A Crisis of Brilliance by David Boyd Haycock (2009)

A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War  by David Boyd Haycock (2009) is the book which led to the lovely exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The artists in question all attended Slade Art school in the years just before WWI and this group biography – weaving together their family stories, their love affairs, their letters and diaries and works of art – gives a wonderful sense of what it was to be young (very young in some cases, 16, 17) and dedicated to Art at a great turning point in history. The five are:

Paul Nash (1889-1946) at Slade 1910-11. Parents artists, but his unstable mother had a nervous breakdown and went into a mental asylum in 1910. Served with the Artists’ Rifles 1914–17; appointed Official War Artist as a result of his exhibition Ypres Salient at the Goupil Gallery 1917.

CRW (Christopher) Nevinson (1889-1946) at Slade 1910-11, from an artistic middle class family, Nevinson was a loud bombastic man who joined the Futurists, was briefly allied to Ezra Pound’s Vorticists, before achieving his height of fame as a war artist during the Great War with a series of wonderful Modernist depictions of the conflict, most famously La Mitrailleuse.

Mark Gertler (1891-1939) at Slade 1908. From very poor Jewish immigrant family struggling to survive in the East End, popular and famous in his day he is best known for the harshly Modernist the Merry-go-round.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) at Slade 1908-12. From a populous family of a come-down-in-the-world middle class family living in Cookham, Berkshire, which Spencer came to idolise. Served with the R.A.M.C. and the Royal Berkshire Regiment, mainly in Macedonia, 1915–18, and was commissioned to paint a war picture for the Imperial War Museum

Dora Carrington (1893-1932) at Slade  . From a smart, professional and arty middle class family but with a spectacularly repressed Victorian mother who passed on her sexual ignorance to Dora who spent her entire life trying to break free until she ended up in a very Bloomsbury menage with the gay writer Lytton Strachey.

The book falls into two halves: the first half where a selection of promising art students arrive at Slade, in slightly different years, at different ages, from different backgrounds, and set about trying to make careers in London’s difficult and treacherous art and literary world; and the second half when, quite by surprise, the First World War begins and all of them (except the only woman, Dora Carrington) find themselves dragged into it. Although it brings out the artistic best in Nevinson above all, but also in Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer, the War destroys their innocence and optimism and neither the world nor they are the same afterwards.

This book more than anything I’ve ever read conveys the way the Great war smashed lives. It creates such a compelling sense of the group, the gang of friends and hangers-on and aquaintances, all living their rather self-obsessed literary or artistic lives, squabbling and falling in love and issuing little manifestoes – and then, BANG! Horror and terror. Never before have I shared the fear and anxiety these young men and their brothers felt about whether or not to enlist and then, as conscription spread like a plague, how or if they could escape being conscripted and being forcibly sent like sausage fodder in trains to the Front to be murdered in their millions.

The book begins with the light airiness of Cookham by the Thames but by the time it draws to a conclusion at the same beauty spot 50 years later too much has happened, too many lives been lost and cultures been broken and hopes been dashed for it not to be shadowed and riven. This is a wonderful book and at the end I was nearly crying.

A marvellous nude by Dora Carrington aged 19, the varieties of flesh tone set against an impenetrable black from Fuseli.

Nude Woman 1912 by Dora Carrington (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nude Woman 1912 by Dora Carrington (source: Wikimedia Commons)

A few years later the sensuous comfort, based on centuries of realistic painting, of Carrington’s nude, was swept away by faceless masses, by the semi automatons which were created by war on a hitherto unimaginable scale, captured by one of Nevinson’s wonderfully evocative war paintings, Column on the March.

Column on the March by CRW Nevinson (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

Column on the March by CRW Nevinson (copyright Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

A Crisis of Brilliance @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

To the small and beautifully formed Dulwich Picture Gallery for a typically petite and poignant exhibition, “A Crisis of Brilliance“, bringing together 70 or so paintings by C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, David Bomberg and Paul Nash who all studied at the Slade in the years leading up to the Great War. The exhibition stems from a book, David Boyd Haycock’s group biography of these artists, ‘A Crisis of Brilliance‘, published in 2009, so this is the exhibition of the book:

Mark Gertler developed a stylised way with chunky figures (eg the strange and wonderful The Fruit Sorters) and blocky landscapes (The Pool at Garsington) – though he’s probably best known for the highly stylised Merry-go-round, currently hanging in Tate Britain. Paintings by Mark Gertler on Google images.

Dora Carrington is the most elusive of the bunch: a note on the exhibition wall claims the patriarchal sexism of the Georgian art world undermined her confidence. It is telling that the images Google images bring together for her are a) not particularly distinctive b) feature lots of photos of her with men including the Love of her Life, Lytton Strachey. The show features some striking pencil drawings of heads and wonderful female nudes (the powerful Female Figure Lying on Her Back, 1912) testament to Slade’s insistence on teaching its students draughtmanship. She married the writer Lytton Strachey and moved to rural Berkshire, where she painted local scenery eg The River Pang above Tidmarsh, in stark contrast to the urban and/or modernist approach of the five men.

David Bomberg was, apparently, one of the first painters to experiment with pure abstraction in 1913 and 1914, in paintings like The Mud Bath or In The Hold (1914), below, painted when he was just 22!

David Bomberg, In the Hold, 1913-14, oil on canvas, 196.2 x 231.1 cm, © Tate, London 2012

David Bomberg, In the Hold, 1913-14, oil on canvas, 196.2 x 231.1 cm, © Tate, London 2012

But Bomberg seems to have capitalised on this breakthrough in relatively few paintings and after the War relapsed into a sub-Cezanne murkiness. He became a respected teacher but was erased from art history.”He was in his lifetime the most brutally excluded artist in Britain. Having lived for years on the earnings of his second wife Lilian Holt and remittances from his sister Kitty, he died in absolute poverty.” (Wikipedia)

Paul Nash had a long and successful career developing his early knack for landscape into a particularly surreal vision of an essentially quiet pastoral England. Throughout his career he produced vivid and strange images, of the Great War (The Menin Road), of the South Downs in the 30s (Landscape from a Dream), and then haunting depictions of the Second World War in the 1940s (Totes Meer). Paintings by Paul Nash on Google images.

Paul Nash, The Void, 1918, Oil on canvas, 75 x 95.7 cm, Photo © MBAC

Paul Nash, The Void, 1918, Oil on canvas, 75 x 95.7 cm, Photo © MBAC

C.R.W. Nevinson quickly took to the Futurist/Vorticist style in with its dynamic angles, bright colours and sense of boundless energy bursting out the confines of the picture frame. I liked The Towpath, an early example of industrial impressionism which reminded me of the Paul Valette painting I saw at the Lowry exhibition: it was done in 1912 but only a year later he had moved beyond this into the modernism of Dance Hall Scene, below, or the Le Vieux Port, both 1913.

C.R.W. Nevinson, Dance Hall Scene, c.1913-14, chalk, gouache and watercolour, 22.2 x 19.7 cm, ©Tate, London 2012

C.R.W. Nevinson, Dance Hall Scene, c.1913-14, chalk, gouache and watercolour, 22.2 x 19.7 cm, ©Tate, London 2012

Nevinson found the subject to match his angular, vibrant style in the Great War, working in the Ambulance Corps and producing unforgettable images of which maybe the most famous is La Mitrailleuse. Everything Nevinson did in these few hectic years is excellent, virile, lucid, alive, like the darkly vivid Column on the March, or the grim scene in a field hospital,La Patrie. He did a series of paintings of airplanes in the Great War and there is a perfect, exquisite example here – Spiral descent – a sliver of blue heaven with a tiny matchstick airplane swooping down the metal curve of the sky – breathtaking. Paintings by CRW Nevinson on Google images.

Stanley Spencer was to become the most successful of the group, going on to fame and a knighthood, all very odd for the shy visionary from Cookham. The early works in the exhibition show the quirky naive style Spencer was developing, the Christian subject matter embedded in his native Berkshire village and the awkward angular handling of the human figure (John Donne arriving in heaven) – but they seem like apprentice works, none of them have the finished, oiled richness of his amazing shipbuilding paintings from the Second World War or the mature Cookham paintings. Paintings by Stanley Spencer on Google images.

The last room, detailing the fates of the six artists after the Great War, is sad: Nevinson never recovered the swashbuckling style or intense subject matter of the War, reverting to a more figurative style, sinking into despair by the mid-20s and dying unknown in the 1940s. Gertler gassed himself in 1936. Dora Carrington shot herself in 1932 shortly after Lytton Strachey died. Bomberg, though a brilliant teacher, sank into critical obscurity. Only Nash and Spencer went on to unquestioned success.

This is a wonderfully intimate exhibition, showing early and minor and experimental works from six very interesting artists, as they found their feet and navigated through the hectic style wars of the experimental 1910s and the brutal War Years.

The exhibition continues until 22 September at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

List of Crisis of Brilliance artworks (PDF)

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