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Posts tagged ‘World War I’

WW1 Centenary | The Dead Stretcher-Bearer

This year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War, and there will no doubt be a series of events commemorating the start of the Great War as the year goes on, especially towards the end in the months when the actual conflict began. One of the first events to mark the centenary in London is the latest temporary exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The Great War in Portraits looks at the war, not through the more typical Nash depictions of ravaged landscapes and desolate trenches, but through portraits of the people who began the war, led the armies, fought and, all too often, gave their lives.

The exhibition is a small but perfectly formed homage to this most terrible of conflicts, which ranges chronologically from the period immediately predating the conflict (in which portraits of the relevant royals of Germany, the United Kingdom and Russia are on display, as well as Frans Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary whose murder precipitated the whole war) and continues into the conflict, right through to the end when artists used their skills to depict the horrific injuries inflicted upon soldiers, and struggled to find a way of expressing the true horror of the conflict through creative means.

But one artist who certainly didn’t struggle to depict that horror, and who created what for me was the star painting of the show, is Gilbert Rogers. In 1919, when the general censorship on morale-destroying honest depictions of war had slipped away, and representations of its true horrors began to surface from beneath the censors, Rogers painted this work, The Dead Stretcher-Bearer, which represents the horror and futility of war with unflinching directness. Doing what the title of the work suggests, the painting shows a stretcher-bearer dead on the very stretcher which it was his duty to carry, probably killed in the course of trying to rescue another injured soldier.

Gilbert Rogers, The Dead Stretcher Bearer (1919)

Gilbert Rogers, The Dead Stretcher Bearer (1919)

The paint has been applied coarsely and liberally without too much detail – instead the application of white to mark the shine on the masterfully conceived folds of the tarpaulin covering the soldier’s body attracts all of the viewers attention, focusing our mind at the very heart of this tragedy. Meanwhile the muddied colour palate and the pools of water demonstrate in simple brushstrokes the horrific conditions of trench warfare, while those limited colours are interspersed with dashes of red, the colour which has later become such a hallmark of the conflict.

This painting is but one brilliant canvas in this moving and enthralling show. To see the works yourself head along to the NPG – The Great War in Portraits runs until 15 June. Admission is free.

War in my Art: WW1 Norm

My final post on War brings a little lightheartedness back to the Daily Norm. Having been chewing over the subject of war for a few weeks and having been plentifully inspired by the war art I saw at the Imperial War Museum, I was prompted to once again pick up my paintbrush and devote a work to the ravaged landscape of WW1 France. But as I am all about Norms at the moment, obviously a WW1 Soldier Norm takes centre stage. He may be just a character, but I think that through this parody, the horrors of war are still there for all to see. Hence in his eyes, a look of shock, exasperation and despair at the state of the world around him, beautiful landscape turned into hellish quagmire, human lives used as fodder for the guns. In the background, clouds loom menacingly in the sky, while before them, manmade clouds burst up from explosions, as the putrid, corpse-ridden deserted ground all around the trenches is blown further into the air and scattered like a rain shower. In the foreground poppies: traditional symbol of hope, life growing instinctively from human wreckage. In this, unique and Normy way, I remember.

WW1 Norm (acrylic on canvas, 2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

War in my Art: Works inspired by Birdsong

Having reflected for the majority of last week’s posts on the subject of war, I made the decision to seek inspiration further by visiting London’s Imperial War Museum. There, tucked away behind the major exhibitions of planes, military instruments, uniforms, the holocaust and even a WW1 trench reproduction, is a collection of war art to rival all of London’s major galleries. There is something about war as a subject matter which loads each and every painting with a heavy significance, because you know that for these images to have been produced, the painter has either lived through the hell portrayed, or at least witnessed it first hand. Consequently the pain which is captured is visceral, the emotions cutting, cynical, raw. Yet these works are undoubtedly beautiful. At the centre of the IWM’s collection is Sargent’s gigantic work, Gassed, an incredible, moving image, which shows soldiers who have been temporarily blinded after a gas attack helping to guide one another with in caterpillar-like line, while all around them, soldiers similarly afflicted fill both the foreground and background. It’s scale is startling, but the small moments of human kindness in desperate times are even more striking.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed (courtesy of Imperial War Museum, London)

This painting is not unique in it’s superb captivation of WW1, and as you stroll around the collection at the Imperial War Museum, paintings which you may never have seen before seem somehow familiar – for it is clear that as the memory of war slips further and further into the past, with survivors now few and far between, and photographic and film accounts being scarce and of poor quality, it is the paintings of war which now take centre stage in helping a modern audience to imagine the apocalypse of trench warfare. It is, for example, immediately clear to me that the cinematography in Spielberg’s new film, Warhorse, is inspired by the haunting trench landscapes of Paul and John Nash.

Yet before I even set eyes on the Imperial War Museum’s collection, I was myself emotionally engaged with the subject of war, and sufficiently inspired to begin painting it as a young artist. The source of my inspiration was the novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. The novel is the only book every to have made me cry. It’s depiction of war is so striking, so accessible, that it is impossible not to be caught up with the plight of its characters and the horror of war. For a 15 year old reading the story, I was unintentionally drawn wholeheartedly into this evocative re-imagining of the First World War, even though so many people in my generation appreciate little about it – for most they think WW1 is all about wearing a poppy every 11/11. And when I finished the novel, one of those rare moments of inspiration flooded into my head – I knew immediately that I wanted to paint a tryptic based on the scenes conjured in my head. And the fact that I then painted war without pictorial reference is, I suppose, testament to what a superbly descriptive writer Sebastian Faulkes is. Having at last got home to my parents’ house in Sussex, I was able to photograph the paintings which resulted from that inspiration. I painted them at the age of 15, before I really appreciated that I might have artistic talent, and certainly before I took it seriously. Nevertheless, I like the paintings to this day probably since their imagery, like their subject matter, has timeless significance.

Screaming Soldier - A Victim of War (acrylic on paper, 1999 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

Trench Rat (acrylic on paper, 1999 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

The Truth Behind the Poppy (acrylic on paper, 1999 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

Following these works, I moved onto another tryptic of war paintings, this time depicting the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War. I donated the collection to the history department of my old school Our Lady of Sion School in Worthing, where I believe they are still hanging to this day. Sadly I don’t have any photos of the works, but before I donated them to my school, the paintings attracted the interest of Worthing Town Hall. As a result, the works were exhibited in a special exhibition marking Remembrance Sunday in November 2000. A photograph of me with the Mayor of Worthing and the pictures hanging on the wall behind us was on the front page of the local Newspaper that month. That paper was then painted into the background of another of my very early works in which I mourned the death of my guinea pigs. So here it is, the only picture I have left of that second war tryptic.

Cinnamon and Nutmeg (acrylic on canvas, 2000 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

The conclusion of this post is, I suppose, the potential of a well-written novel to empower the mind, and to recreate past tragedy in the minds of innocent, often unappreciative generations. That novel, Birdsong, is not only a must-read. It is also now a must-see, a televised adaptation having premiered on BBC television last Sunday which is every bit as beautiful, sensitive and poignant as the novel, and so much more powerful in its portrayal of war than the current cinematic offering, Warhorse. 


War in reflection: Poems from the trenches, photos for peace

In the last of my “War series” posts of this week (though look out for my paintings on war next week – I need to get photos of them first!) I turn to reflect on one of the most poignant records which have come out of World War 1: the poetry. It may seem banal, especially after all my talk of cliches earlier in the week, that I choose to reflect on poems which, in the most part, are already extremely well known. But their notoriety is testament to their pure brilliance, their power to move and take the reader right back into the quagmire hell of trench warfare. They may now be the staple of the English literature national curriculum  all over the UK (and as I know too well, this often causes the student who is agonising over the supposed multifaceted meaning of each line to hate the poem rather than admire it), but these poems are still ripe to be rediscovered, to be reread and savoured as a most moving testament to the suffering of so many during those times.

The reason why these poems work so well is that there are times of such horror that normal prose just won’t do. Through poetry, the soldiers are able to pour out their soul, their recollection of the horror in abstract phrases, bursts of painful memory, shattering like gunfire around them, painfully but beautifully transcribed onto the page.  In the poems I have selected below, hopefully you will be equally touched by every loaded word as I have been. I know this is not the traditional time for remembrance, but do we really need a date in the diary to recollect the sacrifice that was made for us?

In between the poems, I’ve included some of my own photos. Not of war, but photos which seem appropriate when remembering the dead. Those posted between the poetry are taken in the local cemetery in Marbella, Spain. Quite out of the way of the usual tourist track of the glitzy coastal town, it is nonetheless one of my favourite places to go on a summers day, to wander in the shadows of cypress trees amongst tombs and gravestones dappled with silent sunlight. It is a place of great tranquility but not of sadness. In the devotion shown by a single flower placed by one family member tending the grave of their dead, you appreciate the great family love which still retains a place of such central importance in the Spanish home. At the bottom of my post you’ll find a gallery of some of my favourite flower photos which I’ve taken over the years. Much war poetry talks of flowers, and of course the poppy has become a worldwide symbol of remembrance. It’s appropriate that this product of natural beauty has grown from a ground riddled with the ghosts of a tumultuous history. In this way flowers are a symbol of hope and continuing beauty.

Marbella cemetery © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown

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War on film: War Horse v Pan’s Labyrinth

War is in vogue right now – ok, not literally – but dramatisations of the first world war, or “The Great War” as it became known (with no appreciation of the horrors which were to come with the second) are popping up all over our screens. Here in the UK we had the depiction of the trenches in the now Golden-Globe winning period drama, Downton Abbey, where war even encroached upon the aristocrats’ much prized drawing room as the great stately mansion was turned over into a pop-up hospital – perish the thought. Meanwhile, I am chaffing at the bit with excitement as I anticipate the forthcoming television adaptation of Sebastian Faulkes’ Birdsong – surely one of the best fictional portrayals of war ever written, and the first book (and the last) which has ever made me cry. In the theatres, the West End blockbuster, War Horse, adapted from the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, has been the talk of town, selling equally well when it moved over to Broadway. And now, finally, the WW1 frenzy has moved to our cinemas, as the very same equestrian sensation of War Horse hits our screens thanks to it’s overhaul and adaptation by the one and only, Steven Spielberg.

So, caught up in the excitement, I trotted along to the cinema to see War Horse on the first day of its general release. This was after the popular press spoke of a masterpiece, a tear jerker – by god, even the Duchess of Cambridge had been crying at the Royal premier in London – Speilberg’s best work for years and so on. And indeed I went along with high expectations. After all, wasn’t it Spielberg who directed that emotive, black and white masterpiece that is Schindler’s List and the equally powerful Saving Private Ryan? Sure, Spielberg has had his tacky moments – I’m thinking E.T. on a bicycle riding off as a silhouette in front of the moon, gigantic dinosaurs doing what ever they do in Jurassic Park (I can’t say I’ve ever watched more than about 10 minutes of this franchise) and the plastic shark in Jaws 1 – but with the likes of Schindler he’s directed some pretty stunning, serious masterpieces. But with War Horse Spielberg does not recreate his previous war-themed genius. He certainly does recall his tendency for directing tacky, sensationalised Hollywood tack which makes you cry indeed – from desperation.

Call me a cynic, but this poster says it all. Horse and man, stood together, hair tussled in the wind, the warm glow of a sunset reflecting on their faces which are absorbed in ambient pouting heroism. And from the cliched blockbuster poster follows a film which is overloaded with contrived, cheesy banality and boring, over-acted scenes which stretch the film to it’s full almost three-hour painstaking duration.

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