‘War was something horrible, but nonetheless something powerful…Under no circumstances could I miss it! It is necessary to see people in this unchained condition in order to know something about man’ Otto Dix

Marking the centenary of the First World War, the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition, The Great War in Portraits, shows the human side of WWI.

This small but powerful exhibit depicts the human horrors of war – facial disfigurement, loss of limbs, mental anguish, and of course death. The world had never before been exposed to such violence, with nine million people losing their lives.

Each work tells a different story from the same event, showing both the British and German response. Whilst the Brits mainly created traditional, conservative portraits, the Germans produced modern avant-garde works in a highly expressive style. These opposing German works could almost be considered part of the enemy at the time, depicting the true horrors in Expressionist and Realist styles.

However, not all of the British work was traditional. CRW Nevinson’s Futurist works were also in contrast to the portraits by war artist William Orpen.

 
GERMAN

The most famous painting on display is Ernst Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as a Soldier. The severed hand in this painting is conceived; Kirchner enlisted in the German army in 1914 but was discharged the following year after suffering a nervous breakdown. Here he displays his mental anguish through imagined physical injury.

Self-Portrait as a Soldier by Ernst Kirchner, 1915

Self-Portrait as a Soldier by Ernst Kirchner, 1915

Kirchner spent the following year convalescing in a Swiss hospital. Like many German artists of his epoch, in 1937 his art was deemed degenerate by the Nazis. Kirchner sadly committed suicide in July 1938. As a founding member of Die Brucke, Kirchner’s legacy in German art is enduring.

 

Max Beckmann was a painter and printmaker concerned with the human condition. Like Kirchner, he was discharged from the army in 1915 due to a nervous breakdown, after joining the medical corps the previous year. His experiences in the war were reflected in his work, often with an exaggerated highly stylised Expressionist manner.

The Hell by Max Beckmann, 1919

The Way Home from Hell by Max Beckmann, 1919

 

Whilst Beckmann and Kirchner are represented in the exhibition, two artists not included but who I feel deserve mentioning are George Grosz and Otto Dix.

Grosz joined the war in 1914 but was sent home after six months. In 1917 he was called up again but was deemed violent and also spent time in a mental hospital. After WWI his distaste for war, the German military and German people in general were depicted in his art; he caricaturised politicians and produced sensationalist work, often using vivid colours. His pejorative views of society and the Weimar Republic are extremely evident on the canvas. Grosz’ work during this time (along with Otto Dix) was part of a movement entitled New Objectivity. Grosz eventually fled to America on the cusp of Hitler’s rule. This painting, entitled Explosion, shows Berlin burning during WWI.

Explosion by George Grosz, 1917

Explosion by George Grosz, 1917

 

Unlike the German artists previously mentioned, Otto Dix served a full four years in the war. He was a machine-gunner. During this period he sketched graphic images of war terror, including scenes from the trenches and crippled and deformed soldiers, which became a central theme in his work until the 1930s. His work was later criticised by the state as being anti-military. Dix was then drafted into the German TA in WW2, was captured by the French and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. After his release he continued to develop his interest in portraits, whilst unusually, spending time in both East and West Germany.

Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas by Otto Dix, 1924

Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas by Otto Dix, 1924

 

BRITISH

One of the most haunting paintings in the exhibition is the Dead Stretcher Bearer by Gilbert Rogers. Rogers was a Liverpudlian who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. His art represented what he encountered: wounded British soldiers.

The Dead Stretcher-Bearer by Gilbert Rogers, 1919

The Dead Stretcher-Bearer by Gilbert Rogers, 1919

 

Portrait artist William Orpen is represented, as well as Henry Tonks, a British surgeon. Tonks painted those who had been injured in the war, particularly those with facial disfigurements. During WWI, his medical career took him to France and Italy as well as the UK, working in refugee camps, hospitals and ambulance units. In 1918 he became a war artist with John Singer Sargent.

 

CRW (Christopher Richard Wynne) Nevinson was the son of a war correspondent. He was a Futurist artist, who focused on the transport and movement of London. When the war broke out he went to France with the Red Cross. He left soon after due to injury and continued to use the Futurist style to depict the horrors of war.

La Mitrailleuse by CRW Nevinson, 1915

La Mitrailleuse by CRW Nevinson, 1915

 

If you are in London, this exhibition is well worth visiting. Entry is free and it runs until June 15th.

http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/firstworldwarcentenary/exhibition.php

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