The Imperial War Museum London re-opened in July after a £40 million refurbishment. Part of the new layout is a FREE permanent exhibition of some of the best British art works from the Great War. In fact the IMW claims it is ‘The largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years.’ The display is titled Truth and Memory and it turns out to be divided into two separate galleries on the third floor, each addressing one of these concepts.
What is artistic truth? In 1914 various forms of artistic Modernism were only just stirring in Britain, against a long Victorian tradition of noble and dignified realism. The rooms in the Truth gallery highlight the new young artists, often dismissed as artistic Bolsheviks but they and their supporters argued that the grotesque and unprecedented conditions of the War required new means of expression.
Many of these paintings were familiar to me both because I’m a fan of this kind of art and because I saw a number of them at the recent exhibition A Crisis of Brilliance at Dulwich Picture Gallery and read about them in the related book, which I reviewed here. In addition, I recently saw some of them or paintings by the same artists at the National Portrait Gallery’s recent show, The Great War In Portraits.
So I enjoyed seeing again the familiar and thrillingly ‘modern’ works by Nevinson, Nash, Spencer and Wyndham Lewis – but I was specially pleased to encounter works of people I’d never heard of before – Delf Smith, Spare, Clausen, Lamb and the two women artists, Norah Neilson-Gray and Anna Airy.
CRW Nevinson, the enfant terrible who was displaying his wonderfully stylish Futirust paintings and drawings within a year of the start of the War.
Paul Nash preferred landscapes to people and transferred the technique he’d developed for English pastoral to the blasted landscapes of the Western Front.
William Orpen was an older, established artist and developed an approach which used motifs from the Western tradition – he also did a number of lush traditional portraits, on show here are some spiffing fighter pilots – but also strange and haunting images of civilians, including the Mad Women of Douai.
Percy Delf Smith is so obscure he doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry. He is represented here by a set of engravings titled The Dance of Death, powerful, haunting realistic images of soldiers in various plights, all accompanied by the shrouding figure of death, including Death marches.
Gilbert Rogers has several paintings, including Gassed.
How did people remember and commemorate the Great War – in its immediate aftermath, in the generations that followed and now, 100 years later? The Imperial War Museum itself has played a role in the shaping of perceptions, as it was founded in 1917 to collect and house artefacts relating to the War while it was still ongoing.
I’m not sure the arrangement of paintings makes perfect sense, as there is a room here dedicated to the Vorticists, who I’d have thought should have been over with the young Turk Modernist painters in the Truth wing. there are half a dozen wonderful Wyndham Lewis’s including the surprisingly enormous A Battery Shelled, covering a whole wall.
There was also a room devoted to Stanley Spenser, including Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916. I’m not sure these have much to do with memory, or only as much as any other painting or sketch does.
Hung next to the Spensers were works by Henry Lamb, who I’d never heard of but worked in a similarly naive style. the standout piece is Irish Troops in the Judean Hills Surprised by a Turkish Bombardment.
Arguably Lewis and Bomberg, Spenser and Lamb should have been over in the Truth gallery. I think this gallery makes its point about Memory when it a) shows works by much older artists, people too old to fight in the War, works which therefore try to find symbols to convey the suffering such as George Clausen’s enigmatic, symbolist-style Youth Mourning…
… Or b) shows the larger number of works which follow directly on from late Victorian realist paintings and sculptures, using the established and traditional vocabulary, the epitome of which is probably William Orpen’s To the Unknown Soldier in France. Are institutional, formal and ‘official’ paintings like this somehow a betrayal of the rawer, horrendous experiences of the troops? Or do they accurately reflect the, after all, military training and mindset of the majority of the soldiers who fought?
Factories and Women
Though included in the Memory gallery this room struck me as being a massive subject in its won right: it contains ten or so paintings about the vast industrial effort that went on to supply the troops with everything they needed and, strikingly, some good, strong paintings by women artists I’d never heard of. Again, female artists of the Great War is a subject crying out for its own dedicated exhibition, certainly I’d like to see more by, and learn more about, about these two women artists.
The assertion of tradition
Off to one side is a room which contains the traditional stuff, by the traditional artists of the day. Lots of busts of the military leaders, maquettes for formal war memorials and, dominating a whole wall, John Singer Sargent’s enormous and very moving Gassed.
The information panel on the wall explains that much of the modern modern art acquired or commissioned by the IMW was lent to Tate Britain, a move which tended to leave the IW Museum with the more traditional, the more Imperial, the more jingoistic and paternalistic works.
This room gives a good impression of how technically good and effective these paintings and busts are, but also – how stifling, how conformist and so, ultimately, how untrue to the unique and horrifying experience so many millions of men and helpless civilians were forced to undergo during those nightmare years.
- Truth and Memory continues at the Imperial War Museum London until March 2015
- Explore the IWM’s collection of War art online
- BBC story about the refurbishment
Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions
- Visions of War Above and Below (May 2015)
- Peter Kennard (May 2015)
- Truth and Memory (September 2014)