A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War, Exhibition Review
A Crisis of Brilliance – Dulwich Picture Gallery 12th June - 22nd September 2013
In 2009 David Haycock published a fascinating account of the effects of the First World War upon five young artists who all attended the Slade School of Art in the years leading up to 1914. The artists concerned -- Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Mark Gertler, C. R. W. Nevinson and Dora Carrington-- are amongst the most interesting and influential English artists of the twentieth century, and this exhibition seeks to explore the impact of the war on their artistic perspectives. While the book details the sometimes complicated relationships between the young artists, especially those of Gertler, Nevinson and Carrington, the exhibition is a glorious representation of their art, made all the better by the inclusion of David Bomberg, surely one of our most underrated artists. Indeed, it is something of a mystery that Haycock did not include him in his earlier book, since he was their contemporary at the Slade and a particular friend of Gertler's: they shared the same Jewish East-End childhood and upbringing. As we approach the anniversary of the start of the most savage conflict which man has ever inflicted upon himself, it is perhaps inevitable that the platitudes about nationalism and duty which so irritated artists (and others) at the time will be repeated. Yet is in no way disrespectful to those who gave their lives in the conflict to question what happened in those terrible years. A succession of great artists--poets and painters especially--faithfully recorded their responses to the war. From Eliot and Owen to Dix and Nash, artists of all kinds struggled to reconcile their vision of the modern world and hope for the future with the anguish and destruction of which this modern world was capable. In 1912 the Italian Futurist Marinetti brought his exhibition to London and challenged the English art establishment with his radical views. The Futurist manifestos of 1909 and 1912 made clear that the future was about speed, power and mechanical innovation, and war would be the cleansing agent to bring the new world into being. Nevinson was an early devotee: his war paintings utilised the stylistic apparatus of the Italian artworks that he saw in 1912, but the war itself destroyed their philosophical base. Prior to the conflict, modernity was generally viewed positively. Electricity was lighting homes and streets, flying machines were crossing the English Channel, and motor vehicles were transforming our transport system. During the war, these same technological developments, and others of a more military nature, enabled the generals of both sides to orchestrate the death and injury of a staggering 37 million soldiers, civilian men, women and children. The bright modern heaven had transformed into a living hell. This fine exhibition is full of outstanding works which more than justify Henry Tonks' remark that this group of Slade students represented the school's "second and last crisis of brilliance." Tonks was the irascible Professor of Drawing, with a withering manner which could both inspire and alienate his students. Although he terrorized them, he insisted that they concentrate on form and line and accurate observation from life, a methodology which served them well and brought out the talent in this particular group of artists. The exhibition is sensibly divided into chronological sections, charting the artists' development at the Slade, the progress of the war, and their own individual experiences. At the entrance to the exhibition, interestingly placed beyond the rest of the works on display as if it were unconnected with them, is Bomberg's early masterpiece, In the Hold. Painted in 1913, this is a brightly coloured 8 x 8 grid which merges pictorial realism with abstract forms, and it is as difficult to read today as it must have been when first exhibited. At the time, Bomberg claimed that his aim was "to translate the life of a great city, its motion, its machinery, into an art that shall not be photographic, but expressive." Preparatory drawings, now in the Tate archive, are incredibly useful in deciphering this complex work. Bomberg seems to have chosen the unusual subject for several reasons. Muscular dockers unloading ships were a common sight in the East End of London where Bomberg lived and grew up. They were also dynamic and powerful, a subject perfectly fitted for an explosive fragmented canvas. Significantly, the dockers and their fellow manual workers, the miners, had been involved in a series of fractious strikes and industrial disputes which had involved clashes with the police and significant loss of life. Finally, the child being handed out of the ship's hold, obvious in the drawings but difficult to decode in the painted version, is surely a symbol of the perilous journey that Bomberg, Gertler and their fellow Jewish emigres made to reach this country. Thus the work is an amalgam of reference points about life as a Jewish immigrant: the difficult journey here, the dockside work environment, and the modernist artist challenging contemporary taste. It was Bomberg's tragic fate that he displayed this painting in his only one-man show in June 1914, when the world was about to face apocalyptic events that would overshadow the exhibition in retrospect. Once into the main part of the exhibition, it is immediately clear that Tonks' view of his students was presciently true. In each of the small galleries there are works which stand out for their beauty and expert handling. Yet this is no harmonious artistic group as we would normally understand the concept. The common factor is that they were all young aspiring artists trained at the Slade in the years before 1914, under the sometimes terrifying eye and tongue of Tonks. There are superb works on show from each of the artists represented here. Mark Gertler, for example, is not an artist with whom many are familiar. Tate Britain displays one of his acknowledged masterpieces, The Merry-Go-Round, a terrifying study of women, soldiers and sailors astride vicious fairground horses, the human figures, like the ride itself, fixed forever in a screaming hell. As a response to the events of 1916 it has no parallel. Yet this exhibition shows that there was much more to Gertler than that single painting. He was an artist who opposed the war, but he was saved the potential humiliation of becoming a conscientious objector through failing the medical due to his weak chest, a symptom of the tuberculosis which plagued his life. The exhibition contains several outstanding Gertler works, but the final room, labelled War and Aftermath, has a 1920 self-portrait which is simply stunning. In a typically throw-away remark in a letter to Carrington, he said that the portrait was undertaken "To pass away time when there is no one to sit for me." If that remark might suggest that the work was lightly considered, or of little apparent worth, a few moments in front of it soon dispels such ideas. Placed against an ochre background, Gertler gazes out to our left. His face is serious, his eyes deep and piercing. Here is an artist who is clearly searching for mastery over the medium. The brushstrokes are sure and confident, light and shade are handled subtly, and, as in all masterful self-portraits, the viewer feels both a connection with the artist, but also a sense of mystery: there is an element which we can sense, but never quite reach. Richard Nevinson is a different artist altogether. As a student at the Slade, he was at one point told that he should give up painting because he had no talent, and prior to 1912 he was indeed searching for a style which suited his skills. In that year Marinetti was in London, delivering his exuberant Futurist message, and in 1914 Nevinson and Marinetti jointly published A Futurist Manifesto: Vital English Art, a document which proclaimed the artistic battle to come. What it did not predict was that its message would soon be subsumed within the broader conflict that became the world war. Either by accident or design, the style of Futurist English art, which Nevinson and Marinetti described as "strong, virile, and anti-sentimental" with "a fearless desire of adventure, a heroic instinct of discovery, a worship of strength and a physical and moral courage," seemed well-suited to the subject of the war. Nevinson was one of the first artists to see the war up close, joining the Friends' Ambulance Service, a Quaker organisation that his father helped to establish. He worked in field hospitals and as an ambulance driver, but the horrors that he witnessed soon took their toll, and he returned to England in the spring of 1915, mentally and physically exhausted. Then he began to paint. One of his first works, like Gertler's Merry-Go-Round, is also in Tate Britain. La Mitrailleuse is one of the best-known images of the war, with a brutal Futurist style appropriate to its subject. Hard-edged infantry men arm a monstrous machine gun, ready to cut to ribbons any advancing force. They are devoid of humanity, automatons, part of the giant machine of war. Nevinson followed this masterpiece with two others which also feature in this exhibition, Ypres After the First Bombardment and the haunting La Patrie, both also painted in 1916. La Patrie was well received by the critics who saw the work exhibited in Nevinson's one-man show at the Leicester Gallery in September 1916. After his arrival in France in September 1914, the artist had worked in a dressing station immediately behind the front line, based in an old railway shed. It was filled with 3,000 dying and injured soldiers, most simply lying on the floor on dirty straw. He recalled later that he felt, after a month working there, that he had been "born in a nightmare. I had seen sights so revolting that man seldom conceives them in his mind." It is this scene that the painting portrays, and it still has the power to both shock and sadden. The engine shed is clothed in semi-darkness. What light there is filters through a half-open door through which another victim of the war is entering, a journey from one hell into another. Outside the sky is grey and overcast, the sun crowded out by either clouds or gun smoke. In the shed itself, men lie on the straw-strewn floor, bandaged and motionless. At the bottom left, we find a bandaged head resting on a pillow, the face contorted in pain or perhaps even anger. In the centre of the picture is a man with no obvious injuries who, lying on his back, seems to be staring at the ceiling. At his side is another soldier, heavily bandaged. Both seem so still that they could be asleep, but one naturally wonders if they are already dead. In reviews of the 1916 exhibition, critics lavished praise on Nevinson and this work in particular. Lewis Hind, writing in the Daily Chronicle, wrote presciently, "When war is no more, this picture will stand, to the astonishment of our descendants, as an example of what civilised man did to the civilised man in the first quarter of the 20th century." Looking at this work almost one hundred years later, and on the eve of the 1914 centenary, one can only agree with Hind's accurate observations. A small pastel by the same artist, Spiral Descent, is breathtakingly beautiful, and, again, is enhanced by the stylistic handling. A tiny bi-plane, at that time the height of technological advancement, is swirling downwards through a cascade of Futuristic clouds and sky. It is a celebration of modernity, beauty and nature, but it is also a warning. What the artist has portrayed so delicately, a fragile man-made object against a wonderful sky, is also a weapon of destruction which can bring sudden death both to enemy pilots and to men in the trenches. It evokes the Futurist tenet of war as the beautiful purifier. The only female artist represented in the exhibition is Dora Carrington. Known to the others simply as 'Carrington,' she was known for her complicated love-life. Gertler and Nevinson became estranged when both fell in love with her, Paul Nash also pursued her, and his younger brother asked her to marry him. Her relationship with the homosexual Lytton Strachey was the great love of both their lives. Tragically, just two months after his death from cancer, Carrington took her own life.
In 1916 Carrington painted a portrait of the great writer, which was subsequently situated in his bedroom until his death in 1932. It is a sombre work that shows the sitter reading quietly. His intellect is suggested by the elongated hands, which have clearly never been engaged in hard manual work. This is the figure of a studious man, but one who is deliberately posed--he stares at the book in his hands but it seems to be closed, so that perhaps he is meditating on the concept of the book, rather than its contents. In her letters to both Gertler and Strachey, Carrington often expressed doubt as to her artistic skills, but the works on display here are ample proof of her talent. Another beautiful work, The River Pang Above Tidmarsh, the home she made with Strachey in 1917, is reminiscent of Cézanne at his best, and is full of the love which she had for the landscape. Her brother Noel, to whom she gave this picture, later claimed that the years between 1917 and 1921 were "the happiest of her life and also the most productive, for emotional fulfilment always stimulated her as an artist."
Paul Nash volunteered to fight, and in April 1917 was on the Western Front, serving as a junior infantry officer. One evening towards the end of May he was on patrol and was called to look at the results of an enemy bombardment. In the darkness he missed his footing and fell into a disused trench, cracking a rib. This probably saved his life: he was sent back to London to recover, and a few days later his regiment was sent to attack the notorious Hill 60, sustaining heavy losses. Once back in England he was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Commission to return to the front and record what he saw. In a letter to his wife of November 1917 he wrote: "I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls." Subsequently Nash produced what are arguably the most powerful works by any English artist of the war. His devastating canvas We are Making a New World (1918), now in the Imperial War Museum, is one of the period's masterpieces. It depicts a bleached landscape devoid of human life, shattered trees with their burnt branches like the outstretched hands of dead soldiers rising from the desolate ground, while a silver sun appears over barren hills. This is a nightmare born of experiencing trench warfare firsthand. In a series of five paintings, which include The Menin Road and A Night Bombardment, Nash encapsulated that experience in a terrifying, inhuman portrayal of modern warfare. The work on show here is Void, painted in 1918. The curator should be congratulated on obtaining it, for it usually resides in Canada. It is a truly devastating work. Rain is falling across another ruined landscape: a broken motor vehicle, guns and wire dominate the space, while in the centre is the decomposing uniform of a soldier, his body long since vanished. In the background is a clear reference to Nevinson's Spiral Descent, as a biplane hurtles to the ground, its wings splintered and broken against a cloudy sky. While Nevinson depicted beauty in the image of a solitary plane against the heavens, Nash has, in a few brushstrokes, replaced the beauty with tragedy and hopelessness. Using Futurist angles and dissected planes, Nash portrays a completely desolate landscape. The shattered machinery of war is all that we can see, while the tree stumps point upwards in a futile attempt to seek restorative sunlight. It is as bleak a landscape as anyone could imagine, and it is man-made. This is what we have done to our world. Of all the artists included here, Stanley Spencer probably had the worst experience of the war. He volunteered in 1915 as a medical orderly and spent the next three years in various locations, including Macedonia and the Balkans, caring for the dead and dying. During his time in military service he was unable to paint or even draw, lacking time, materials and inclination. The whole situation was terribly hard for him, and by October 1918 he was in hospital himself, suffering from malaria and nervous exhaustion. When Spencer left Cookham in 1915 he left an unfinished work, Swan Upping at Cookham, and for the rest of the war he dreamt about finishing it. It became something that helped sustain him in times of hardship: he wanted to get through the war so that he could return and finish the painting, which he believed would be a good one. Yet when he finally returned in 1918 he found it difficult to complete, and it was not until 1919 that he stopped working on it, ultimately unsatisfied with the final result. Like many who served where the military activity and casualties were heaviest, Spencer was not the same man who had left in 1915. One work included here provides ample evidence of the changes forced on Spencer by his wartime experience. Prior to 1915 Spencer had portrayed his idyllic village as the scene of various biblical stories, including the Nativity. After the war Spencer continued in the same vein, but now all the scenes were from Christ's Passion. Christ Carrying the Cross, painted in 1920, has the villagers leaning out of their windows to watch Christ below them, while the bedroom curtains flap above like angels' wings. Local labourers carry their ladders on their way to work, as this extraordinary event unfolds within their everyday environment. The picture marked the advent of a recurring theme in Spencer's religious works. He perceived that great spiritual moments cannot be defined by time or space: they occur within our ordinary world, while also transcending it. In 1889 the Belgian painter James Ensor had famously portrayed the entry of Christ into Brussels, surrounded by a jeering nineteenth century crowd. This work would have been unknown to Spencer, but it shares a similar aim to Christ Carrying the Cross--to place Christ's sacrifice within our contemporary world. At the end of a war that had seen so much human misery and sacrifice, Spencer chooses his own personal world, Cookham, as the setting for an event symbolising hope. It is a powerful but disquieting image. Just as a Bomberg masterpiece opens the exhibition, so another completes it. In 1918 Bomberg received a commission from the Canadian War Memorials Fund for a work that was to celebrate the efforts of Canadian sappers, those soldiers who worked underground setting mines. Bomberg had served in a sapper regiment, and knew well what these soldiers had endured. After months of work, Bomberg had completed the painting. The agent for the Canadians, art critic and scheme curator P. G. Konody, came to view the canvas, which was laid on the floor in Bomberg’s London home. The meeting was a complete disaster. Konody stomped around the painting complaining that Bomberg had created a “futurist abortion.” Alice Bomberg returned home to find her husband in tears, devastated by Konody's criticism. She eventually persuaded Konody to allow Bomberg to paint another, less offensive version, which now resides in Ottawa. However, Konody had failed to understand what Bomberg had created. Painted in the months after the war had ended, this is a colourful, exuberant celebration of the dark life of the sapper. Usually hidden within the gloom of a mineshaft, the sapper’s world was relentlessly challenging, and very dangerous. Explosions were common, since any tunnelling noise could alert the enemy to their activity and result in counter measures.
In an impossibly blue-lit tunnel, muscular sappers pull on ropes, tighten bolts, and carry earth away. These are heroic characters, anonymous perhaps, but with very evident strength. With references to El Greco and Michelangelo, the composition is a glorious celebration of these brave men's work, contrasting with the darker, more serious styles of Nash or Nevinson. Unlike the figures in Nevinson's finest pictures, here the collective humanity of soldiers and comrades is on display. These are not the automatons of a Futurist vision: Bomberg has painted a humanist portrayal of men hard at work, supporting one another. Finished when hostilities had come to an end and post-war reconstruction was supposed to begin, it is both a record of the ordinary soldier's efforts and a call to remember his bravery - a monumental figure from an underground hell, bathed in the light he deserved. How did Konody not see this?
For Bomberg, this work was a turning point. Permitted to paint another version, which allowed the impecunious artist to retain the £300 fee, Bomberg straightened his lines, toned down the colours, and made the men more distinguishable. While still a fine work, it lacks the intensity of the first version. Like many artists, by the mid-twenties Bomberg had turned his back on his modernist style and was painting landscapes. It was not until he returned to the subject of war in 1942, with a series of devastating canvases depicting the UK’s largest bomb store (in Derbyshire), that he again explored the possibilities of semi-abstract forms and non-naturalistic colours. They are superb, like the work on show here.
This is a wonderful exhibition, full of works that somehow capture the mood of the time in which they were created. These were young artists, bursting with talent, caught up in a conflict that they could not hope to understand, and which pulled at their emotional and physical well being in ways that are now hard for us to imagine. Never a coherent artistic group, they nonetheless carried their experience of the Slade with them, as they attempted to find ways to effectively communicate their responses to the terrible conflict of their age. Flawed they may have been, but their efforts were magnificent.--Paul Flux