As millions gather across the globe today around war memorials and in reflective places holding poppies in remembrance of the horrors and losses of the First World War which began 100 years ago, I have chosen to reflect in the way I know best: through art.
Few bodies of paintings have ever captured with such visceral power and unhindered emotion the horror of war as artwork capturing the Great War. In the past, we have been used to heavily state controlled glory paintings depicting wars as valiant great history paintings full of patriotism and honour; glinting uniforms and massed weaponry; flags flapping in the wind besides stormy seas and atop galloping horses. But depictions of the First World War were always startlingly different. Instead, the emphasis was on the stories of the individuals fighting in the fields; those who had come from small villages and towns across the world without military training to face a monster of conflict never seen on the earth before. The paintings focus on the futility and the waste; the continuous struggle to a pointless end. They show landscapes ravaged and lives likewise; a world torn apart; lives treated as mere playthings.
The reason for the difference is almost certainly down to timing. WW1 came along at a time of great movement in the history of art. The impressionists had been replaced by emotionally vivid expressionism, wildly colourful fauvism, and starkly mechanical vortism. So when the greatest conflict ever known to man came along, it can be no surprise that the artists either commissioned, or inspired to reflect it on canvas or paper did so with an intensely felt emotional reaction which is as roar today as it was 100 years ago.
Chief amongst them is Paths of Glory by British artist Christopher Nevinson, which for me is the most perfect artistic manifestation of the pointlessness of war. Against a conflict-ravaged landscape devoid of anything but barbed wire and the detritus of war, the bodies of two British soldiers lay face down in the mud, deprived of a proper burial, of the mourning of their families, of any honour. This is a painting depicting life as a mere instrument of war – pawns in a wider political game, laid to waste on fields of human detriment.
There can be no denying the power of the painting. And that power was equally startling at the time of its creation, so much so that it was censored by the British Government who thought it may hinder the war effort, and exhibited in 1918 with censored labels affixed across the dead bodies. Thank goodness that at that time, the Imperial War Museum saw the great value of the painting and incorporated it into their startling collection of war art. For as years go by, and not a single survivor remains alive to remember it, the horrors of war will only ever be truly visible to our generation through art such as this.