We’ve already reported on the re-opening of the Imperial War Museum and its excellent new galleries on the Great War, but there is also a temporary exhibition to coincide with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. It examines the conflict through British paintings, from both during and shortly after the war.
Painting was used both as a propaganda tool and also to expose the horrors of warfare. This exhibition explores both aspects, choosing to focus on select painters. Representations of the defeat of the Prussian guard at Ypres and showing the allied Belgian troops in a heroic light were designed to stoke a patriotic fervour, but it’s arguably the more edgy works that stand out.
Paul Nash highlights an unsettling contrast as the sun rises: rather than being a moment of beauty, the sun only succeeds in shining upon a pockmarked muddy battlefield. This is supplemented by Gilbert Rogers painting of a dead soldier still wearing his gas mask and Percy Delft Smith’s ‘Dance of Death’ series where Death lingers beyond the battle, and even he seems repulsed by two feet no longer attached to a body.
William Orpen is the most divisive painter here as his surreal and ghostly images, where soldiers can appear like aliens, fail to capture the immediacy of war and instead try to convey moralistic lessons about the nature of conflict.
However, the best part of the exhibition lies in the work of CRW Nevinson, as his futurist style captures the intensity of the situation. A good example is an abstract bursting shell, painted as if above the viewer, which would be seen as beautiful if not for the devastation it brings. Nevinson’s portrayal of resting troops and their angular jaws does not mark them out as heroes, but shows instead the cogs of the machine that is war.
This is a small exhibition that’s being ignored by most of the crowds, but it’s just as insightful as the permanent displays. Plus, the comparative lack of visitors means the full impact of the works has time to sink in.
Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War is on at Imperial War Museum until 8 March 2015. Admission is free.