National Portrait Gallery announces Great War in Portraits for First World War centenary in 2014

By Culture24 Reporter | 24 October 2013

From deserters and heroes to politicians and generals, the National Portrait Gallery’s programme for the centenary of the First World War opens next year with an eye opening exhibition that will focus on the portraits of those involved.

a portrait of a soldier in a German uniform with a severed hand and nude painting in the background
Selbstbildnis als Soldat (Self-portrait as a Soldier) by Ludwig Kirchner, 1915© Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio

The Great War in Portraits
(27 Feb-15 Jun 2014), will kick start a four-year public programme of displays, events and workshops for young people at the Gallery which is promising “an approach never previously adopted”.

Showing how the First World War was depicted and reported with a degree of visual detail unprecedented in the history of conflict, the exhibition will feature the now familiar and iconic portraits of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Winston Churchill together with images reflecting the war experience of those from all social classes who served.

Important loans of major art works by Lovis Corinth and Max Beckmann and Kirchner’s painting Selbstbildnis als Soldat (Self-portrait as a Soldier) will bring searing German Expressionistic masterpieces into a mix, which will also include Harold Gillies disturbing photographs of soldiers with facial injuries from the Royal College of Surgeons and Henry Tonks’ portraits of similarly disfigured servicemen.

A First World War portrait of an infantry officer
Wilfred Owen by John Gunston, 1916© National Portrait Gallery, London
An installation of 40 photographs displayed in a grid formation will present a range of protagonists from medal winners and heroes to the dead and the executed, interspersed with artists, poets, memoirists and images representing the roles played by women, the home front and, the Commonwealth.

The exhibition will also feature a divergent pairing of British and German films devoted to the Battle of the Somme never previously seen together; and a rare photograph, Courtellemont by Jules Gervais, described by curators as “a portrait of absence” depicting a deserted, battle-scarred landscape.

NPG Curator Paul Moorehouse says “a complex range of human experience” will be covered in the show which will reveal the “evolving different roles, responsibilities and destinies” and “illuminate the way war was represented through portraits of individuals – each caught up in events beyond reason or control”.

An accompanying programme includes a display called keep the Home Fires Burning, featuring stars of Music Halls of the Great War period and First World War-inspired performances by the Portrait Choir.

An NPG-led project called National Memory – Local Stories, will look at local collections throughout the UK and investigate how they can be used to engage with young people and highlight significant moment during the war.

A fully-illustrated book by Paul Moorhouse with an essay by Sebastian Faulks will accompany the exhibition priced £18.95.

  • Find out more about the First World War Centenary at

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