War In The Sunshine: The British In Italy 1917-1918

Art, Painting
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Spruced-up after a five-month renovation, Islington’s Estorick Collection reopens with a rather leftfield show. If you recall, we were all talking about the centenary of WWI, before a contemporary global catastrophe loomed over us, so engaging with this show starts with an oh-yeah… jolt of recognition. Which is quickly replaced with a wait-what? jolt of non-recognition. Because this is not the Great War as we’re used to seeing it.

There’s no mud, for a start. Or trenches. Or poets. Drawn from the Imperial War Museum’s collection, the paintings, drawings and photographs here reflect the experience of British soldiers and airmen who fought in northern Italy a century ago. It’s a largely forgotten footnote to the Western Front (indeed, war photographer Ernest Brooks, who features here, demanded to be transferred to Flanders as he worried he was missing all the action), but an intriguing one.

Familiar motifs appear in a new context. In Sydney Carline’s dramatic paintings, fragile biplanes dogfight above a shimmering Alpine landscape of gorges and peaks. William Joseph Brunell’s photographic studies of Italian peasant women employed by the British Army feel more like Roger Fenton’s portraits from the Crimean War than anything we associate with 1914-’18. But the title is misleading. This is not a sunny vision: there are shattered churches and splintered trees. Above all – deprived of the pockmarked backdrop of the Western Front – there is an overwhelming sense of pointlessness. In Brooks’s pictures of the troops, they seem doomed to a whole different kind of unheroic fate: sitting in quaint donkey carts, or looking on as local women wash their undies. So, a bit niche, but none the worse for reminding us that the basic crime of all wars is futility. Happy 2017! 


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