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Posts tagged ‘WW1’

Paths of Glory

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 The impressionists had been replaced by emotionally vivid expressionism, wildly colourful fauvism, and starkly mechanical vortism.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.

Christopher Nevinson, Paths of Glory (1917) Oil on canvas (Imperial War Museum, London)

Christopher Nevinson, Paths of Glory (1917) Oil on canvas (Imperial War Museum, London)

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.

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.