Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill'
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917
Wars are remembered in numbers. Soldiers and civilians become figures and statistics. One hundred years after the Great War, it’s easy to lose sight of the reasons for conflict, to forget what started it all and how we justified sacrificing so many lives.
The works in the National Portrait Gallery’s show of paintings from WWI put faces to the figures, but also let you make a connection to those tragedies – they help you grasp humanity a bit better. Like the war itself, the exhibition starts with royalty. King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm face forward with pompous pride and arrogance. We then encounter the commanding officers: stout men with steely eyes. There’s a constant divide here between power and its consequences. William Orpen’s depictions of generals and field marshals sit alongside the faceless corpse of a medic by Gilbert Rogers and CRW Nevinson’s brutal futurist machine gunners. It’s a contrast between the men in power, and the men who gave their lives.
As the war wears on, the works become more harrowing. Henry Tonks’s depictions of soldiers with facial injuries are shocking, while Eric Kennington’s corpse-like survivors awaiting treatment stay with you long after you’ve left the gallery.
The show ends with works by two German expressionists. The show ends with works by two German expressionists. In ‘Self- Portrait as a Soldier’ (1915) Ernst Kirchner depicts himself as a mutilated warrior drowned in blood-red light. Max Beckmann’s contorted monochrome hellscape is equally pained. Both artists suffered mental breakdowns during the war and the torture is almost tangible in these works
You don’t leave with any sense of the glory of war, but you do feel closer to the story. These soldiers become more human. And in the process, you do too.
You can’t fail to notice that it’s almost a hundred years since the First World War began and already this year we’ve seen several exhibitions and TV shows examining this significant event. Niall Ferguson played devil’s advocate with some of our leading historians, while Jeremy Paxman tried to tell us about the effects of the war on modern Britain…except he forgot that bit and chucked in two minutes at the end. The excellent 37 Days screened over three nights on BBC2 dramatised the political build-up to the war in the UK, Germany and Russia, and many hundreds of hours of television are yet to be screened. The upshot is that there’s a danger of feeling exhausted by the end of the commemorative period in 2018, you may even feel it already and a hundred years ago the war hadn’t even started yet.
That’s not to say that the things being produced are unwelcome, and have so far been of great quality and balance. The National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition is an excellent example of this, walking you through the events of those years using many of the paintings and images already in its collection. You begin with the pomp of regal portraits celebrating the monarchical houses that dominated Europe in 1914 including Britain’s King George V, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas. They represent the old order, of formal oil portraits celebrating the power and grandeur of royal courts, illustrious histories and military might that seemed, from these pictures, that they would endure forever. On the next wall is an unassuming black and white photograph of Gavrilo Princip the man who assassinated the Austrian Archduke, and, in some sense triggered the downfall of that way of life. There’s something quite chilling about seeing photos of Franz Ferdinand and his wife not long before their deaths. But, as this exhibition shows, their deaths were just the beginning.
Once war has begun, we’re shown two types of picture. First the formal portraits of military leaders like Haigh and Hindenbugh painted by official war artists. Although they lack the grandeur of kings in the previous room, they are intended to convey a sense of the sitter’s authority and leadership role. William Orpen painted Haigh in 1918 and I couldn’t help but think had he sat a few years earlier, it would have been a different image. The styling is as you’d expect, but whatever your opinion of Haig, look at his eyes, there’s a sadness in them that hints at the terrible toll of the last four years. Whether that’s Orpen’s addition is for you to decide.
Alongside these images we see representations of the ordinary serviceman presented both as formal glory portraits to celebrate their victories, and as the dead or disfigured on the battlefield and hospitals. These include the incredibly striking Dead Stretcher Bearer which is simultaneously a moving and somehow beautiful image, casting a stark contrast with the formal portraits of war leaders. Changes in artistic styles are represented through pictures including the angular forms of Nevison’s La Mitrailleuse (the machine guns), emphasising the mechanisation and fierceness of war. One of the things I enjoyed most about this exhibition is the inclusion not just of these many styles and consequences of war, but of all kinds of protagonists; it’s not just monarchs and Generals, but ordinary men; not just soldiers but pilots, sailors and men from across the Commonwealth. Apart from Chruchill and a couple of photographs, the naval experience doesn’t really feature which is a shame, but NPG is saving them for a naval exhibition in May.
Before you become desensitised to the plethora of First World War activities, go and see this free exhibition. Not only is it a great opportunity to see a really diverse collection of art styles, but it will give you a surprisingly broad perspective of all the people who fought in the conflict as well as mix of bravery and horror that created. If you want to understand anything about the lasting effects of the Great War, then all you have to do is look in Haigh’s eyes.
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This exhibition covers a lot of ground in a small space. The show opens with the Tate’s famous Rock Drill sculpture by Jacob Epstein, which he adapted several times after its first display in 1913 to reflect the horrors and mutilation of the war.
The next room showcases official portraits of the ruling dynasties, with all their pomp and circumstance, which serves as a reminder that the ‘Great’ War was at least in part a gigantic family squabble: British Georgie and Russian Nicky versus German Willi. Highlighting the contradictions of the war, these formal portraits sit alongside a press photo of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip. The young Serb looks haunted and ill-at-ease with his role in starting the war by killing the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Moving through portraits of military leaders and ordinary servicemen, there are many works by the official war artists, William Orpen and C.R.W. Nevinson. They didn’t shy away from depicting the injured. As a result, some works were unpopular with the authorities who expected them to raise patriotic spirits on the home front. More extreme are Henry Tonks’s drawings of injured soldiers before and after pioneering reconstructive surgery. These were never intended for public display.
One of the strangest and most macabre elements of the show is a collection of postcards, including so-called ‘death cards’. These were photos of German soldiers killed in action. Prepared for their funerals, the cards include the soldiers’ personal details and circumstances of death. Meanwhile, a wall of 40 photos ranges from portraits of the famous (Edith Cavell, Siegfried Sassoon, Mata Hari) to the unidentified; all of them were participants in the war, and many of them were victims of it. The show closes with some post-war German Expressionist works, underlining the fact that life and art would never be the same again.
There are also excerpts from the two sides’ respective propaganda films about the Battle of the Somme, which you can view upstairs in the gallery’s digital space to avoid the crowds in the show. These films illustrate that the advent of total war coincided with the development of movie cameras. This meant that the events of war could appear on film - and could be readily manipulated to tell a particular story. That’s especially timely with the events unfolding in Eastern Europe today.
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