Today, I visited the exhibition Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at York Art Gallery – this is a small review. Not all paintings and works are mentioned, as there were a lot and I could not fit them all in.
The first room of the downstairs gallery is laid out exactly as Gallery III was in 1919 at the Royal Academy of Art. The exhibition, The Nation’s War Paintings and Other Records, in 1919 contained 925 paintings, sculptures and other pieces of art in various styles, though in York there are significantly less pieces. Gallery III contained the grandest official commissions from the war and the overall idea behind the original exhibit was to have an artistic memorial to the war. It contained work by younger artists – they had been the generation to bear the burden of war; their work would be the most truthful and most affecting.
The York exhibition runs through three linked rooms, each split into sections with their own titles. When walking in, I was struck by the scale of the works which were on display – the small busts of various figures were dwarfed by the paintings on each wall – the canvases huge and striking, even in a large space.
There are paintings from medics, such as Stanley Spencer who worked in Salonika, and later on in the exhibition – there is also work from women. The first piece I saw was Henry Lamb’s Irish Troops in the Judaean Hills Surprised By A Turkish Bombardment. The huge canvas captures the disorganisation of troops when confronted with the attack – the strain in two soldier’s faces visible in the lower corner while the rest of them are left reeling, crouched in the stones. The tents, arranged in solemn rows seem innocuous amongst the chaos, unmoved.
There is also George Clausen’s Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal. His is a romantic evocation of the production of weapons – an avoidance of the dirty and dangerous reality of such work. His men are granted nobility in the ethereal light which is simultaneously the dawning of a new era. The workers are graceful in their movements almost, yet many are faceless – the machine is the centrepiece. Certainly not a truthful rendition of the actuality of working in a factory at the time.
A few busts by various artists are dotted about the room, seemingly at random. Georges Clemenceau is posted near the door – his features pensive and worried. Sergeant DF Hunter, VC is at the back of the room, his gaze frank and unapologetic. Hunter’s bust was intended as a memorial to all Scottish VC awardees. Hunter is portrayed without rank or insignia, rendering him an everyman. The only mention of a woman in this first room is a bust of Dr. Elsie Inglis by the sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. They seemed to be vaguely placed throughout the space, almost an afterthought.
The next section is more of a ‘themed’ part – entitled Perspectives of Battle. This is more landscape based and it is interesting to see how each different artists captured the land before them, how they communicated the destruction that had occurred. Orpen’s piece, Thiepval, is striking for its use of white – that on first glance is snow and the second one realises that there are two entangled skeletons of German soldiers. There are other examples of Orpen’s work throughout the gallery, some showcasing a nightmare world with an absence of pity, a lone crucifix standing as a reproof to God. He shows the harsh reality of war and its effect on the landscape in his work, not shying away from portraying remains. There are not just paintings of the French front however. Sidney Carline’s The Trail of War, 1919 looks at the destruction of a Turkish aerodrome – the wrecked, skeletal remains of aircraft are left like slain animals, firmly bound to the land, an antithesis to flight.
I am not overly one for landscapes, so there were few which drew my attention in this section and made me pause. The first was Paul Nash’s Wire. The tangled mess is nightmarish, yet striking in its intensity, the barbed wire more like some sort of weed, snaking its way across the landscape, choking everything in its path. The second was Nevison’s Paths of Glory. In person, the wire glints in the light, almost like spun gold – the danger of it unclear. What is most interesting about this piece is that it was originally banned from display due to its depiction of two dead British soldiers. Nevison was originally lauded for his representation of “a more intense reality” and I must say I did find myself drawn to it, lingering somewhat. Another of Nevison’s works which was banned from display was his Group of Soldiers – this time due to his depiction, not of any horror or trauma, but instead because the men he depicted were not aesthetically pleasing. His subjects, the everymen, the ordinary soldiers, were deemed to be too “ugly” to be put on display. Instead, I thought his piece to be simple – yet affecting. The soldier’s features are rounded and drawn from life.
The penultimate section was one entitled Sacrifice, Redemption and many of the paintings within are ones of grief and loss. Orpen’s To The Unknown Soldier in France was one which drew my eye, and then my interest. The painting is the final of three which Orpen was commissioned to produce to record the Peace Conference of 1919. Totalling £3000 it was one of the most costly commissions of the war. His depiction of the Unknown Soldier is endlessly grandiose until one reaches the coffin in the lower half of the painting, central and illuminated by a shaft of light from a far window. It is lonely within the space it occupies, the colours of the flag are garish. What is most interesting however, is that in the original painting, Orpen added two emaciated, semi-nude soldiers who guarded the coffin and two cherubs above: “after all the negotiations..the Armistice and Peace, the only tangible result is the ragged, unemployed soldier and the Dead.” It caused controversy when it was first displayed and the IWM would only accept the painting when the four figures were painted out. I do wonder what the original would have been like – all the more affecting in its contrast, one expects.
Within this section are also three portraits by Orpen of members of the RFC. The portraits are informal, the figures command the gaze of the viewer – and yet they are melancholy once one realises that one of the three men died several days after his portrait was painted and a second was wounded.
The final section is entitled the Forgotten Front – a title which I feel could have been rethought.The contents of this part encompass industry and the wider homefront – certainly in my view not a forgotten front. It does feel somewhat like an afterthought, but this is the only section in the gallery which contains work by women war artists and works which feature women. I was beginning to despair somewhat as I took in the rest of the exhibition! There is also only one painting in this section which contains POC – Indian soldiers recovering at Brighton Pavillion.
Anna Airy’s Women Working in a Gas Retort House is a far more realistic depiction of industry than Clausen’s romantic view. There is iron here, black and imposing, the fire bright orange and red, threatening and powerful all at once. Commissioned to produced four paintings depicting munitions production, Airy captures the machines and their workforce unapologetically; the women are on the factory floor and she does not shy away from this, skilfully depicting the change in society that has occurred – women occupying a men’s space.
Richard Jack’s Return to the Front is another staggering canvas – occupying one wall alone. The mass of faces and bodies bring the scale of the human cost sharply back into focus – each face is different. One wonders at the relationships – mothers and sons perhaps, sweethearts are visible. There is one lone nun amongst the crowd and in a lower corner in the foreground, a young man sits in his uniform from a Scottish regiment. He is gazing at something not seen by the viewer, lost in his own thoughts, his expression hard to place. There is no dread there, not on any of their faces, but there is on his perhaps a hint of worry, an attempt at self conviction.
The last work I want to comment on is Outside Charing Cross Station, July 1916 by J Hodgson Lobley. It is another immense piece, depicting Londoners watching the arrival of the wounded from the Somme. It is not a tender piece, but instead tackles a great mass of people. They stand at the roadside, peering at the ambulances. They hang out of windows, they sit upon signs and gaze at the convoy as it passes. One man reaches up into the cab of an ambulance and a wounded soldier looks back. The crowd are faceless, and yet amongst it all – there is a woman with her head in her hands – the grief clear.
Overall, I liked the exhibition – its mix of styles and depictions, not shying away from what had once been banned from display. Much of it was new work which I had not seen before, giving a fresh perspective, a new set of eyes and a rendition of another new experience. I came away from it newly appreciative. However, it would have been nicer to see a more equal balance of work split between male and female painters (though I’m not sure this would have been possible). It would also have been interesting to see more work from artists on fronts other than the Western Front.