most important and far-reaching political and military event of the century, it was also the most important imaginative event.
– Jay Winter, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century
The Great War mobilised 70 million people, killed over 9 million on active service, and left behind 3 million widows and 10 million orphans. It was also, as Jay Winter observes, an event that seared itself into the European imagination, as The Great War in Portraits, the excellent exhibition currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery, clearly demonstrates. I saw it when in London recently.
Jacob Epstein, Torso in Metal from ‘The Rock Drill’, 1916
The Great War represented a fracture in the narrative of progress: a leap into modernity that was also a fire-storm of barbarity. It accelerated the momentum towards a world dominated by machines of unparalleled power whilst at the same time precipitating a descent into barbarity on an industrial scale. Perhaps no work of art represents this paradox more clearly than Jacob Epstein’s altered 1916 version of The Rock Drill, exhibited here as a prelude to the exhibition.
In its original form it was the product of the experimental pre-war days of 1913, when Epstein was associated with the short-lived Vorticism movement, enraptured by visions of technological power and transformation. Then the figure exuded power and virility, but in 1916, in response to his growing horror of the conflict, Epstein discarded the drill, dismembered the figure and cut it in half, leaving a one-armed torso. The truncated version appears defenceless and melancholic, evocative of the wounded soldiers who were returning home from the trenches in startling numbers; as the gallery caption puts it:
Thus transformed it evokes the way the experience of war shattered initial expectations – aggression giving way to a sense of loss.
Jonathan Jones writing in the Guardian in 2011 summed up the meaning of the The Rock Drill with these words:
During the first world war, as the reality of trench warfare as industrialised slaughter became clear to a world that at first welcomed the conflict, Epstein cast the torso of his eerie creation in metal. Robbed of its legs and towering tripod-drill, with damaged bronze limbs, The Rock Drill becomes a nightmare image of the future as remorseless, unending war. It is more moving than the original, because it is a wounded machine, a human machine.
In its dismembered 1916 form Torso in Metal echoes Self-portrait as a Soldier by Ludwig Kirchner, encountered later in the show.
The Great War in Portraits brings together images of individuals involved in the conflict from the National Portrait Gallery and other collections, including material from the Imperial War Museum. The exhibition presents a wide range of visual responses to the war: alongside paintings and drawings, there are photographs, posters, memorabilia and examples of how the war was represented in the newest art form of the time – film.
At the culmination of the exhibition we come face to face with the shocking violence of Expressionist masterpieces by Beckmann and Kirchner, drawings of young soldiers with grotesque facial wounds, and an entire wall upon which is displayed a grid of forty photographs, representing the wide diversity of individuals from across the world who were sucked into the vortex of war. The exhibition is crammed into a small space, and when I was there people were packed shoulder to shoulder. But no-one spoke. There was complete silence: the shocked and sorrowful silence of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
All of the survivors are gone now – yet, as the centenary of the outbreak of the war approaches, the cultural memory of the Great War remains potent, and is indeed reinforced by this exhibition. The concept of ‘cultural memory’ has become central to much of the historical writing about the war in the last 50 years. Jay Winter’s book, quoted earlier, is one example – and itself owed a debt to the classic work of Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory. Central to the idea of cultural memory is the argument that personal memories are not the product of solitary reflection alone, but are shaped by ideas and actions within the groups to which we belong – family, workplace and nation, for instance – and conveyed through writings, monuments and cultural artefacts. This exhibition demonstrates how this process of shaping our memory of the war began even before the war had ended.
Gavrilo Princip in a police photograph taken after he had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand
‘Royalty and the Assassin’, the first room in the exhibition, focuses on the leaders of the main countries involved in the war. Here are conventional portraits of royalty in which the prevailing tone is of grandeur and pride. Alongside is a photograph of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie taken in Sarajevo on 28 June 2014 an hour or so before their deaths at the hand of their assassin, the Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip whose police mug shot, taken after his arrest, is also displayed.
William Orpen, Portrait of Haig at General Headquarters, France, 1917
In the next section, ‘Leaders and Followers’, formal and traditional portraits of the military leaders face anonymous portraits of ordinary soldiers on the other side of the room. Here, for instance is France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Allied Comamnder, the German Chief of General Staff Paul von Hindenburg, and Field Marshal Douglas Haig, ‘the colossal blunderer, the self-deceived optimist, of the Somme massacre of 1916’ (Vera Brittain’s words). Despite the vast number of casualties in that disaster of a few months earlier, no trace of trauma can be found in William Orpen’s 1917 portrait. Upright and garlanded with medals, he stares out with bland assurance.
William Orpen was a financially successful pre-war society portraitist, appointed an official war artist in 1917, who made drawings and paintings of privates and German prisoners of war as well as official portraits of generals and politicians like this one. The official ‘power portraits’ of military leaders were widely reproduced, notably as collectable postcards, and a selection are displayed here.
William Orpen, A Grenadier Guardsman, 1917
On the opposite walls are portraits of ordinary soldiers – in battle, at rest and waiting to be laid to rest. The contrast is between the authority figures who are celebrated and the ordinary soldier who is invariably depersonalised and anonymous. As a curator’s caption notes:
A hierarchical order of seniority, influence and role was clear in the various images of the participants that were created. Irrespective of nationality, formal portraits of commanding officers are essentially traditional images that emphasise the personal profile of the depicted individual. This is manifest in their attitude of authority and, often, an impressive array of medals signifying power and gallantry. The depiction of ordinary servicemen was markedly different – a more down to earth view, depicted either as anonymous or as generic ‘types’. The impression conveyed is one of a depersonalised, shared experience in which duty is a central assumption.
Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, La Mitrailleuse, 1915
The presence, in this section, of Nevinson’s La Mitrailleuse is evidence that for this show the curators are drawing on a wide definition of ‘portrait’. Completed while he was on home on leave from the Royal Army Medical Corps, Nevinson’s painting depicts a French machine gun team bent over their weapon. The painting invites comparison with Epstein’s Torso in Metal for, as a pre-war Futurist, Nevinson had also initially celebrated and embraced the violence and mechanised speed of the modern age. But his experience as an ambulance driver in the First World War changed his view. In his painting the soldiers appear almost like machines themselves, losing their individuality, even their humanity, as they seem to fuse with the machine gun which gives the painting its title.
Walter Sickert, The Integrity of Belgium, 1914
Sickert painted The Integrity of Belgium as a tribute to the courage of the Belgians in the defence of Liège, and sold it to raise money for the Belgian Relief Fund. Sickert never visited the front, and painted the work in his studio in London. He had been appalled by reports of German atrocities against Belgian citizens and relied on press reports and newspaper images. He was convinced that Germany had to be overpowered and that ‘the wearing effect of [the war] is worse for us non-combatants than for a soldier’. He was too old to enlist.
William Orpen, Royal Irish Fusiliers ‘Just come from the Chemical Works, Roeux, 21st May 1917′
There’s quite a lot of Orpen in this exhibition, with his sensitive drawings and paintings of other ranks being the main interest for me. Royal Irish Fusiliers ‘Just come from the Chemical Works, Roeux, 21st May 1917 is a study of an exhausted soldier slumped in a sitting position, his steel helmet balanced on his knee and his arms hanging loosely by his sides. He’s unnamed (like the Grenadier Guardsman in his oil painting on the opposite wall), but was later identified as a Sergeant Slater who was killed later in the war.
William Orpen, Sir Winston Churchill, 1916
A very different work by Orpen – though no less sensitive – is his portrait of Churchill looking weary and despondent, done in 1916 after Churchill had been blamed for the disastrous 1915 Dardanelles (or Gallipoli) campaign. Forced to resign his ministerial post in the wartime coalition government, Orpen described his painting as ‘a portrait of dejection’. (Churchill was later exonerated by a Commission of Enquiry).
Isaac Rosenberg, Self Portrait, 1915
Familiar as I was with Isaac Rosenberg’s poetry, I must admit I wasn’t aware that he also painted. So I was brought to a halt by his arresting self portrait, made in 1915. Before the war Rosenberg had been undecided whether art or poetry was his real vocation but had attend the Slade School of Fine Art, a member of that astonishing pre-war cohort that included his good friend David Bomberg, along with future luminaries such as Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth, Dora Carrington, William Roberts, and Christopher Nevinson.
When war was declared, Rosenberg was actually in South Africa, living there with his sister in the hope that the warmer climate would cure his chronic bronchitis. The poem he wrote there – ‘On Receiving News of the War’ – is very unusual amongst early poetic responses in being decidedly anti-war:
Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has asked of bud or bird
For Winter’s cost.
Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.
In all men’s hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.
Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.
O! ancient crimson curse!
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.
Critical of the war from the outset, Rosenberg had no patriotic desire to enlist, but needing work to support his mother, he returned to Britain where, in the autumn of 1915, he enlisted in the Army. This was the moment when he painted this self portrait.
Assigned to the King’s Own Royal Lancasters, in June 1916 he was sent with his Battalion to serve on the Western Front in France. The miseries of war began when his boots rubbed all the skin off his feet. As a soldier, he suffered more privations than the officer-poets of the First World War, enduring appalling food, atrocious hygiene and tyrannical discipline. He continued to write poetry while serving in the trenches, including ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, ‘Returning we Hear the Larks’, and ‘Dead Man’s Dump’. He was killed by sniper fire, aged 28, on 1 April 1918.
Dead Man’s Dump
The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
Earth has waited for them,
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended–stopped and held.
What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you!
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their soul’s sack
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?
None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.
What of us who, flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.
The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
Those dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called `An end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.
Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,
Which man’s self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?
A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.
They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.
Burnt black by strange decay
Their sinister faces lie,
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.
Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.
Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight.
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.
Gilbert Rogers, The Dead Stretcher-Bearer, 1919
Gilbert Rogers’ The Dead Stretcher-Bearer is a shocking image, comparable Nevinson’s Paths of Glory, and is a reminder of the controversy surrounding the depiction of dead British soldiers while the war was on. When Nevinson portrayed dead infantrymen sprawled near a trench in 1917, his painting was banned. It was only after the war that the official line softened, allowing Gilbert Rogers to paint this large and harrowing picture with its blunt title. Lying in the mud, his body across the shattered remains of the stretcher on which he ferried other victims of the conflict, the man cannot be identified. His face is covered in a rain-drenched sheet, and one hand hangs above a first aid box that can now render no assistance.
Lovis Corinth, Portrait of Hermann Struck, 1915
In the next section of the exhibition, ‘The Valiant and the Damned’, are grouped paintings which reflect the growing disillusionment that replaced patriotic euphoria as the war dragged on. War was now perceived as a lottery, a vortex of violence, with common humanity at the mercy of circumstance. Some achieved distinction as heroes and medal-winners. Others, shattered by their experience, returned home mutilated by wounds, or were annihilated on the field of battle.
In 1915, Lovis Corinth painted a portrait of his friend and fellow-artist, Hermann Struck. Nothing could be further removed from the image of gung-ho patriotic certainty. Corinth was co-founderr of Die Brucke, the group which had been the focus for the development of German experssionism. Struck posed for Corinth wearing the uniform of the officer he had become. Neither the subject nor the painter give in to the exalted belligerency of the moment. Instead, the painting depicts the worry, melancholy and unease of the artist in his soldier’s garb. After the war, Struck, a fervent Zionist left Europe and settled in Palestine.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier, 1915
There is another portrait here by a member of Die Brucke – also painted in 1915 and reflecting the same sense of deep anxiety and psychological disturbance as that of Hermann Struck. It’s a self-portrait by Ernst Kirchner, a key figure of the Expressionist movement whose members sought new and more direct forms of pictorial self-expression. ‘I paint,’ Kirchner said, ‘with my nerves and my blood.’
As in Corinth’s portrait of Struck, Kirchner has portrayed himself in his soldier’s uniform, in his studio before an unfinished painting and a nude model. But as if with a fearful premonition, Kirchner depicts himself as a mutilated artist, his right arm a bloody and useless stump. Kirchner was an unwilling soldier. In the spring of 1915, to avoid being conscripted into the regular infantry, he signed on as an artillery driver. Soon afterwards, he seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown, and he was declared unfit for military service that autumn. At some point during those months of mental turmoil he paintedthis self portrait. Andrew Graham-Dixon offers a revealing analysis of the painting on his website:
The setting is the artist’s studio. An unfinished painting, raw as a wound, is leaned up against one of the walls, while at the room’s centre a model poses against a black screen. Kirchner believed that study of the nude figure “in a free, natural state” was “the foundation of all visual art”. But the painter’s green-tinged, neurasthenic face is averted both from his work and its sources of inspiration. He turns instead to confront the spectator. He wears the uniform of Field Artillery Regiment No. 75, depicted with historical accuracy: dark blue uniform, trimmed with red, with red epaulets; matching cap embossed with two cockades representing Prussia and the German Reich. A cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth and he has black unseeing eyes. According to the conventions of self-portraiture, he might have been expected to show himself holding his palette and brush. But his claw-like left hand is empty and in place of his right hand he brandishes a bloody, gangrenous stump.
Of course, the very existence of the image contradicts the situation which it apparently describes. This strikes me as an important, if generally overlooked, part of its meaning. The apparently disabled painter has painted a picture: this picture. He has evidently not been totally paralysed as an artist by his experiences in war (Kirchner was never injured and seems never to have seen active service). In my interpretation, the painting is a celebration of that fact, rather than the gloomy commemoration of a psychic wounding. I don’t even think it is, strictly speaking, a self-portrait. I think it is a portrait of the self Kirchner has escaped becoming, the self he has deliberately disabled. It is the image of the soldier whose role he refused to play. The severed hand, in my view, stands not for his inability to paint, but for his inability to fight – an inability which he welcomed and perhaps even engineered. He cannot swing a sword or fire a gun; but he can wield a brush, as the picture testifies. Through military incapacity he has preserved his potency as an artist. The picture proclaims that he could have become this hollow man, this empty warlike idol, but did not.The painting is the defiant, triumphant manifesto of a conscientious objector.
Max Beckmann, The Way Home, from the series Hell, 1919
Like Kirchner, Max Beckmann volunteered, but suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged. The Way Home belongs to Hell, a series of lithographs in which Beckmann chronicled the lawlessness and turmoil that engulfed Germany after the November revolution of 1918. He depicts himself confronting a soldier, a disfigured amputee, returning to a vanquished nation. Beckmann reaches out to touch the amputee’s artificial arm, and gazes at the victim with profound compassion. Dedicated to portraying his pitifully damaged countrymen, he wrote in 1920: ‘We must surrender our heart and our nerves to the dreadful screams of pain of the poor disillusioned people.’
William Orpen, The Receiving Room the 42nd Stationary Hospital, 1917
As the exhibition draws to a close the images become ever more disturbing. Here is William Orpen again with a drawing done in the same year as his portrait of Churchill. It’s a study of the Receiving Room at the 42nd Stationary Hospital where he himself had been admitted, suffering from scabies. His sketch focuses on three haggard soldiers slumped on a bench waiting for treatment. ‘How more people did not die in that hospital beats me,’ remembered Orpen. ‘I personally never got any sleep, and left in a fortnight nearly dead.’
Henry Tonks, pastel portraits of soldiers with facial wounds
Still more harrowing are the images of young soldiers with grotesque facial wounds made by Henry Tonks. After the Battle of the Somme in 1916, a young surgeon named Harold Gillies became responsible for the treatment of ever-increasing numbers of soldiers who had suffered very severe damage to their faces. He established a pioneering unit at the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup where he began to develop the techniques of plastic surgery. Gillies invited Henry Tonks to draw pastel portraits of patients before and after surgery. Tonks, formerly a professor at the Slade School of Fine Art, produced pastel drawings which are being shown for the first time here, alongside photographs taken of the soldiers at the unit run by Gillies.
Eric Kennington, Gassed and Wounded, 1918
Eric Kennington (who was born in Liverpool) was 26 at the outbreak of war, a highly skilled painter widely recognised for his technical virtuosity and exceptional draughtsmanship, and a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy. He enlisted with the 13th London Regiment and, lodged in poorly-maintained trenches near the village of Laventie on the Lys Valley, experienced at first-hand the privations of front-line infantry work.
He fought on the Western Front but was badly wounded and and sent home in June 1915. During his convalescence he produced The Kensingtons at Laventie, a portrait of a group of infantrymen. When exhibited in the spring of 1916 its portrayal of exhausted soldiers created a sensation.Kennington went back to France in 1917 as an Official War Artist and concentrated on depicting the common soldier; one critic wrote that Kennington was ‘a born painter of the nameless heroes of the rank and file’. After the war he designed many war memorials.
The work displayed here – Gassed and Wounded – is a scene at a field hospital where gassed and wounded soldiers are lying on stretchers. In the foreground there is a soldier with his eyes bandaged and his mouth open in pain. The painting is based on drawings Kennington made at a Casualty Clearing Station near Peronne during 1918, just as the Germans were bombarding the English lines in a prelude to their last big offensive. The painting powerfully conveys the cramped conditions and darkness of the station.
Alongside paintings and drawings, the exhibition presents examples of contemporary film and photography. The centrepiece of the show is an installation of 40 photos, arranged in grid formation, of a wide range of war participants. All of them are details cropped from vintage photographs. They depict the enormous diversity of those involved. The installation is presented as a ‘homogenised visual spectacle without identification or hierarchy … the anonymity intended to evoke a common humanity’. However, an accompanying booklet provides information about each person depicted – men and women of all nations, renowned and unknown, anonymous and famous.
Some are familiar (Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen; Baron von Richthofen; Mata Hari), others less so. Here is Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British army. There is Billie Nevill, a captain who kicked a football across No Man’s Land during the battle of the Somme; Maria Botchkareva, leader of Russia’s Women’s Battalion who ended up being shot by a Bolshevik firing squad; and Harry Farr, the shell-shocked private executed for desertion in 1916 (and officially pardoned in 2006).
There are images of unidentified individuals: an unknown Gurkha; a member of the Maori Contingent; and an unidentified German prisoner, captured during the battle of Menin Road Bridge in September 1917. I noticed Paul Cadbury, a Quaker conscientious objector and volunteer with the Friends Ambulance Unit; Elsie Knocker, ambulance driver and first-aider; Edith Cavell, shot by a German firing squad on 12 October 1915; and Captain Noel Chavasse from Liverpool, one of only three people to be awarded a Victoria Cross twice. The grouping of these images underscores the indiscriminate way in which the Great War sucked people from all backgrounds into its vortex.
In an acerbic review for the Evening Standard, Brian Sewell wrote:
These images and others of their generation – of nurses, a Quaker conscientious objector, and of Harry Farr, at 25, one of the shell-shocked, witless and terrified soldiers shot for cowardice – confront us in ways beyond the reach of formal portraiture. Compare these snapshots with the life-size presence in oil on canvas of the King, the Kaiser and the aged Emperor of Austria, stern in their various panoplies of office, compare them with the slick, shallow and ill-considered portraits of the great, the good and the ordinary bloke by William Orpen (of which there are far too many in this exhibition), and ask which are the speaking likenesses, which tell the truer tale.
Frame from The Battle of the Somme, sequence 34: ‘British Tommies rescuing a comrade under shell fire’
In the final room footage from the documentary film The Battle of the Somme, released in cinemas in 1916, is screened. Made by Geoffrey Malins and John McDonell, the government did not produce the film, but they did approve it. It was highly controversial because the battle scenes were so shocking, and unlike anything screened before. Many observers felt it was too graphic. Nevertheless, 20 million people flocked to see the silent film – nearly half the population of Britain at the time.
The frame shown above is from the most memorable sequence – ‘British Tommies rescuing a comrade under shell fire’ – used in documentaries about the war ever since. The wounded soldier died 30 minutes after reaching the trenches.
Newspaper advert for a screening of The Battle of the Somme
The curators allow us to compare this British documentary with a German propagandist film, With Our Heroes on the Somme, made in 1917. It differs by not being filmed on location and the inclusion of faked shots and footage that predated the battle of the Somme. (Though the academic consensus is that one of the most famous scenes from The Battle of the Somme – of soldiers climbing out of their trench and advancing towards the enemy with some cut down by enemy fire – was not filmed during the Battle of the Somme. Rather it seems likely that Geoffrey Malins captured this scene at a training facility later.
Nearby are photographs of young men who died in the conflict. John Travers Cornwell was 15 when he joined the Navy, and 16 when, on HMS Chester, he was mortally wounded in the Battle of Jutland (he earned the Victoria Cross for his bravery). Ivor Evans also enlisted at 15, fought at Gallipoli was killed in France, aged just 18. William Cecil Tickle volunteered aged 16 and died 22 months later on the third day of the Battle of the Somme. His photo (top) poignantly bears a hand-written tribute from a member of his family.
The final exhibit is also a photograph – not the portrait of a person, but an image captured by Jules Gervais Courtellemont depicting a deserted, battle-scarred landscape. The gallery’s caption states that this is ‘the only work in the exhibition not to depict people; this poignant image is, in effect, a portrait of absence.’
Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, Devastated landscape at the French lines, c 1915
The Great War in Portraits is a poignant and challenging exhibition, though it has been forced into far too cramped a space, inexplicably pushed to the sidelines by a display of images by photographer David Bailey. Yet on the afternoon I visited the Great War in Portraits was packed, while there was hardly a soul at the David Bailey show.
In the exhibition catalogue Sebastian Faulks has written an introduction that discusses the way in which this war has come to be defined in the British memory. He notes, for instance, how the war’s last survivor Harry Patch, who believed that war was simply ‘organised murder’, was feted at his death. He quotes Wittgenstein (who fought for Austro-Hungarian Empire on the Russian front), who wrote, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. Yet there are images here that would shatter any silence, recalling words of the 19th century German dramatist and poet George Buchner: ‘Do you not hear this horrible scream all around you that people usually call silence?’
Outside in the sunshine, I paused to look at the national memorial to Edith Cavell which stands ust opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery. Cavell grew up in Norfolk, before moving to London to train as a nurse in 1896. In 1907, she moved to Brussels to become the director of a training school for nurses but was caught behind enemy lines after the German invasion in 1914. The school became part of a network of safe houses created to shelter Allied soldiers before smuggling them into the Netherlands. Less than a year after the invasion, Cavell was captured by the Germans and on 12 October 1915, was executed by firing squad. Her final words were, ‘I am glad to die for my country.’ There is a story that one of the Germans in the firing squad refused to take part in the execution, throwing down his rifle when ordered to fire. He was shot by a German officer for refusing to obey orders. Inscribed on the memorial are the words she spoke to the Anglican chaplain who had been allowed to see her and to give her Holy Communion on the night before her execution:
Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.
The memorial to Edith Cavell in St Martin’s Place, London
- The Great War in Portraits: NPG website (features podcast in which curator Paul Moorhouse introduces the key themes and works in the exhibition)
- The Great War in Portraits review: Guardian
- Gassed by John Singer Sargent: article by Andrew Graham-Dixon (Telegraph)
- A Terrible Beauty: British artists in the First World War