The Great War in Portraits @ National Portrait Gallery

This year sees the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War One. The National Portrait Gallery is inaugurating a four-year course of exhibitions, lectures, educational activities etc and they’re kicking off with The Great War in Portraits – a small (three rooms), beautifully formed and FREE exhibition!

Rock Drill

It opens with Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill, surely one of the most striking art works of the century, a pioneering Modernist sculpture from 1913, designed to sit atop an actual giant pneumatic drill. At its launch it bespoke the liberating, alienating but awesome power of modern technology, capturing the energy and optimism of first wave Modernism. Later, in 1916, as the war became more devastating and less the triumph of modern, clean technology people expected, Epstein removed the drill and splayed limbs to produce the cutdown version we see today. It is not so much the Modernism of the image which came to seem apt – but this mutilation of the original work.

Kings and Kaisers

Room one has portraits of the men who got us into this mess: paintings of Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V, Emperor Franz Joseph, a photograph showing George V with  his cousin Czar Nicholas II. As a result of their orders some 70 million men were mobilised and nine million killed.

Generals and men

Room two displayed portraits of the Generals, the men who led the armies through this mess: Field Marshall von HindenbergCommander of the Allied Forces Ferdinand Foch, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, General Sir Herbert Plumer, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. All these were painted by Sir William Orpen (‘financially one of the most successful, and eventually one of the most honoured, portrait painters working in Britain in the twentieth century’) who is the most-represented artist here. Along with his portraits of the generals are his images of the common soldier: Man in trench, a Grenadier Guardsman, the Receiving room – and a revealing self portrait.

All very interesting and effective. But for me the room is electrified by the relatively compact and super powerful La Mitrailleuse by CWR Nevinson, whose work was recently featured at the Dulwich Picture Gallery Crisis of Brilliance show, and which I also saw recently in a Great War show at the Leeds Art Gallery. Like the Rock Drill, this shard from the brink-of-the-war movement, Vorticism, dominated all the other images in its room, including the naturalistic Dead Stretcher Bearer by Rogers and the milk-and-water post-Impressionism of Walter Sickert’s The Integrity of Belgium.

Heroes and villains

The third, final and big room contained a portraits of outstanding (Allied) heroes of the War: Captain A Jacka, Gilbert Insall, JB McCudden and GB McKean – as well as an entire wall dedicated to a grid of 40 or so photos of soldiers (and two women). Most of them are famous (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon) but some just anonymous soldiers. Possibly the most striking was an amazingly confident/arrogant portrait of the legendary Baron von Richtofen, the fighter ace.

The post-War divide between British and Continental art

The final half dozen paintings provide a stark and maybe unintended contrast which sheds light on a major issue: why British art became a provincial backwater for a lot of the 20th century, while Europe saw an extraordinary explosion of experimental and avant-garde art.

The commentary summarises: for the British the Great War came to represent the horror of the new: of new technology, of new mass societies, of new ways of slaughtring each other. And the struggling avant-garde in this country was tainted by it, with it. After the trauma of the War British society wanted comforting, a return to traditional and conservative forms and subjects. For a few years before the Great War London almost became the capital of modern art and the Modernist movement. After the war, Britain washed her hands of all that and the focus shifted to Paris, with parallel movements in revolutionary Germany, in proto-Fascist Italy and in the new communist Soviet Union.

Because in those countries the Great War had led directly to the state collapsing. The old regimes, the old ways, the old archdukes and kaisers and czars were fatally associated with the catastrophe, and they paid the price, swept away, executed, forced into exile. And along with them went many of the cultural and aesthetic values associated with the old ways, the old beliefs, the old styles. In these countries the Modern held out hope for a new start, and artists all over Europe threw themselves into the new ways of seeing and making.

Epitomising the vast gulf which was already yawning between British art and European art, this small show ends by juxtaposing the visionary Expressionism of Ernst Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as a Soldier, his hand chopped off, a swathe of violent reds and blues, a naked cabaret girl in the background foreshadowing Weimar decadence; with Glyn Warren Philpot’s very decent, very calm, very assured portrait of Siegfried Sassoon, a protester in the War who quickly reverted to the fox-hunting man of his class and background, and whose later prose and poetry epitomises the stifling blanket of decency which settled over Britain between the wars, and beyond…

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