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.