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.
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.