Witness: Art Of The First World War At IWM North

By Richard Moss | 14 February 2006
painting of first world war soldiers trudging over snow covered trenches

Over The Top (1st Artists' Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917). John Nash (RA), 1918. © Imperial War Museum

Coming as it does in the year of the 90th anniversary of the battle of the Somme, the Imperial War Museum North’s latest exhibition offers a fascinating insight into the role of art during war.

Witness: Highlights of First World War Art, a free exhibition running until April 23, is a clear, thematic engagement with a rich and fascinating subject. The IWM does of course have the advantage of holding one of finest First World War collections in the world and they have plundered this vast art collection to good effect.

Beyond showcasing an impressive collection, the exhibition reveals how war artists grappled to convey the slaughter, the grind and what they perceived to be the real nature of war.

The 1914-18 war happened, after all, at the beginning of the film era - a time when photography was in its infancy and painting and sculpture still had a vital role to play in the representation of the facts. There was a huge demand for images of what the war looked like and many of the paintings on show here acted as a bridge to the British public during and after the war years.

As you would expect from the subject matter, there are some stirring images. Paul Nash’s Menin Road and We are Making a New World are just two of the paintings offering the apocalyptic vision of the First World War battlefield we have come to expect; pock-marked landscapes, rain-filled shell holes, flooded trenches and shattered trees.

painting of a group of women in early twentieth century attire standing in a bar

Women's Canteen at Phoenix Works, Bradford, Flora Lion. © Imperial War Museum

To add to the impact of these paintings the curators have added ‘witness’ panels featuring text from the IWM’s document and sound archive.

A chilling testimony by Private Henry Williams, who went into action with the Hampshire Regiment begins: “At the given time you climb into no man’s land and start walking towards Jerries’ line…” The accompanying painting by Paul Nash uses a snowy landscape to heighten the impression of a deep cleft of trench out of which men clamber and walk into oblivion.

Such images still retain a power and it's easy to see why prints of them sold very well and were reproduced in abundance in pictorial magazines.

As well as grappling with the need to convey what they saw to a general public, the artists also tussled with the authorities as their Ministry of Information paymasters laid down certain rules to abide by. Soldier’s portraits weren’t allowed to carry the name of individuals and brutal battle scenes were at first frowned upon.

A painting that raised government concerns was CRW Nevinson’s Paths of Glory. The Ministry were concerned about the effect such a graphic depiction of war would have on public moral and, after a row, Nevinson put it on display in March 1918 with the words ‘censored’ across it.

painting of a soldier standing in the shadows in front of a casualty filled battle field hospital

Gassed and Wounded. Eric Kennington (RA). © Imperial War Museum

Since then perceptions of the Great War have changed - the painting was bought by the IWM, giving it the establishment seal of approval.

Whatever the motivations and struggles, the art on show here is full of invention, integrity and power. The battlefield scenes by Nevinson, Paul Nash and John Nash particularly are absorbing.

It has been said that Nevinson produced his best work during the war – effectively sapping his creative talents. Similarly Paul Nash’s health suffered and he endured ill health for years after.

Paul Nash’s Ypres Salient at Night, is one of several striking pictures that perfectly capture the eerie nature and desolation of no man’s land. A star burst illuminates huddled figures on a trench parapet whilst a working party toils on the barbed wire. A desolate and shattered landscape stretches away into the distance.

Evocative images like this give a sense of the eerie quality of life in the trenches. Similarly William Orpen’s Dead Germans leaves one to wonder about the dead being reconciled whilst Austin O Spare’s Dressing the Wounded During a Gas Attack seems chokingly thick with poisonous gas.

Looking at some of these works there also emerges a real sense of artists tempering their stylistic experiments in order to relate what they saw to a general audience. This was, after all, the time of the Vorticists, cubism and futurism.

painting of a war cemetery with some people in the background

The Cemetery, Etaples. Sir John Lavery (RA RSA), 1919. © Imperial War Museum

A group of small watercolour studies by Nevinson depicts marching soldiers as angular shapes, their bayonets piercing the sky. It’s a classic avant-garde interpretation - typical of the Vorticist group - of which Nevinson and war artist Wyndham Lewis were members.

Contrast these with Nevinson's large-scale painting, The Harvest of Battle, and you will see something infinitely more accessible. Shocking, full of atmosphere and detail, it reveals an artist making a moving record of what he saw and one which the general public could relate to.

Similarly, two excellent sculptural studies by Jacob Epstein, An American Soldier and The Tin Hat, show an artist toning down his avant-garde visual language for the sake of public consumption.

Other artists were less concerned with the need to temper their style; Wyndham Lewis’ Battery Shelled is all twisted iron and corrugated figures. It does however work perfectly to convey the destruction wrought by high velocity shelling.

Another artist, Francis Derwent Wood (two of his terracotta sculptures of wounded Germans are included here), put his talent to practical use by helping to make facial masks for disfigured servicemen at Queen’s Hospital for Facial Injuries. A poignant painting, by J Hodgson Lobley, shows some of the men who were treated at Queen’s and is a sad insight into life beyond the trenches.

painting of people digging a bombed out wreckage with two men in the foreground

A Battery Shelled. Percy Wyndham Lewis, 1918. © Imperial War Museum

As the war moved on, the scheme to tell people what was happening at the front progressed into a recognition of the need to produce an artistic record of the home front and the exhibition includes some fine examples of factory and street scenes.

Anna Airy’s scenes of furnaces, factories and shop floors are remarkable records of the working lives of men and women during the war. Charles Pears’ Pay Night at Rosyth pictures workers walking through sleet and rain towards a grey factory to pick up their pay. Similarly Flora Lion’s Women’s Canteen at Phoenix Works, Bradford offers an insight into the lives of the women who worked in the munitions factories.

Nevinson pops up again in this section, this time using elements of caricature to capture the different personalities in a food queue.

Fittingly, the exhibition closes by exploring the idea of remembrance. Cemetery Etaples 1919 by John Lavery records the work of the Commonwealth War Graves commission to establish war cemeteries in Belgium and France.

But it is the final painting in the exhibition, which is perhaps the most fascinating and unsettling of all. The Unknown Soldier in France by William Orpen shows a solitary soldier’s coffin draped in flag in a hall within the Palace of Versailles.

painting of two dead soldiers lying abandoned in a field

Paths of Glory. CRW Nevinson (ARA) 1917. © Imperial War Museum

Orpen was originally commissioned to paint the key protagonists of the Versailles Peace Treaty but he lost heart and painted them out. If you stare at the painting intently, ghostly figures appear in the oils. Two can be seen guarding the coffin. These pale faces of the dead make an appropriate and thoughtful end to what is an absorbing and meticulous exhibition.

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