16 February 2015

WW1 British Art at the IWM

2014’s being the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War (WW1), was an opportunity with obvious appeal for the Political-Media Complex. The BBC even appointed a “centenary controller” in 2013 to oversee the "biggest and most ambitious pan-BBC project ever commissioned". As might be expected, the warning on an archived BBC History webpage, no doubt relegated early on in this grand projet, that “The war that 'would be over by Christmas' dragged on for four long years of bloody stalemate” went unnoticed. But the BBC’s coverage of WW1, once the “1914 Christmas Truce” was over, has turned out to be minimal, although we are promised a return to the Somme and Jutland in 2016. It is, of course, unfair to single out the BBC because most of the media seem to have lost interest in the centennial, although The Times is continuing to draw a 100 year-old item from its archive every day. The politicians are, of course, focussed on the 2015 election and the media has moved on to the 70th anniversary of the ending of WW2.

Most of the big art-related WW1 guns were fired off early too. The popular installation by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, in the Tower of London moat (above) ended in November 2014, although some of its 888,246 ceramic poppies will go on a UK tour. 888,246 is officially the number of British military fatalities in the war, a number which, by definition, couldn’t have been arrived at before November 1918, so the installation might have been more appropriate for the centennial of the Armistice in 2018. The Great War in Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery ran from 27 February to 15 June, ending well before the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, let alone hostilities. But one exhibition, and probably the most significant art offering of the WW1 centennial, did manage to see out the first winter of the hostilities (a harsh one as shown in Eric Kennington’s oil on glass, The Kensingtons at Laventie, (1915 below), the London Imperial War Museum’s Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War.

The exhibition was part of the reopening of the IWM last year after refurbishment and is the largest show of British First World War art for almost 100 years. Most of the 120 works come from the museum’s own holdings or Tate Britain’s. The division into Truth and Memory - two slippery entities in any context, let alone war art - was certainly expedient given that the two exhibition areas on the third floor of IWM are separated by the landing. On top of this distinction there is another theme: that the initial artistic response to the war may have been expressed in classical and heroic terms but that modernism turned out to be the more appropriate style for the emerging horrors of trench and aerial warfare. An added complexity in curation was the convoluted nature of the government’s sponsorship of war artists. As recorders their images didn’t always suit the government’s wish to maintain wartime morale, and as memorialists their works turned out to be too large for the accommodation post-War governments were prepared to finance. To quote Waldemar Januszczak (his review of Truth and Memory is the best I’ve seen):
No one was sure where to place it [the IWM], or what to do with the art that might go in it. The original idea was to build a new museum commemorating the war in Whitehall, but that proved too expensive. The art was initially put on show in the Crystal Palace, in Sydenham, where the glass walls proved thunderously inappropriate for the showing of pictures. Next, they took it to South Kensington, to galleries adjoining the Imperial Institute, which stood where Imperial College stands now. Finally, after a further decade of muddling, the Imperial War Museum and its great collection of First World War art was installed in its present home, in the building that used to house the most notorious madhouse in the world, Bethlem Royal Hospital — “Bedlam”.
Some of the war artists’ works were passed on to the Tate Gallery, for example CRW Nevinson’s La Mitrailleuse (1915 below left) and Bursting Shell (1915 below right):

Works by Nevinson and Orpen, for example his Dead Germans in A Trench (1918 below left) and The Mad Woman of Douai (1918 below right) dominate the Truth side of the exhibition. Most of Orpen’s work here is in marked contrast with his portraits at the NPG. He gifted his WW1 works to the nation (in 2005 the IWM’s William Orpen Politics Sex and Death provided an opportunity to see these works in the context of his whole career).

The Memory section of the IWM show seemed to attract fewer visitors when I was there, oddly given that there are major works on show, exciting to see as large originals. Both Nash brothers are well-represented: John Nash’s Oppy Wood, 1917: Evening (1918) and 'Over The Top'. 1st Artists' Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917 (1918, below):

and Paul Nash’s We Are Making a New World (1918 below top) and The Menin Road (1919 below lower): 

There are also a major works by the Vorticist, Percy Wyndham Lewis, A Battery Shelled (1919, below top) and by Stanley Spencer, Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916 (1919, below lower):

And there are some interesting pictures of life on the home front in hospitals and munitions production. Anna Airey’s Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells: Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow, (1918 below) is a remarkable picture of arduous work by women:

Memory concludes with some very large pieces including Charles Sergeant Jagger’s plaster relief of The Battle of Ypres: The Worcesters at Gheluvelt (1919, below top), Orpen’s controversial To the Unknown British Soldier in France (1921) and, of course, John Singer Sargent’s 2.3 metre-wide Gassed (1919 below lower):

Truth and Memory ends on 8 March, so the opportunity to see some of the finest British 20th century art will be over by Easter, you might say.

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