- from the Great War, edited by H.W. Wilson, volume 12, chapter 263
- 'The Influence of the War on Art'
- by Frank Rutter
'1914' and '1917' - two allegories by a war-time artist
How the War Affected Art and ArtistsThe State of British Art in 1914Sobering Influence of War on the Younger PaintersThe Return to RealismArt and Ideas Value of Pictures as an Educational and Civilising InfluencePremonitions of the War in Modern PaintingViolence and Post-ImpressionismThe Intellectual Bankruptcy of the Royal AcademyOpportunities Afforded by the War to New TalentPoster Artists and the Recruiting CampaignThe First Bairnsfather CartoonWill Dyson's War Satires The Rise of C. R. W. NevinsonHis Remarkable Interpretation of the Movement and Mechanism of Modern Warfare Muirhead Bone Appointed First British Official ArtistEric Kennington's Picture of "The Kensingtons at Laventie: Winter, 1914" Orpen's War PicturesThe Arrival of Paul NashA New Vision of a New WorldThe Desolation of the Battle-Scarred Landscape The Great Air Raid Picture by Walter BayesThe Canadian War Memorials FundAustralian Artists and the WarHow Artists Have Increased the Efficiency of the War MachineThe Art of CamouflageCaptain Derwent Wood's Masks for Facial Wounds The War in SculptureCanada's Golgotha.
No history of the Great War can afford to ignore its tremendous and far-reaching influence on British art. The tragic cataclysm which drenched all Europe in blood and changed so many features in the normal social life stirred up primitive emotions latent in mankind which found their fitting expression in the revelations of a new art and a new literature. For just as the heaviest burden of the war fell on the shoulders of the younger generation, so its chief glories, in art as well as in action, were denied to the old and given to the young. When the outworn conventions of the Royal Academy failed, on the whole, to convey any adequate impression of this mighty world-conflict, young artists hitherto unknown rose from the ranks, seeking after and finding new methods of expression.
It may be argued that new movements in art were visible before 1914. That is true, but it was the war that gave balance and sanity to these tentative experiments. Scornful of old ideals and traditions, young artists of talent were inclined in the days of peace to stand on their heads in an endeavour to be fresh, unconventional, and original. The war set the best of them firmly on their feet. Eccentricities and extravagances, the dross of genuine feeling and legitimate ambition, were purified away in the fiery ordeal of modern battles.
Further, the war not only restored the younger men to sanity and inspired their pictures, it prepared a public to accept and understand them. It gave these new men their chance. Boy artists, who in peace time might have struggled on to advanced middle age before their genius was recognised and admitted, made themselves famous within the space of a year or two. Nothing but the war could so quickly have broken down the wall of prejudice which is erected by contemporaries between the spirit of a new genius and their own understanding.
Though it is not necessary for every picture to tell a story, it is necessary that every picture should contain an idea and communicate an emotion. That legacy of the decadent 'nineties, the doctrine of "Art for Art's sake," was found unconvincing and unsatisfying in the twentieth century. In its place was substituted a new gospel of "Art for an Idea's sake," and it was gradually realised that the great value of art as an element of education and social progress was because nothing else in the world could impress an idea so vividly and lastingly on the human memory as a great work of art. Though recognised always here and there by the few, but certainly not among many of the professional art critics, this perception of the true function of art became much more general during the stress of war.
During the first decade of the twentieth century art collectors had been prone to overlook the general lack of ideas in contemporary art, and to derive enjoyment from displays of technical skill. The realities of war soon made even the connoisseur impatient of mere cleverness. A nation living under the strain of war was not to be imposed upon by any juggling with pigment and paintbrush that told the spectator nothing but the painter's satisfaction with his own dexterity.
The state of European painting in 1914 was curiously interesting to the historian and psychologist. The logical development of centuries by masters who laboriously and reverently had conquered province after province of Nature's fairyland was amazingly interrupted by group after group of revolutionary artists. From Giotto in the early fourteenth century to Claude Monet and Pissarro at the close of the nineteenth the art of the Great Masters had been firmly anchored to Nature. They had had many and various aims, but truth of vision had always been one, whether it was the true appearance of forms, the true effect of distance, the true subtlety of light and shade, the true glory of sunrise and sunset, or the true tints, of prismatic colour in shadows. Artists always painted what they saw, or believed they saw, till the experimentalists of the twentieth century began preaching a new gospel that artists should paint not what they actually beheld but what they felt or thought about.
From about 1900 down to the outbreak of the Great War the art world was deluged with theories and "isms." Impressionism, the last of the natural progressive movements in paintingfor its essence is the rendering of the true colour of prismatic sunshine and of the exact tint of colour in shadowswas succeeded by "Post-Impressionism," "Cubism," "Expressionism," "Futurism," "Vorticism," and what not. All these were reactionary movements, the earlier ones reacting to archaic forms, the later ones tending towards an abstract ideal that would reduce a picture to the intellectual level of a Turkish carpet or a design for chintz. They would seem unimportant and wholly unrelated to the war but for one most significant fact. Whatever theories these revolutionary painters might hold, their practice showed, as some of them openly asserted, their belief that "strength is beauty," and the one adjective that could properly be applied to all their work was "violent."
Now art is admittedly the mirror of life, and though many of the strange things in frames which elbowed their way into picture exhibitions since 1910 showed nothing at all very clearly, they did reveal one thingthe mentality of their authors. It is a remarkable fact that, in the spring of 1914, P. Wyndham Lewis, the leader of the English vorticists, began a series of abstract paintings with titles taken from military text-books. His "Plan of Campaign," shown in the 1914 Salon of the Allied Artists' Association, was based not on landscape and figures but on the diagram of a battle disposition that we may find in any history book.
The particular case of this young officer typifies the general effect the war had on British art. Before the war Mr. Lewis had painted incomprehensible abstract pictures which none but the initiated can understand. In 1918, after two years' experience with the artillery in France, he returned to London on special leave to paint "The Gun Pit" for the Canadian Government, a splendidly sane record of his remembered experience with the big guns and of the sinewy, massive men who worked them.
Still earlier in 1914 the Russo-Polish painter, Wasilly Kandinsky, the founder of "Expressionism," produced violently coloured canvases in which the trained eye could detect distorted traces of cannon and puffs of smoke. This quasi-subterranean interest on the part of painters in the appurtenances of war, coupled with the extraordinary rage for violence in the presentation of more normal subjects, long escaped the attention of professional art critics. It was recognised, however, by Professor Michael Sadler, Vice-Principal of Leeds University, who in the winter of 1915 delivered a lecture on "Premonitions of War' in Modern Painting"; in this lecture he had been so impressed by Kandinsky's work that he had asked the artist whether he had any clear vision of the imminence of war in Europe. The painter replied that he had not actually foreseen the outbreak of hostilities, but that he had been conscious of an immense conflict of forces in the spiritual world, and that his endeavour had been to record that consciousness in his pictures.
On the principle that coming events cast their shadows before, European art was undoubtedly affected by the spirit of unrest and lawless ambition that agitated Central Europe before the war. It is significant that the principal buyers of cubist, futurist, and other extreme paintings were to be found in Germany. Always barren in invention and sterile in great art since the time of Diirer and Holbein, modern Germany could not produce even the freak artists of her choice, but with her instinctive love for the brutal she could and did patronise the violent wherever found. The violent distorted visions which Poles, Spaniards, Italians, and some Frenchmen produced she was ready to cherish and barter. With the German exodus from Paris in the first days of the war went the art dealer Kahnweiler, who specialised in cubist paintings.
A sinister violence and subterranean unrest became manifest in European art before it exploded in European politics and precipitated the war. Abroad, and slightly even in England, the wild men of painting had already betrayed in form and colour the spirit of greed and merciless aggression which eventually provoked Armageddon. The art of France had been profoundly affected by this invading spirit; on British painting it had touched but lightly, and long months of war elapsed before it became apparent that a new art was arising, and that art also could help a nation in its hour of need.'
The first recognition of the artist's value to the State in war time, of his power to drive home an idea, came in connection with the recruiting campaign of 1914-15. During this period close on a hundred posters were commissioned from various artists by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, and two million and a half copies of these were distributed throughout the United Kingdom. It cannot be maintained that many of these posters had any serious pretensions to be considered as examples of the fine arts, but they were undoubtedly striking and efficient. Alfred Leete's "Kitchener Wants You!" was a poster not easily forgotten, and among a number of effective ( silhouette posters the one showing two soldiers with fixed bayonets charging a hill and lettered, "Don't stand looking at this, Go and Help!" may be cited as a poster both efficient and artistic.
In addition to the posters, generous contributions were made to the campaign by several private firms. The recruiting posters issued by the London Electric Railways will be remembered alike for their efficiency and their high artistic value, the most important of them being the "Remember Belgium," by Frank Brangwyn, A.R.A., and Spencer Pryse's "The Only Road for an Englishman," which, by its dignity of design and noble appeal, may be regarded as the finest poster issued in connection with the war.
In connection with the later War Savings Campaign the use of Whistler's famous masterpiece, "Portrait of the Artist's Mother," as a gentle reminder that "Old Age Must Come," was an interesting acknowledgment of a growing belief on the part of authority that the best and most artistic picture is in the end the most efficient poster.
Simultaneously with the appearance of the recruiting poster on the hoardings came the war cartoon in the newspaper, another instance of how artists by the practice of their art gave material assistance to the national effort. As the war lengthened out, the necessity for active propaganda on the part of the Allies became more and more evident to the British authorities, and there is no form of propaganda so concise and telling as the newspaper cartoon. Excellent work in this direction was done by the "Punch" artists, L. Raven-Hill and Bernard Partridge; by Edmund L. Sullivan, whose book of cartoons, "The Kaiser's Garland," was equally notable for its message and its art; and by many other well-known black-and-white artists.
Previous to 1914 the Australian artist Will Dyson had attracted attention by the brilliant and original qualities of the cartoons which he then contributed to British Labour publications. After the outbreak of hostilities Mr. Dyson definitely set himself to wage war by his pen and pencil, and no draughtsman exposed German cant, brutality, and inhumanity with more passionate power and greater mastery. Mr. Dyson's view of German methods was well exemplified in his cartoon entitled " Humility," reproduced on the preceding page. This shows Mephistopheles approaching the portals of the German Imperial Academy of War Kultur. "I am sorry," says the professor on the doorstep, "we have no further openings for instructors." "Ah, you misjudge me," Mephistopheles replies, "I come as a pupil." The connoisseur will observe the marvellous way in which with each subject the artist's technique corresponds to the thought. Mr. Brangwyn, A.R.A., in 1917 unhesitatingly pronounced Will Dyson to be "an international asset in this present war," and the extent to which "Dysons" were reproduced abroad suggests that they must have created a great impression in America, in Spain, and in other neutral countries. In Mr. Dyson the British Empire was able to claim an artist of international reputation and lasting fame.
His exhibition of "War Satires" at the Leicester Galleries in January, 1915, was the first of a series of exhibitions which enhanced and widened Mr. Dyson's reputation; and later in the war, when he was appointed official artist with the Australian forces, he expressed the valour and endurance of the Australian fighting man as ably and vividly as he had exposed the ruthless brutality of the German. With the exception of Will Dyson, however, it could hardly be claimed that the first four years of war revealed any new political cartoonist in England.
In humorous art it was another matter altogether, and a real discovery was made when on March 31st, 1915, the "Bystander " published the first cartoon by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather. His first effort, "Where did that one go to?" was succeeded by a long series of amusing drawings which instantly installed themselves as first favourites among both soldiers and civilians. His intimate knowledge of life at the front, and his whimsical sense of humour in the lesser tragedies of life, carried Captain Bairnsfather to a height of popularity he could never have won by pure excellence of technique. It is what he draws rather than how he draws it which becomes the centre of interest, but his drawings certainly form as characteristic a record of the Great War as those by Cruikshank are of the age of Dickens.
By the spring of 1915 the war was absorbing the activities of all the best black-and- white artists in the United Kingdom, and it had revealed, one humorous artist of genuine individuality and talent. The case of the painters was altogether different, and the works they sent to exhibitions in London and the provinces varied little from their usual pre-war practice.
The heads of the profession, as well as the rank and file, were most generous in their gifts to Red Cross Funds and similar charities, but they did not alter their style and they were slow to change their subjects.
Toward the close of January, 1915, a great art exhibition in aid of the Red Cross Society was opened at Burlington House, but though it was well supported by Royal Academicians and by members of other recognised art societies, the paucity of war pictures was very noticeable. Only one called for comment, because the historian is not concerned with paintings that have merit; he is concerned with paintings that have significance. Walter Sickert's "The Integrity of Belgium," painted in October, 1914, and showing Belgian soldiers defending a street barricade, was the first oil painting exhibited of a battle incident in the Great War. Still more significant than either of these, though only a prelude to what was later to follow from the same brush, were Christopher R. W. Nevinson's three contributions to the exhibition of "The London Group," held in March at the Goupil Gallery. Before the war Mr. Nevinson was known to the few as a young artist of promise, an ex-student of the famous Slade School, who had attached himself to Severini and the Italian futurists, and was painting according to the rather bewildering ideals and practice of that group of reformers. His three pictures at the Goupil Gallery "Returning to the Trenches," "Taube Pursued by Commander Samson," "Ypres after the Second Bombardment"still showed signs of futurist influence, but they were perfectly intelligible and based on what the artist had actually seen while driving his motor- ambulance behind the Belgian front
Nevinson enjoyed greater facilities and privileges when he returned to France in July, 1917, as an "official artist" than he had done as a motor-mechanic in 1914 and 1915, the essential quality in his pictures, while gaining strength and clarity, remained the same.
The power of suggesting movement and the irresistible progress of the war-machine, which dominated his earliest efforts at painting the war, found perfect and balanced expression in his masterly series "The Roads of France" and other paintings exhibited in March, 1918, at the Leicester Galleries. As the Parthenon Frieze commemorates the Greeks' campaign against the Persians over two thousand years ago, so the four paintings of "The Roads of France" illustrate the Allies' campaign in Northern France. By his device in seizing a bending road for his subject, Mr. Nevinson in the first painting of the series conveys an impression of the endless chain of vehicles going up to the front through country unravaged by the war. The very poplars diminishing in the distance all add to the suggestion of infinity. In the second painting the big guns are seen passing through the area of aeroplane observation and frontal light railways. The third shows infantry and horse artillery, beyond the dumping grounds, passing over country recently recaptured. The emphasis on the diagonal lines of the advancing infantry is more subtle here than in the earlier "Returning to the Trenches," but the method is the same, and an admirable suggestion of movement is again the result. Equally successful is the treatment of the gun-team, the taut legs of the animals eloquently conveying the strain of the load they are dragging forward. This realisation of movement and strained energy is something no photograph could possibly convey, nor could the truth be expressed by an artist who drew miniatures of each horse as it would appear if seen closely. It must be remembered that these scenes are viewed from a distance, and that distance materially affects the apparent shapes of objects.
Four hundred years ago the great Italian master Leonardo da Vinci discovered that objects at a distance lost their thinnest portions. "Thus with a horse," he wrote, "it would lose the legs sooner than the head, because the legs are thinner than the head, and it would lose the neck before the trunk for the same reason. It follows therefore that the part of the horse which the eye will be able last to discern will be the trunk, retaining still its oval form, but rather approximating to the shape of a cylinder."
Mr. Nevinson has good authority, then, for the omission of detail, and, remembering the wisdom of Leonardo, it would be foolish to criticise the fourth and last painting of this series because we cannot sec every feature in the faces of the little parties of soldiers who are now cautiously entering upon the immediate vicinity of the front trenches. The men here have ceased to be individuals, they are only human atoms crawling about the desolate waste of war.
From a purely artistic standpoint there are two ways in which a painter can make historyhe can discover a new way of painting an old subject, or he can discover a new subject. It was Mr. Nevinson's peculiar good fortune to be able to do both. Though different in scale and kind from any preceding war, there were troops marching along country roads and fighting in trenches centuries before 1914. With regard to scenes of this description Mr. Nevinson may be said to have discovered a new way of treating an old subject. But never before, save in the brains of romancers, had there been a war in the air, and the aeroplane provided the artist with a new subject of which Mr. Nevinson was quick to take advantage. "Taube Pursued by Commander Samson" was the first of a series of pictures illustrating phases of aerial warfare. "Air Battle: Winning of V.C. by Captain Bishop," was painted by Nevinson in the summer of 1918 for the Canadian War Memorials Fund, and is historically accurate even to the position of the two other aeroplanes when the victorious airman destroyed his first enemy, who is here shown crashing to ruin.
In this new field Mr. Nevinson was by no means alone. The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1915, though disappointing in the paucity and poor quality of its war pictures, contained a real novelty in W. L. Wyllie's bird's-eye landscape of "The Fighting-Line from Ypres to the Sea," as viewed from an aeroplane. This was a most interesting experiment which Mr. Wyllie often repeated; and though these bird's-eye views are open to the criticism that they are more like maps than pictures, there is always a possibility that pioneer work in this direction may be the means of helping other artists to discover new and hitherto unexplored beauties of design in Nature.
A souvenir of the Battle of Jutland was contributed by the same artist in his marine painting, "Bringing in the Wounded Lion," showing Admiral Beatty's flagship being towed into harbour with a heavy list. Other echoes of the war were Herbert A. Olivier's semi-official painting of King George's visit to King Albert at the front, "Where Belgium Greeted Britain, 1914. At the frontier post on the road from Dunkirk to Furnes, December 4th, 1914"; the large painting of a string of Belgian refugees, entitled "Homeless," by Richard Jack; and Sir John Lavery's "Wounded: London Hospital, 1915", a beautifully painted interior of a long ward, with the spring sun streaming through the windows on to rows of beds, and glittering on the array of medicine-bottles, glasses, and flowers. Charming in colour it was also cheering in its contents, for though there was no shirking of the fact that pain and suffering were there, an incident in the foregrounda nurse dressing the arm of a kilted soldier proved that throughout the artist laid his accent not on pain but on its alleviation.
The most memorable picture, however, in the 1915 Academy was not a work of realism but a work of imagination. The large allegorical painting entitled " Renaissance," by George Clausen, R.A., was essentially a war picture, though free from the slightest taint of "militarism". On one side of the picture Mr. Clausen showed us a pile of noble ruins, crouched at the foot of which were three figures, monumental in their simplicity and dignitya woman prone on the ground, a man in black, sorrowful and dejected, an old peasant with his head bowed in his hands. Without the adventitious aid of any cheap symbolism or an added word in the catalogue, the thoughtful instantly recognised in these figures the types of Belgium, Northern France, and Poland downtrodden, despoiled, and victimised by barbarous and criminal oppression.
On the other side of the picture, amid a field of crocuses, stood the hopefully erect, nude figure of a beautiful youth, behind whom was seen an illumined landscape warmed to renewed fertility by grace of sunlight. This picture, so redolent of gentleness and beauty, by one of England's greatest living painters, fitly symbolised the national view of Hunnish atrocities and the invincible optimism, even during the dark days of 1915, of the great spirits of the Empire. While the nation reeled under the horrors of war and stood aghast at undreamt of inhumanities, a poet-painter took heart to give his promise of a blessedness to come. By the simple symbol of a crocus Mr. Clausen nobly reminded the nation of an eternal truth, that even the bitter winter of war passes and spring comes again. Mr. Clausen's picture was undoubtedly a great work, the greatest that had been seen at an Academy for many years; but it was not strictly a war picture, and so far as the rendering of modern fighting is concerned, no serious rival to Nevinson arose among the younger men till April, 1916, when a large and important painting, entitled "The Kensingtons at Laventie: Winter, 1914," by Eric H. Kennington, was exhibited in Regent Street for the benefit of the "Star and Garter Building Fund." Before the war Mr. Kennington was only known to a few critics and connoisseurs as a young painter of promise, in whom William Nicholson took an interest, and who had contributed some capable paintings to the Exhibitions of the International Society at the Grosvenor Gallery. As a Territorial of the 13th Battalion London Regiment ("The Kensingtons") Private Kennington went out to France on November 3rd, 1914, after only three months' training in England since the outbreak of war. He returned to England in 1915, when he was discharged unfit for further service, and then began to paint this picture of a typical moment in his life at the front. His platoonNo. 7 C Companyhad served for four days and nights in the fire-trenches enduring the piercing cold of twenty degrees of frost and almost continuous snow. The moment chosen for representation was when the battalion had been relieved, had emerged from the communication trench terminating in a ruined farmyard, and was forming up as a battalion along the ruined village street.
At the time of its exhibition the artist kindly supplied the Committee of the British Women's Hospital with a detailed description of the picture, in which each figure is an actual portrait. From this we quote:
Corporal J. Kealey is about to give the order "Fall in, No. 7 Platoon," and will see that the men in his charge are correctly lined up in their fours. The stragglers are helped to their places. The fit men support their exhausted comrades. The strong carry the rifles of the sick. Now will commence the march of five miles to a billet which is out of the shelling area. Many, from exhaustion, frozen feet, rheumatism, and other ailments, will fall out, and must wait by the roadside for the next motor-ambulance, or attempt to make their way slowly back to billet, hoping that the regiment is not marching to a fresh one. In the first fourreading from right to leftare Pte. Slade, resting with both hands on his rifle; Lce.-Cpl. Wilson, Pte. Guy, and Pte. McCafferty, who is turning to look at the other men falling in behind. He is hitching up his pack by grasping the shoulder-straps, and is carrying two rifles, one of which belonged to Pte. Perry, who was shot beside him by a sniper.
On the extreme left is Pte. H. Bristol, who has since taken a commission. Directly behind Pte. Guy are two men in waterproof sheets;
Pte. Kennington, in a blue trench helmet, and Pte. W. Harvey.
Pte. Kennington had the ill-luck to be the victim of an accident by which he lost a toe, resulting in unfitness for further service abroad. Fortunately, it was not the right hand which suffered, or this record of the 13th would not have been painted.
On the ground is Pte. A. Todd, better known in the regiment as "Sweeney." He has fallen exhausted by continual sickness, hard work, lack of sleep, long hours of "standing-to," and observing.
A soldier behind McCafferty has the number 77 stuck behind his cap badge. Some few days after our arrival in France we encountered on the march a regiment of French Territorials whose caps bore that number. The 13th and the 77th exchanged greetings and cap badges, many " Kensingtons " carrying the number 77 for months.
This fine work is reproduced on page 170, by kind permission of the owner, Lady Cowdray, and, in addition to its high value as a clear, stately record of quiet heroism, it possesses a technical interest of a rare kind. For this elaborate picture, with the figures nearly two-thirds life-size, was painted on glass. The advantage of this is that the pigment is hermetically sealed, and so long as the thick plate-glass endures unbroken the colour will remain as fresh centuries hence as on the day when it was painted. The disadvantage of this method is only apparent to the practising painter, for it means that the whole picture has to be painted backwards; not only has the subject to be reversed, but even the very process of painting, so that what would have been the last touch must be put on first, and what on an ordinary canvas would have been the first brush-stroke must be laid on last.
When we realise the infinite difficulties of this process, and the apparent ease with which the whole picture has been painted, we cannot consider it otherwise than as a very great achievement, a tour de force that is a completely successful masterpiece.
When the Royal Academy opened in the following month (May, 1916) it was at once evident that it contained no war picture that could approach the rank taken by Mr. Kennington's work. W. L. Wyllie, R.A., contributed another bird's-eye landscape, "The Hooge Salient," showing the ruins of Ypres and the surrounding country as seen from above. Lettering on the frame indicated the position of Hill 60 and other notable points, and while its worth as an historical document was indisputable, its charm as a wall decoration was open to debate. Of the naval pictures shown in this Academy, Napier Hemy's "A.D. 1915," a spirited rendering of a sea-fight between British destroyers and a German submarine, was decidedly more convincing and pictorial than Mr. Wyllie's "A Fight to a Finish: Off Coronel, November 1st, 1914."
Richard Jack's "Return to the Front: Victoria Railway Station, 1916," was exceedingly popular, and as an illustration of a leave-train scene there was little exaggeration, save, possibly, the hyper-sentimentality of the lonely Highlander squatting in the foreground; but both in painting and colour it was unsatisfactory to critical eyes. Admirable portraits by Orpen, Lavery, and Charles Shannon, charming landscapes by D. Y. Cameron and Clausen, saved the Exhibition from irretrievable dullness and mediocrity, but it was perfectly clear by1916 that, so far as the war was concerned, the Royal Academy, like the Bourbons, had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.
The failure of the older artists to grapple with the situation is perfectly explicable, perfectly understandable. Some of them really knew very little about painting, and none of them knew anything about war. When they endeavoured to be topical they envisaged this war after their memory of Napoleonic and Crimean war pictures, repeating the arrangements, but changing the uniforms into khaki. Their sword- waving officers, swaggering cavalrymen, and neatly-brushed infantrymen might still deceive the civilian whose knowledge of war was limited to an occasional air raid, but the men from the front knew better, and laughed their pretensions to scorn. "How absurd! " said a wounded New Zealander, standing before an Academic painting of a cavalry charge. "Why, one man with a machine-gun would wipe all that lot out."
If the Royal Academy failed as a whole, the rival societies did no better. After two years of war the Royal Society of British Artists still filled its galleries with the old goods "Susannah and the Elders," "An April Morning," "Springtime at Kew," and so forth.
It was probably the general failure of the known and orthodox painters to deal with the war that led the British Government to select a black-and white artist as the first "official artist." Before the war Muirhead Bone enjoyed a great reputation among connoisseurs for his drawings and etchings of architectural subjects. In the earlier days of the war he devoted a great deal of his time to the interpretation of British war industries, sketching, in his distinctive scholarly style, "The Yards on the Clyde," "The Building of a Liner" and similar subjects. It was no doubt Mr. Bone's known ability to make memorable designs from demolitions and scaffolding that led (in August, 1916) to his official appointment and to his being given special facilities to visit the western front and draw what he saw there. The regular publication in parts, from the offices of "Country Life," of collections of reproductions of his drawings began a new era in the pictorial treatment of the war. But Mr. Bone's reputation was not made by the warit existed before, and he was picked out as the best possible man for the work. Drawings like " The Ruined Tower of Becourt " and "The Great Crater, Athies", show how splendidly he achieved his task of presenting with truth and dignity the actual aspect of wasted landscape and ravaged buildings. What the war did for Mr. Bone was to increase his public admirers from a select few to a multitude, and the unexpected popularity and wide demand for his books of sketches convinced the authorities that there was room and to spare for other official artists.
In April, 1917, James McBey, another scholarly artist akin in style to Mr. Bone, was appointed official artist for Egypt and Palestine, and in the same month Sir William Orpen, was sent to France.
Orpen is one of the most brilliant of contemporary portrait painters, as may be seen by a glance at his portraits of Lord French and General Seely; he could paint figures to perfection, but he could not paint war. He missed its reality and horror in his fascination with its aspect as a spectacle. He never got behind the actual appearance, as Nevinson did, and that is why there is an artificiality about all the pictures Orpen painted in France. His picture of "The Warwicks Entering Peronne: March, 1917 "affects us as something seen on a stage. It is "magnificently produced," of course; but it is not war. It conveys no sense of the elation of conquest or the human joy of triumph. To be so detached a spectator of modern warfare verges upon the inhuman. "The Falling Bomb", though a subject that even a civilian can appreciate, has such a faraway, old-masterly air that it is more like an illustration to the Apocrypha than a transcript of war in 1917. Similarly, "The Great Mine, La Boisselle", might be an Alpine landscape. And so the list might be continued indefinitely, the argument being, of course, not that these are bad paintings, but that they are not truly significant of war. When the artist looks in the mirror and paints himself as "Ready to Start", leaving behind him his siphons and whisky-bottle, he tacitly confesses that his pictorial attention is limited to the appearance of things, and that he is not greatly concerned with what they really are or with their significance. Like Rembrandt, Orpen could always take an immense delight in painting himself in any sort of "get-up," and in the tremendous fun of painting he altogether forgot the ghastliness of war.
Two months after Sir William Orpen was officially sent out to France, a small collection of water-colours of "The Ypres Salient," by a young soldier, Paul Nash, was placed on exhibition at the Goupil Gallery. Hardly anybody had heard of him, though both he and his brother, John Nash, exhibited at the Friday Club and at the New English Art Club before the war, and their naive water-colours had charmed several shrewd collectors of modern art. The exhibition passed almost unnoticed at the time, but it aroused the keenest excitement in two or three of the leading art critics, who recognised in Paul Nash a new genius fashioned by war to give a new vision of a new world.
Paul Nash's pictures of the war are the very antithesis of those of Orpen, for he is less concerned with the superficial aspect of things than with their reality and significance. Yet, for all their strangeness, an incontrovertible mass of evidence attests that Nash's paintings are true. Men who had been through what the artist had been through declared "this is how things are in Flanders, this is how the land looks in the fighting-line." It may be admitted that "Inverness Copse", "Eruption," and "Meadow with Copse: Mount Kemmel in the Distance" look more like hell than earth; but then modern warfare is more like hell than anything else we can conceive. As Captain C. E. Montague very truly wrote, in his introduction to the book of water- colours published by "Country Life":
In drawing strange places so strangely Mr. Nash contrives to bring back to the mind the strange things felt by men who were there at moments of stress. One does not see with the eyes alone, but with brain and nerves, too, and if these are worked upon in unusual ways, then the messages brought in by the little waves of light that break on delicate shores in the eye are changedsome may say disturbed or blurred; others may say refined into an uncommon Tightness, not to be had at other times. If an artist succeeds in expressing effects of such changes, his work may well delight some of those who have felt the changes go on in themselves. It is sure to scandalise some of those who have not.
Nobody who has not actually beheld the scene painted by an artist can pronounce whether it is true or not. Condemnation on this ground of Mr. Nash's picture by a person who had not seen Inverness Copse is not worthy of a moment's consideration. Among the men who had seen it there were only two opinionssome said it is absolutely true, others that it is a bit exaggerated, but "about right." Granting that it does contain exaggerations, the important point is that only the actual characteristics of the scene are exaggerated. These lumps and holes in the foreground are not more than a pointed commentary on the deeply pit-marked earth exposed to constant shelling. The barbed-wire may be out of all proportion in "Landscape, Year of Our Lord, 1917," but it does loom largely in the mind of the soldier who has shortly to advance through and across it, and it does curl about in extraordinary ways after it has been broken up by gun fire. Mr. Paul Nash always painted his subjects as seen by the mind's eye as well as by the physical organ, and the mind of man ever enlarges that which it has good cause to fear. These paintings may not be true as the camera sees truth, but they are true to the memory of nerve- racked fighting men.
Happily, many who read this chapter will never have seen a "Shell Bursting." Those who have not, if they have a spark of imagination, can form a very fair idea of what it means to the neighbourhood, and to the man who sees it, by looking at Mr. Nash's picture.
Paul Nash, a most sensitive and emotional artist, truly painted in each one of these pictures not only what he had seen but what he had felt. And what he felt, above all, was the abomination of desolation caused by war. He felt it as Blake might have felt it, and each picture is a cry from the heart that war is accursed, a black crime to earth and man. They are the most moving and powerful plea for peace that the war produced; yet, perhaps, people who have not experienced the terrors of a bombardment can never fully appreciate them.
The opposite to Orpen, Nash is also very different from Nevinson, for whereas the last continually shows us soldiers as cogs in the war-machine, the second presents his beloved earth as a tortured and violated human being. These two paintersthe one a great realist, the other a great imaginative artist, each of them created, formed, and inspired by the war- are mutually the complement of each other. Nevinson shows us the complicated, man-driven machinery of war; Nash its awful devastating effects. That extraordinary nightmare, "Night in the Ypres Salient"with the working-parties in front of the firing-trench lit up by the enemy's star-shellsand the deeply pathetic "Graves, Vimy" are the inevitable sequel to the material resistance counterbalancing human pressure shown in Nevinson's " Ramming Home a Heavy Shell" and the same painter's dynamic impression of "A Tank." Every city of importance in the United Kingdom was permitted its glimpse of a Tank, but peaceful citizens, who only knew the machine as a counting-house for War Bonds, had to thank Mr. Nevinson for any knowledge of its awful and terrible aspect as it surged forward into action.
By midsummer, 1917, it was perfectly clear to those experienced in judging the merits of artists that, if there were to be any official artists, the two who had most to say on the war were C. R. W. Nevinson and Paul Nash. Representations were made to the proper authorities, with the happy result that during the next few months Nevinson, Eric Kennington, Sir John Lavery, and Paul Nash successively received their appointments as "official artists." Sir John Lavery, as became his age and position, was enlisted, so to speak, for "home service," and "An Aerodrome" and "The Royal Naval Division, Crystal Palace, 1916", are excellent examples of the war picturescharming in their delicate colour and atmospherewhich he was able to paint without crossing the seas. All the other three went to the western front, where they had ahead}' served their apprenticeship as soldiers.
The Academy of 1917 contained one exceedingly popular war picture, Frank O. Salisbury's painting of "Boy 1st Class John Travers Cornwell, V.C.' painted for the Admiralty on board H.M.S. Chester, and illustrating, with scrupulous fidelity to detail, an unforgettable act of heroism and devotion to duty. Walter W. Russell showed a scholarly painting of "Ypres in March, 1916"; Mr. Wyllie contributed two more bird's- eye views, "The Battlefields of the Ancre" and a "Battle in the Air"; and Bernard F. Gribble a painting of " The Wrecked Zeppelin: A German Airship Brought Down in the Channel". But, as a whole, the collection was distinctly poorer than that of the previous year, and utterly devoid of any war pictures approaching the importance of those shown in 1915.
In June, 1917, British painting suffered the gravest loss it had yet experienced in the war when Captain Gerard Chowne died of wounds at Salonika. Though still a young man, he was widely recognised as a master of flower-painting and a portrait painter of rare promise, while the delicacy and refined distinction of his water-colours were clearly indicated by his "View from the Trenches, Salonika," "Lothian Ravine," and other drawings included in the memorial collection shown during the autumn at the New English Art Club. Had he lived to become an "official artist" of the war, Gerard Chowne would undoubtedly have taken a high rank among the new men.
Apart from the work of Nevinson, Paul Nash, Dyson, and Eric Kenningtonwhose respective one-man shows attracted increasing respect and appreciationthe 1917 exhibitions did not reveal any remarkable development of new talent. This year, however, the British Government began to treat art and artists with a seriousness born of increased respect.
On March 5th the Imperial War Museum was instituted, and several important acquisitions were made before the end of the year. During the summer of 1917, also, the Canadian War Memorials Fund was founded by Lord Beaver-brook and Lord Rothermere, who, acting under competent expert advice, soon accumulated a collection of pictures notable alike for its wide scope and high quality. Within a year of its foundation over one hundred and fifty works had been acquired by purchase or presentation, or had been commissioned, the artists represented ranging from popular favourites like Edgar Bundy and Richard Jack to new men like Nevinson, Paul Nash, Wyndham Lewis, and Charles Ginner.
The number of official artists appointed during this year was further evidence of the curious way in which the war was not only influencing art but persuading a business Government to treat it with more seriousness and consideration than it had yet received in Great Britain. Further additions were made to the list during the following year, and in the spring of 1918 Professor William Rothenstein, a member of a Jewish family long settled in Bradford was sent out officially to the Peronne front, where he made a number of pictures which were later exhibited in London. One of these, showing the bizarre, serpentine painting of a camouflaged gun, is reproduced on this page.
In addition to those appointed by the Imperial authorities, official artists were working during this year for the Dominion Governments, war pictures by Dyson, Fred Leist, H. S. Power, and others being shown at Australia House, while a number of talented painters were busy on pictures of various subjects for the Canadian War Records. These ranged from such home subjects as the "Shell Factory," painted by Charles Ginner, and reproduced on this page, to "The Gun Pit," by Wyndham Lewis, and other actual scenes of war.
One war painting, and one alone, made the Royal Academy of 1918 memorable, the colossal canvas entitled "The Underworld", by Mr. Walter Bayes. This vigorous and haunting painting, quite in the new manner, had for its subject a "Tube" station during an air raid. Designed as a mural decoration, there is an appropriate monumental treatment of the alien figures who characteristically sprawl about the platform. The faces are not English faces, it is true, but they are typical of the faces seen in the underworld on such occasions as that which Mr. Bayes commemorates, and their attitudes and dishevelled condition are equally characteristic. Be it noted there is no fear or terror expressed, and this also is true to history, but only the infinite weariness, boredom, and languor of these semi-Orientals waiting for the "All clear" signal which would tell them it was safe to return to the surface.
In placing on permanent record the scenes caused and emotions evoked by the greatest war the world has ever known, British artists have rendered their Motherland a service which posterity will know how to value and appreciate; but while it is of importance to recognise that the young artists served the State well in their capacity of painters, it should not be forgotten that they also quitted themselves well as men. Comparatively few people are aware how greatly artists, by reason of their special gifts, helped to increase the efficiency of the British Army as a scientific fighting machine.
To begin with, every artist is a trained observer; his profession has taught him to use his eyes more keenly than the ordinary man, and consequently the artist-soldier is particularly valuable for all reconnaissance and observation work. His ability to draw rapidly and accurately is found helpful for many military purposes.
A number of artists, soon after their enlistment, were discovered to be the best material available for mapping instructors. Landscape painters, in the ranks or holding commissions, were found invaluable when panoramic views of positions were wanted for artillery and range-finding purposes. Artists, again, were wanted for and satisfactorily employed in making enlarged drawings of enemy positions from photographs taken from aeroplanes.
Camouflage, which played so great a part in modern warfare, whether for defence or to screen a contemplated advance, was almost wholly organised and practised by soldier-artists. It is not in any sense derogatory to the splendid work of the engineers to say that, had they been left to themselves, their camouflage would have been a failure and an index to the enemy.
Fortunately, from its inception, the engineers had the support and assistance of the artists. A great debt of gratitude was due from the Army to Solomon J. Solomon, the well-known Academician, for his invaluable help when camouflage was in its infancy. Depending, as it does, so largely on design and texture as well as colour for its success, the professional painter comes to camouflage with a special knowledge of which the engineer has little. It was the artists who organised and systematised the first stage of camouflage, based on the protective colouring of insects and animals.
It was an artist who discovered the defects in this system and brought camouflage to its second stage of development, based on tone rather than colour, on how things look to the camera rather than how they look to the human eye. The Army's debt to Solomon J. Solomon is only equalled, if not exceeded, by its debt to the young portrait painter Alan Beeton, who was the pioneer of the subtle and highly scientific camouflage practised in 1918.
If the most successful camouflage officers in the Army were the artists, the Navy was not less fortunate in securing Norman Wilkinson, Jan Gordon, and other recognised painters for similar work.
One other remarkable activity on the part of a soldier-artist remains to be chronicled. In May, 1915, F. Derwent Wood, A.R.A., enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Later he was promoted sergeant and placed in charge of the splint - room, where his skill and experience as a sculptor showed itself in the plaster casts which it was his duty to take of certain specific splints prepared for exceptional wounds. The sensitive spirit of the true artist was naturally distressed, not only by the pain and suffering he saw but by the thought that men recovering from severe facial wounds could only view themselves with horror in the mirror, and hardly dared to go into the street lest the passer-by should shriek at their visible agony.
It occurred to Sergeant Wood that an artist might still do something for these poor fellows when the surgeons could do no more. His ideas were listened to with sympathy and interest by his superior officers, and eventually out of that splint-room grew the "Masks for Facial Wounds Department," of which Derwent Wood was in 1918 the director. Nobody but an artist, and a consummate artist, could undertake this delicate work of restoring a human face to something like its normal appearance before it was ravaged by wounds.
In every stage of its making the mask required the utmost delicacy of touch and skill in handling. First a cast of the wounded portion of the face had to be taken, and then this cast was built up by plasticine or clay, and moulded to correspond with a pre-war photograph of what the face had been.
Further casts were taken as the modelling approached perfection, and finally a thin electrotype plate of pure copper was obtained, which was enamelled and coloured to match the patient's complexion. All this work, in each case, was done by Derwent Wood himself, with one assistant, a lance-corporal, who before the war had been a modelling assistant in his own studio.
Many medical students and doctors have become artists, some of them very good ones, and several like Henry Tonks and Henry Lamb, of the New English Art Club, reverted to their old profession for Red Cross work after the outbreak of hostilities, but it may be doubted whether any doctor or any other artist rendered such immense service to the State and humanity as was that of Derwent Wood, the sculptor.
Fully occupied though he was with his newly-invented aesthetic surgery, Derwent Wood yet found time to conceive, execute, and practically to complete in the summer of 1918 the important group entitled "Canada's Golgotha", the greatest and almost the only work of sculpture that the war had to that time directly inspired. The theme which the artist has poignantly recorded is that of the abominable outrage perpetrated by the Germans in the fighting near Ypres in 1915, when they crucified a Canadian sergeant who had fallen into their hands.
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