Truth and Memory is an exhibition of artists’ responses to World War 1 split in two parts. Truth focuses on art created whilst the war was going on by soldiers and official artists. Memory looks at pieces created near the end of/post war, including pieces commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in its earliest days. The exhibition is filled with revelations and powerful images which when accumulated bring together the responses of various artists from different backgrounds as they are ‘exposed to a new realm of human experience.’
With the centenary of World War 1 upon us, it is a very good time to look back and reflect on one of the defining moments of the previous century and how it was viewed by contemporaries who were there and lived through it. It is particularly important as tensions in Europe and the Middle East flare up as well as debates raging on about how we should remember the war to end all wars. Should we look back at it with reverence as noble, or should we remember the brutal, gory, and grubby nature of this war? As soon as you arrive at the exhibition, it becomes clear that even while the war was in full flow, this same debate was raging.
The exhibition opens with an amazing piece by William Barnes Wollen, Nonne Bosschen – Defeat Of The Prussian Guard Ypres 1914 (1915). Wollen based his piece on oral and written accounts of the battle; it is filled with movement and chaos. Not shying away from the brutality and violence of war, it still retains some romance and glory. It is impersonal and places the war firmly in line with previous battles; it reminded me of other famous paintings of glorious battles such as the battle of Waterloo. This romance is shown to be naïve by the powerful and much more personal pieces that come later.
One of the most engrossing explorations of the exhibition is a look at various paintings throughout the war by CRW Nevinson. Starting out heavily influenced by the Futurists, Nevinson bought into FT Marinitti’s kind of view: “War, the only hygiene of the world” and “We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world.” His piece A Bursting Shell (1915) is a beautiful and psychedelic vortex of metal and firepower which in contrast to Wollen’s piece of the same year, is completely revolutionary. La Mitrailleuse (1915) fills the canvas to the brim with soldiers, guns and barb wire. However, as Nevinson spent more time actually on the front as an ambulance driver and later as part of the Royal Army Medical Corps, his views changed and his art began to reflect this. There are many horrific pieces such as The Doctor (1916) and A Taube (1916) which both show a much more explicit violence. These feelings culminated in his stunning piece Paths of Glory (1917) which was censored by the War Office and is a powerful depiction of the reality of life on the front line, two rotting corpses, face down in mud and barb wire (Stanley Kubrick used the title for one of his early masterpieces). Gassed. ‘In Arduls Fidelis’ (1919) is a piece by Gilbert Rogers which is in direct response to Paths of Glory and is truly dark in its gold glow of death and horror.Gassed. ‘In Arduis Fidelis' (1919), Gilbert Rogers, Oil on canvas, ©IWMART3819
William Orpen started off as an official portraitist but developed his own unique response to the war; his paintings became grotesque scenes using recurring characters in an almost biblical style. The Mad Woman of Douai (1918) is particularly shocking as it depicts his encounter with a woman in the aftermath of a rape and is truly nightmarish particularly due to his use of his part-cartoonish characters that are almost superimposed onto the scene. Percy Delf Smith similarly uses a grotesque style focusing on the character of Death viewing scenes of The Great War in his Dance of Death series of etchings.
There are other powerful responses such as by Paul Nash whose landscapes depict the desolation of life in the trenches. The Ypres Salient at Night (1918) in particular is a brilliant evocation of the disorientation felt due to flares and explosions and his piece We are Making a New World (1918) invites the viewer to look at the barren landscape this war leaves behind.
Not all the art here is from the front line; there are some depictions of the war effort at home including an interesting piece by Anna Airy, Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells; Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow and another by Dorothy Coke, War Allotments in a London Suburb: In the background is the County Council School at Norbury, used as a Military Hospital (1919). Both show scenes of hard working people back home in England doing their part.
This exhibition is important as it is a window to an extreme experience from the past by the people who lived through it as it was fresh in their minds. These are not safe, sentimental images looking back at a sanitised, noble war. It is important to understand these images and what it meant to the generation that lived through it. Especially since the war to end all wars was not quite that. Up a flight of stairs is the IWM’s Holocaust Exhibition. That is worth looking at and remembering too.
Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War continues at the Imperial War Museum until 8 March 2015. For more information go to – www.iwm.org.uk/exhibitions/iwm-london/truth-and-memory-british-art-of-the-first-world-war