Socialist Worker

Artists captured the senseless horror of the First World War

by Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue No. 2415

Paths of Glory, CRW Nevinson, 1917

Paths of Glory, CRW Nevinson, 1917 (Pic: Imperial War Museum)

The Imperial War Museum reopened last month just in time to join the First World War centenary. Its Truth and Memory exhibition is based on art commissioned by the British war memorials committee.

“Truth” refers to the new experience artists were exposed to, while “Memory” to the role art was supposed to play.

The government dispatched artists to the frontline, in the hope that they would glorify the war. The Times argued in 1916 that art could capture the “greatest epoch in the country’s history”.

Many artists did sign up to fight in the patriotic frenzy of 1914. But the brutal experience of trench warfare and the tenacious slaughter turned many against the war. 

This was often reflected in the art they produced. It is moving and often haunting in its portrayal of firsthand accounts of its horror.

Paul Nash’s Mule Track brilliantly represents the inner turmoil it could produce. It hammers home the horror of the trenches with its dark colour and thick brushstrokes, the only light coming from explosions. 

In the middle ground, the pitch black figures of the mules and men jump in terror. Nash wrote that, “France would be a mere dream if our minds were not perpetually kept upon those scenes”. 

The tension runs throughout the exhibition—even if it’s not officially acknowledged. It includes paintings originally censored by the information ministry, such as CRW Nevinson’s Paths of Glory (above). 

While the war turned some artists towards the left, it also pulled others towards reaction. This contradiction is also present in the exhibition, which includes a room on the Vorticist movement that Nevinson broke from.

Like the Italian Futurists, Vorticists such as Percy Wyndham Lewis glorified the war and were later pulled by fascism. It also has a section on “Forgotten Fronts”, with works from women artists Flora Lion and Anna Airy. 

It’s full of interesting art, but our “truth and memory” is very different to theirs.  

Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War
Imperial War Museum, London SE1 6HZ. Until 8 March 2015 


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