Friday, 14 March 2014

Faces of War

Pic: Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill”, bronze sculpture by Jacob Epstein, 1913-14, 
Tate Britain Photo credit Wmpearl

 To London, to see the National Portrait Gallery’s WW1 centenary exhibition ‘The Great War in Portraits.’ It must surely be a good idea to see how the big beasts of the museum world are treating this immense subject that Budleigh Salterton's little Fairlynch Museum is being bold enough to tackle.

Good war or bad war? The battle rages on. A justifiable defence of civilisation and democracy threatened by a tyrannical and psychologically disturbed Kaiser Wilhelm II? Or the senseless waste of a generation which could have been avoided? To read the historians’ and the politicians’ arguments makes my head spin.

 Exhibition curator Paul Moorhouse was unequivocal.  “The events of 1914-18 are defined by incredible loss and unimaginable destruction,” visitors are told at the start of this unsettling portrayal of man’s inhumanity to man.

The message is reinforced by Sir Jacob Epstein’s sculpture Rock Drill which greets you at the entrance.  Created between 1913 and 1915 the piece was apparently conceived as a celebration of modern machinery.

But years later, as a second World War gripped Europe, the sculptor would later see it in very different terms. “A machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced,” is how he described it in complete contrast in 1940. “Here is the armed sinister figure of to-day and to-morrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein's monster we have made ourselves into.”


 Kaiser Wilhelm II by August Böcher
 Imperial War Museum Collection

Yet a further contrast emerges as you meet the people who dominated the European stage in 1914. On the one hand, figures from the European ruling class: symbolically posed by the artist to represent authority and stability. August Böcher’s portrait of the Kaiser, “inordinately concerned with his public image” as Paul Moorhouse describes him, is on display along with other great and good figures of the time: King George V, Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose assassination on 28 June 1914 led to the mobilisation of over 70 million military personnel. 


Gavrilo Princip in his prison cell at the Terezín fortress, near Prague  
Photographer unknown

The contrast is with the image of the assassin himself: a dejected-looking Gavril Princip, photographed shortly after his arrest. “Representing different worlds in collision, they set the scene on the eve of war - ultimate power threatened by abject insignificance,” reads the exhibition label.  The effect is to stress the absurdity and unlikeliness of the motives which contributed to the outbreak of this Great War.


One wall of the exhibition is taken up with the portraits of ordinary people, many of whose names we know.  Some are reproduced on the cover of the accompanying book published by the NPG. Ordinary by way of contrast with the images of the great and good. But in reality, extraordinary in their way: people like Edith Cavell, shot by the Germans on 12 October 1915 for helping Allied soldiers to escape from German-occupied Belgium. 


 Francisco Goya 
 Los desastres de la guerra, plate No. 3, 
(1st edition, Madrid: Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, 1863)
Museo del Prado

The horror of the 1914-18 conflict itself is well conveyed by the NPG exhibition.   World War I was not the first time that this had been portrayed. Just look at this monstrous moment captured by the Spanish artist Goya. But with the industrial-scale use of barbed wire, gas and high explosives the depiction of suffering takes on an even more frightening dimension. 



Imperial War Museum Collection  © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3688)

The stark reality of the conflict is conveyed by works such as Gilbert Rogers’ 'The Dead Stretcher-Bearer.'  “The body of a dead British stretcher-bearer lies on a stretcher, partially covered with a sheet, within a muddy shell cratered landscape,” reads the IWM description. “The man's helmet lies in the mud behind him and a medical kit sits in the mud near his outstretched hand, which hangs limp from the side of the stretcher.”


Imperial War Museum Collection   © IWM (Art.IWM ART 4744) 

Eric Kennington’s ‘Gassed and Wounded’ is another powerful image on display, as are the terribly disfigured faces of war wounded drawn by the surgeon and painter Henry Tonks.  Click on  to see them.

This is when I began to recall uneasily the wartime work of Budleigh Salterton’s Joyce Dennys (1893-1991).  I love her many paintings on display at Fairlynch Museum. If you haven’t seen them, do go and enjoy her witty commentaries on Salterton’s social scene in the 1970s.


Half a century earlier Budleigh’s favourite artist was working in a rather different style. Her VAD recruitment poster, shown above, is well known; I must have seen it in various places long before I’d ever heard her name and that of Budleigh Salterton.   


 Above: Our Hospital A B C. Verses by Hampden Gordon and M.G.Tindall with pictures by Joyce Dennys. Published by John Lane, The Bodley Head, London, [1916]

Unknown to me were these illustrations that she did for books like Our Hospital ABC and Our Girls in Wartime.

By contrast with the NPG’s powerful depiction of suffering humanity these images of the wounded - taken from books on display in the Fairlynch Great War exhibition - give the impression that the Western Front was no more troublesome than the average rugby match on a public school’s playing field. Jolly japes played out by aimiable young scallywags of the type you see depicted by the illustrator Thomas Henry in Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ Books.

Pure propaganda of course.

But it seems that such efforts to gloss over the reality of conflict were being challenged, judging by the NPG’s commentary. “By 1916, there was a  growing tension between those officials who were determined to sustain the war effort by presenting it in a positive light, and others, such as artists and medical staff, who were unwilling or unable to ignore its dreadful consequences.”

So much of the war was fought on the basis of keeping up appearances. The fatuously posed Kaiser Wilhelm, hiding his famously withered arm as he tries to look every inch the warrior is a perfect example. Art, no less than political alliances and military strategies, had played its part in creating and sustaining the conditions for a European conflict, writes Paul Moorhouse.   Irrespective of nationality, such “power portraits” with their assertions of military prowess “personify those deeper forces which, by June 1914, had in complex ways created the conditions for war”, he suggests.

Bertrand Russell in 1916, from the book Justice in War Time, published in 1917   
Photographer unknown

I came away from the NPG’s exhibition not much wiser as to the complicated reasons for World War I, but feeling that the truest verdict on the subject lies in the bitter lamentation of the pacifist Bertrand Russell.  It was composed only days after Britain’s entry into the conflict. 

Europe, he wrote on 12 August 1914, in a letter to the Editor of The Nation, had suddenly descended from being “a peaceful comity of nations” into a state of primitive barbarism. “And all this madness, all this rage, all this flaming death of our civilization and our hopes, has been brought about because a set of official gentlemen, living luxurious lives, mostly stupid, and all without imagination or heart, have chosen that it should occur rather than that any one of them should suffer some infinitesimal rebuff to his country’s pride."

Perhaps his photo should have been included among the exhibition’s portraits.

The National Portrait Gallery’s tribute to the victims of the Great War is a moving and troubling exhibition. It closes on 15 June 2014. Admission is free.

‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ 2015 exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews included: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!! 

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