Yesterday I stayed in my new home town and went to York Art Gallery which has just been expensively refurbished yet again ; and , controversially , has introduced entrance fees after promising not to . My York museum pass allowed me in free – but the pass costs , of course .
The current big exhibition –
is displayed in 4 rooms and echoes the 1919 exhibition at the Royal Academy of 925 works (!) commemorating the Great War which had ended the previous year . The first room you come to is hung exactly as the main room at that 1919 exhibition and includes both straightforwardly patriotic & slightly unrealistic works like Clausen’s Woolwich Arsenal as well as a Stanley Spencer painting of a dressing station . Apparently an effort was made to include younger & more modern artists stylistically , partly because many had seen action and thus represented a generation who had suffered severely . That this was recognised surprised me a little since the line from our present government is that no one thought WW1 was terrible until certain recent historians and TV programmes had overexposed a few poems by officers who had no idea how patriotic the ‘ordinary’ soldiers really were . Thus the anniversary of the Great War is to be expressly celebrated . This exhibition because it reflects the complexities of artists’ responses then , just does not do that .
I didn’t think I would like it as much as I do but the quality of the work – often early stuff by later very famous painters eg the Nash brothers , Wyndham Lewis , Stanley Spencer – and the intensity of feeling conveyed won me over . Here are some favourites –
Over the Top – John Nash
We are making a New World Paul Nash 1918
Paul was the older brother and had trained at the Slade , John had no (official) training . Both were in the Artists’ Rifles and saw action .
There were also women artists commissioned to work on the ‘Home Front’ –
The L press : Whitworth Works Openshaw Anna Airy
This was a munitions works , she travelled around the country to produce 4 paintings of ‘war work’ but they were rejected at first . Too realistic or too modernistic or both ?
Women’s canteen , Phoenix Works , Bradford 1918 Flora Lion
Returning to the battle front :-
‘Archies’ CRW Nevinson
Nevinson was much taken with Futurism before the War and produced some joyful paintings of flight – despite the context . He claimed to be the first artist to paint from an aeroplane . Later however –
Paths of Glory 1917 CRW Nevinson
This was censored by the War Office because depictions of British corpses were bad for morale at home or words to that effect . It was shown , officially , after the War was over however . I would have thought that by 1917 the British public would have noticed that men were dying at the Front .
I’m sure I’ve left lots of other things out and will certainly go and visit again . Although I thought I knew quite a bit about this War from the literature produced during and after – there is nothing like a visual image to bring it home to you .