'Truth and Memory' at the Imperial War Museum

As the Imperial War Museum reopens with the first major show of WWI art in almost a century, Time Out is given a tour of inspection

  • Percy Wyndham Lewis, A Battery Shelled, 1919

  • John Nash, Oppy Wood, 1917. Evening

  • George Clausen, In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal, 1918

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    Gilbert Rogers, Gassed. ‘In Arduis Fidelis’, 1919

  • George Clausen, Youth Mourning, 1916

  • Paul Nash, We are making a new world, 1918

  • Stanley Spencer, Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, 1919

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    William Orpen, To the Unknown British Soldier in France, 1921

  • Eric Henri Kennington, The Kensingtons at Laventie, 1915

  • Anna Airy, Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells: Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow, 1918

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    C.R.W. Nevinson, Paths of Glory, 1917

  • John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919

Percy Wyndham Lewis, A Battery Shelled, 1919

There's the low thrum of distant power drills to contend with when I visit the Imperial War Museum as it prepares to open its doors after a six-month shutdown with new displays to mark the centenary of WWI. Up in the exhibition galleries, by contrast, it's quiet. But the experience is hardly restful. On the walls, lives are being smashed and the old world order is splintering apart. 'Initially I wanted to stress the impact of dealing with this new sort of modern war and how this terrible reality was expressed in the arts of the time,' explains Richard Slocombe, the curator of the first major survey of art made during WWI since the Royal Academy opened the exhibition 'War Pictures' in 1919. 'But I also wanted to show how that art has gone on to shape our understanding not only of the First World War but of war itself.'

He's done this by dividing the show into two sections. 'Truth' features work by artists who experienced life on the frontline either as soldiers or official war artists. 'Memory' focuses on art produced towards the end of the war and in its immediate aftermath. It's a story of vision, bravery, propaganda and censorship that'll immerse you in a century-old conflict more fully than any history lesson.

Curator Richard Slocombe's exhibition highlights

‘Paths of Glory’ (1917) by CRW Nevinson

‘Most people knew that this was a war like no other but they didn’t know what it was actually like. The work that was produced by people who experienced the frontline, like Nevinson who was a medical orderly, had a credibility to it. “Paths of Glory” was heading towards a one-man show in March 1918 but, being an official war artist, Nevinson had to get everything past the censor and it was banned on the grounds it would have a detrimental effect on morale. Through a mixture of brinkmanship and showmanship he put the painting in the show but the ban wasn’t lifted. So, he taped over it with gumstrip and wrote “censored” across it. He got hauled over the coals for that because not only did he exhibit the banned painting he used a banned word: “censored” was itself censored.’

‘We Are Making a New World’ (1918) by Paul Nash

‘With Nash you see the transformation of an artist during WWI, his initial euphoria of getting to the Western Front melting away in the aftermath of the Battle of Hill 60, which killed many of his comrades. He returned in an official capacity to the Western Front to find the scene transformed. You see these jagged futurist elements in his work. “We Are Making a New World” is an
ambiguous title. A lot of people tend to interpret it as being purely ironic. I think there is an element of face value to it as well. There is a fascination with this new sun rising over an almost prehistoric but manmade wilderness.’

‘The Kensingtons at Laventie’ (1915) by Eric Kennington

‘This painting is one of the few works to be made by a serving soldier. This is Kennington’s unit. The figure to the [far] left in the balaclava is Kennington himself. He was invalided out in 1915 and one of the first things he did was paint this fabulous tribute. It’s painted on the reverse of glass, using a medieval technique, but it’s very modern in its approach. It picks quite a mundane incident – comrades arriving at billets after the march from the trenches. There’s no great act of heroism or bravery, it’s an everyday scene blown up to this epic scale but he was there, he saw it and it has this lasting effect. Kennington later described himself as “a bloody coward surrounded by brave men”.’

‘Youth Mourning’ (1916) by George Clausen

‘There’s a clear dichotomy between the work of Kennington and artists such as Clausen who were too old to serve. This painting is said to be inspired by the death of his daughter’s fiancée. He deals with her grief by also trying to express a wider sense of loss and wider sense of tragedy, going back to earlier, symbolist influences just to try to get the bigger picture. The artists who stayed at home had more readiness to deal with abstract constructs of loss, duty and honour.’

‘A Battery Shelled’ (1919) by Percy Wyndham Lewis

‘This is an intriguing way of producing a modern history painting. It reveals the mindset of some of the vorticists during the war. Before the war they wanted to overturn the conventions and traditions of the day but the art that emerged is much less machine oriented and more humane. Wyndham Lewis commented on the debasement of humanity in wartime, that there is this collective dynamic which reduces the individual to a kind of cog in a bigger machine. Here, you have these figures reduced to quite primitive muscular forms.’

‘To the Unknown Soldier in France’ (1921-28) by William Orpen

‘The sense of compassion towards and regard for the common soldier reaches a kind of fever pitch in Orpen’s painting. It is one of three paintings that he did as part of a government commission to capture the 1919 peace treaty at Versailles. The government wants to announce that the old status quo is restored. Orpen, however, is appalled by the pomposity of the assembled politicans and paints first of all two very jaundiced portraits of the signing of the treaty, and then really goes for the jugular with this. It was begun as a group portrait of the allied generals but Orpen paints over that and puts in two emaciated soldiers either side of the coffin. The Imperial War Museum doesn’t accept it until he removes the offending figures in 1928. It proves Orpen’s not a court painter – he’s a syphilitic, alcoholic, exhausted and disillusioned Irishman and this is what he delivers.’

‘Gassed’ (1919) by John Singer Sargent

‘If the museum is a place of ritualised memorial, its central message is that this war was fought for a better tomorrow. You see that in works such as “Gassed”. Though it is based on real events, something that Sargent witnessed himself, it’s saturated with symbolism. I think the most interesting thing about it is the way that Sargent is taking the temporary blindness caused by mustard gas as a metaphor for sacrifice. If you read the painting sequentially, the prone soldiers are awaiting their resurrection, risen and then ushered towards the redemption of the field hospital. You can see that there is this light at the end of the tunnel: the breaking light of a new day. That’s the way art works. It tells a story. It enshrines a story.’