The Great War In Portraits At National Portrait Gallery

Selbstbildnis als Soldat (Self-portrait as a Soldier) by Ludwig Kirchner, 1915.  Copyright: Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio

Selbstbildnis als Soldat (Self-portrait as a Soldier) by Ludwig Kirchner, 1915. Copyright: Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio

This year marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, and this is the first major exhibition of the year to mark the occasion. The Great War would claim the lives of over 9 million combatants and this show serves as both a reminder and a display of some of the powerful art it would inspire.

The show opens with Jacob Epstein’s brilliant Rock Drill torso as an omen of how the age of machines would change the nature of conflict and allow the brutality of war to be greatly increased.

The second room features portraits of the European leaders who would instigate the war, standing proud in their finest regalia. They are in stark contrast to the photograph of Gavrilo Princip taken just after his arrest. This young Serb looks bewildered and dazed with no idea that his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand would serve as the ignition spark for a devastating war.

The exhibition then takes us into the heart of the conflict with stories of bravery and most importantly recounts the horrors of war. Gilbert Rogers’s dead stretcher bearer lies in a field pockmarked with craters, a loose sheet covering his face but his body left abandoned on the battlefield.

Other stand-out works include Eric Kennington’s painting of soldiers suffering from the effects of mustard gas and Christopher Nevinson whose angular style brilliantly captures the aggression and intensity of war.

There are many great works on display but the aim of this free exhibition is to remind us of the events a century ago, to highlight the heroism of certain individuals and most importantly the horrors and brutality war. The show meets these aims and is a fitting tribute to the lives of the millions lost in the Great War.

The Great War In Portraits is on at National Portrait Gallery until 15 June. Admission is free. Also still on at the National Portrait Gallery are the celebrity photographs of David Bailey’s Stardust.

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