© National Portrait Gallery, London
© National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa
'Unveiling Cookham War Memorial', 1922. © Private Collection
They met at college, became friends, then rivals, fell in love, drifted apart… So far, so familiar. Yet, set against a backdrop of intense creativity at the Slade School of Fine Art in the years just before WWI, the story of this particular gang of students – David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Paul Nash, CRW Nevinson and Stanley Spencer – is captivating.
The ‘crisis of brilliance’ referred to in the title was coined by the formidable Slade professor Henry Tonks to describe their talents . A sense of crisis courses through the show in other ways, caused not just by the ‘contamination’, as Tonks put it, of his students by vogue-ish post-impressionist tendencies from the near continent but by the Great War, which would change beyond recognition the lives of even the pacifists among them.
Installed amid the Old Masters in Dulwich’s main galleries, David Bomberg’s futurist-inspired ‘In the Hold’ (1913), a schematic, fractured dock scene, makes for an explosive beginning. Yet the exhibition proper starts sedately with drawings – the artists as sketched by themselves and each other – and studies made after the Renaissance paintings in the National Gallery.
That Bomberg’s painting was made just a year after he had been kicked out of the Slade (for being a disruptive influence) reveals the speed at which ‘les jeunes’ broke away from their academic training. Forging their identities in defiance of Tonks, who tried to persuade them to stay away from London’s notorious post-impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912, they lapped up the examples set by Cézanne and Picasso, as well as the vorticism of homegrown radical Percy Wyndham Lewis. Even Spencer, the most original of the group, tipped his hat to Gauguin in his ‘Apple Gatherers’ (1912-13).
The leap from youthful experimentation to war is dramatised by the natural ‘gap’ between galleries created by Dulwich Picture Gallery’s mausoleum. Walking through the exhibition, you step from a world of wide-eyed possibility into turmoil. The war would be the artistic making of Nevinson, whose pictorial despatches from the frontline in paintings likes ‘La Patrie’ (1916) – a shadowy depiction of railway shed he witnessed which was packed with thousands of wounded and dying soldiers – led him to become one of the most famous artists in the land. Paul Nash, who had found his true subject not in the human figure but in trees, also made his best work as a war artist, creating landscapes that are broken and twisted by conflict.
The show, which includes more than 70 drawings and paintings, along with photographs and letters, has been curated by David Boyd Haycock, the author of a 2009 book of the same title. He ends it abruptly after WWI, before most of the artists had reached the age of 30, with paintings like Spencer’s bleached and dreamlike ‘Unveiling Cookham War Memorial’ (1922) and Bomberg’s study for ‘Sappers at Work’ (1918-19), which was rejected the Canadian War Memorials Fund for being a ‘futurist abortion’. As a result, you’ll leave longing for a second instalment of this gripping tale.