A hundred years has nearly passed since a mother had had inscribed on her son’s tombstone in the corner of a foreign field at the Foncquevilles Military Cemetery in the pas de Calais ‘Will some kind hand in a foreign land place a flower on my son’s grave.’ The repercussions and shock-waves that reverberated throughout Europe and the rest of the world, went on for years after the end of the ‘War to End All Wars’, with dreadful social deprivation, shattered bodies and minds and terrible destruction to towns, cities and the landscape, nowhere more so than Northern France. In the first gallery called Remembrance: Battlefields and Ruins, there are two paintings by Christopher Nevinson, one of two dead soldiers lying amongst the barbed wire and shell-holes, called Paths of Glory, and the other painted a year earlier in 1916 of Ypres After the First Bombardment, depicting empty or burning buildings. Showing alongside is a three-minute film taken from a rigid airship flying lower and lower over the same town in 1919 by a film cameraman and his pilot, and the devastation is hard to comprehend. In the vitrines are a fascination display of photographs of ruined buildings, including Reims Cathedral, aerial reconnaissance photographs of German trenches, illustrated Michelin guides to the battlefields and a collection of souvenirs, both British and German, including matchbox covers, letter openers and ashtrays made of shrapnel and shell-cases.
One of he most powerful war memorials ever made was designed by Charles Sargeant Jagger as a monument dedicated to the casualties in the Royal Regiment of Artillery and stands at the west side of Hyde Park Corner. A maquette of The Driver adorns this room, one of four oversize bronze figures standing sentinel around the Portland stone plinth, dominated by a massive 9.2 inch Mk I howitzer, some 9m. high, sitting atop the stone. His sculptural tribute has a raw truthfulness with no sentimentality, and alongside is another maquette of a Soldier Reading a Letter, which features as our June Statue on page **. In between these two stunning bronzes is a bas-relief panel, 4ft x 10ft, depicting a listening post in No Man’s Land, where a soldier hides among the bodies of his dead comrades in order to listen to the enemy all around him. Frank Salisbury’s The Passing of the Unknown Warrior, 11 November 1920, is an impressive piece of work of the same dimensions, but, more impressive still is William Orpen’s To The Unknown British Soldier in France, showing a coffin draped in a Union flag at the entrance to a richly-decorated and darkened hall at Versailles, at the end of which is an arched window and a cross. Originally, he painted two ghostly, semi-nude figures at either side representing an unemployed soldier and the Dead, but when the Imperial War Museum rejected it on grounds of not sticking to the brief, he altered it accordingly. A temporary catafalque was erected alongside the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on 14 July 1920, with thousands of soldiers taking part, but the structure was dismantled after the parade. In Whitehall in London, Sir Edwin Lutyens was asked by Lloyd George to design a permanent Cenotaph (literally ‘empty tomb’), past which the peace parade would march, honouring the million or so dead, initially made of plaster and wood, but later fashioned from Portland Stone.
The third room is all about wounded soldiers and contains the most thought-provoking and harrowing works, with Henry Tonks’s rarely seen portraits of severely disfigured servicemen, used in the reconstruction of their faces at the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department, or the ‘Tin Noses Shop’, at The Third London General Hospital in Wandsworth, and working for Sir Harold Gillies, producing these astonishing pastel drawings and recording operations of facial injury cases at the Cambridge military hospital in Aldershot. Otto Dix, George Grosz and Heinrich Hoerle did not flinch from the horrors of war on the other side, producing biting, satirical comments on the marginalisation of disabled war veterans. In France, however, Les gueules cassés featured prominently in the victory celebrations in 1919. Dada emerged from neutral Switzerland during the war, with artists like Hannah Höch and the Berliner John Heartman producing anti-war photomontages and Grosz and Edward Burra making human beings out of machine parts, alongside Max Ernst and André Masson. The next room includes dark and uncompromising views of a world at war, with Max Beckman’s series Hell, portraying Berlin as a violent and lawless society in melt-down, Kathe Kollwitz’s War, Georges Rouault’s Misery and War and Otto Dix’s series of etchings, drypoint and aquatints, also entitled simply War.
Emerging from the shadows, the visitors enter a gallery entitled Return to Order, in which there is a renewed interest in pastoral scenes, harking back to peaceful times, and George Clausen’s The Road, Winter Morning, painted in 1923 is shown next to The Cornfield by John Nash, both reassuringly British and bucolic. Women’s roles had changed radically during the war, with emancipation and modern femininity coming to the fore, illustrated by Dorothy Brett’s War Widows, with nine females all in black, Dod Proctor’s delightful Morning, and Meredith Frampton’s neo-Classical portrait Woman Reclining featuring the model Marguerite Kelsey in Coco Chanel garçonne style. Frampton’s father was the sculptor Sir George Frampton, who produced the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens and the memorial to Edith Cavell in Saint Martin’s Place. Stanley Spencer is represented by Christ Carrying the Cross, and the seminal The Deluge by Winifred Knights, which we saw at the Dulwich Picture Gallery less than two years ago; she was declared a genius by the Daily Graphic when it was displayed at the RA in 1921. Also in this section are paintings by Picasso, André Derain and Georges Braque, with sculptures of a standing woman by Henry Moore, Aristide Maillol’s Venus with a Necklace and Eric Gill’s beautifully-carved Hoptonwood stone female nude Mankind. Imagining Post-war Society: Post-War People includes such paintings as Edward Burra’s Les Follies de Belleville and The Snack Bar, William Roberts’ The Jazz Club, and more works by Dix, Nevinson, Hoerle and Grosz, whose Grey Day suggests that nothing had really changed and the world had reverted to its old social order and class divisions. The final section looks at The New City, and includes artists looking across the Atlantic to the future, where technological progress and modernity were the order of the day, celebrating skyscrapers, automated factories and machinery, with a large canvas by Ferdinand Léger entitled Discs in the City dominating the room. The last painting one sees as one leaves is Christopher Nevinson’s The Soul of the Soulless City (‘New York – an Abstraction’), which resonates with the same emptiness and hopelessness as his painting Ypres, painted in 1916 and displayed in the first room.
Until 23 September 2018