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An exhibition of six British Post-modernists depict the impact of the Great War 1914-18 on our society and culture. It provides a perfect entry point for the visual dimension of the 2014 programme marking the centenary.
Review by Dr John Mackinlay
2014 is already programmed for a succession of commemorative 1914-18 events. Battlefield experts, military museum curators, war poet aficionados and art historians will become more and more visible on the small screen as the year unfolds and to some extent this process has already begun with David Boyd Haycock’s A Crisis of Brilliance at the Dulwich Gallery. In the richter scale of extravagant exhibitions this is a modest one of about seventy drawings and canvasses, but for anyone interested in the Great War and its explosive effects on British society it provides a must-see introduction to the 2014 calendar.
Six British artists Nash, Nevinson, Carrington, Spencer , Bomberg, and Gertler who, even in today’s multicultural Britain, represented an impressive diversity of race, class, politics and sexual preferences, were thrown together as prewar students at the Slade, at that time London’s leading art school. The importance of this exhibition is that it compellingly brings together several prewar narratives of transition and confrontation through the pictures as well as the individual life stories of the Slade class.
The 1900s were uncertain times, the Victorian world was being eroded by speedier travel and collapsing social hierarchies. In 1910, the UK’s key communicators had failed to understand or respond effectively to a spearhead exhibition in London introducing the European post-modernist movement including Matisse and Picasso. As a result the emerging class at the Slade were crushed between their reactionary tutors and the irresistible pressures of the new movement.
The same class of successful young painters were also caught in the mobilisation for war. Gertler became a conscious objector, Nash, Nevinson, Bomberg and Spencer went to the trenches. By 1916 the government arranged to commission recognised painters as officers and provide them with a space or a vantage point from which to record the environment of the front lines. This had a seismic impact on the nature of their art. A more immediate narrative was the students’ relationships with each other, their bonding, rivalry and sexual affiliations intensified by the pressures of war.
Generically they were expressionists; for them a tree did not need to have each leaf exactly drawn, it was more important to convey the personality of the tree, its strength, movement and significance to the surrounding land.
A Crisis of Brilliance can therefore be engaged at different levels, visibly there are the hung paintings and drawings, and beyond, on a different plane are the looming narratives of pre war Britain, now reinforced by Pat Barker’s recent novel Toby’s Room, in which the same Slade students and professors featured in the exhibition, are brought to life with glowing intensity.
The Dulwich show is organised in six sections, three are devoted to the Slade period and three to the war. Even without the foreknowledge of the underlying narratives, it is possible to follow the maturing process of the Slade class which then explodes or collapses on contact with the war. In the first room it is important to spend some time studying a huge photo of the students with some of their professors in a rural picnic setting to see what they looked like in black and white reality before passing onto their intense depictions of each other and themselves. The emerging talents of Spencer and Gertler were already visible, whereas Nash, Bomberg and Nevison , having failed to make much impact with their orthodox drawing tutor were by 1912 making a stir beyond the college in London’s alternative art scene.
The crisis of brilliance suggested in the exhibition title takes place in the sections devoted to the war. Gertler was individually wrestling with powerful anxieties thrust on him by the mobilisation of his colleagues. His tranquil green landscapes provided a place for personal escape but his canvas The Mill unconsciously betrays his deeper unease - with its unsettled skies, spikey windmill sails and strangely painted dogs. For the mobilised artists, contact with the front line had an electrifying effect, particularly on Nash and Nevinson, whose candid statements on scale of devastation became iconic images of the Great War and will no doubt re-emerge in the 2014 calendar. Bomberg , a man before his time, had his initial work rejected by the British war art commissioners, but almost a century later national galleries have been buying his pictures at sky-high prices.
For RUSI readers who have not already seen this exhibition, the modest purpose is to explain this crucially important introductory exhibition in the context of the year which is to follow. In time A Crisis of Brilliance will become an important milestone in the critique of the Great War artists. It is well conceived and provides a perfect entry point for the visual dimension of the 2014 programme. The show closes soon on the 22 September so there is no time to lose, switch off your computer and get on the train to Dulwich.
* Painting - Paul Nash, The Void. Photo courtesy of MBAC, Tate London.