The NPG's Portraits of the First World War reveals the human face of the First World War

By Richard Moss | 28 February 2014

The National Portrait Gallery kicks off a series of major exhibitions for the Centenary of the First World War by exploring the many faces of portraiture during the conflict

Click on the image below to launch a gallery of images from the show.

The opening salvo in London’s programme of major exhibitions in response to the Centenary of the First World War comes courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, whose fitting show of more than 80 paintings, photographs, sculptures, films and drawings aims to bring the human experience of war to the forefront of people’s minds.

As well as works by Beckmann, Kirchner, Orpen, Tonks, Rosenberg and Epstein, the Great War in Portraits features photography and film – including the first simultaneous screening of the British and German documentaries about the Battle of the Somme. 

Henry Tonks’ searing portraits of facially wounded servicemen are shown for the first time alongside the photographic portraits of the men he studied. As you might expect, there are several painted portraits and a stunning centrepiece grid of images that shows how the war enveloped people of all backgrounds. 

The show’s touchstone piece is arguably William Orpen’s studied depiction of himself as the urbane war artist, elegantly muffled against the cold in an army greatcoat, balaclava and rakishly tilted tin hat.

It’s an interesting choice that recalls his pre-war society portraits, but one which cleverly veils the traumatic effect the war had on the artist. Posted to the Western Front in 1917, Orpen painted everything from the dead to Generals, but by 1919 his ghostly To the Unknown British Soldier Killed in France told its own story of the effect on his spirits.

Photographic portraits include those of Siegfried Sassoon, Edith Cavell, Mata Hari, Winston Churchill and Wilfred Owen, whose studio portrait, taken like thousands of similar portraits of servicemen at the time, is today one of the most famous images of the war.

But in a show dominated by still portraits, the 1916 films of the Battle of the Somme provide arguably the most evocative image.

No-one knows the identity or fate of the soldier, or the wounded comrade he is carrying out of the line, but the haunting moment where the exhausted rescuer pauses to face the camera has become one of the most haunting personifications of the conflict.

In terms of technical innovation in the mechanism of killing, the First World War outstripped all other conflicts. Accordingly, it was reported and recorded with a degree of visual detail hitherto unknown in warfare. This exhibition puts a human face to the slaughter.

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