Gabrielle Cormier

War Art: Why it matters a century on

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‘Bursting Shell’ by Christopher Nevinson (Source: BBC).

The Tower of London poppies are a powerful reminder that art can capture hearts and help us to commemorate together. This is especially important because a century later there are few surviving veterans of the Great War of 1914-1918 who can provide us with the benefit of their living memory. Aside from the poignant symbolism and colour, the impressive scale of the poppy display reflects the terrible human cost of the first great conflict of the 20th century that took 37 million casualties globally.

On this the centenary year of the start of World War One, countless more books on the Great War have been published than in the last few years combined. Among a plethora of commemorative events this year, one that stands out is the London Imperial War Museum’s exhibit on WW1 war art, Truth and Memory.

The exhibit is to be held until March 2015 and is open to the public free of charge. It is a quiet exhibit tucked behind two double doors in a bustling museum. This is not the exhibit’s only merit, I assure you. Truth and Memory is about two struggles. The first is obvious from the first painting visitors meet; it is the soldier’s struggle in battle. The second is intimately tied to the first; the struggle of the war artist to depict man’s struggle on the Western Front.

Needless to say, war has never been pretty. However, the Great War presented soldiers with challenges never encountered in a 19th century battlefield, including the machinegun, unsavoury trenches to avoid the rapid fire, tanks, and shell shock.

This brings me to the lesson I have drawn from my visit to the exhibit. Since art is a product of a society in a given place and time, any art form must play catch-up when society changes quickly over a short period. Revolutions in the social and technological have in this way engendered huge transformations in literature and painting. The Great War is no exception to this; new approaches and techniques were created as it raged.

To understand these techniques, I benefitted greatly from the company of my friend Maki Ishida, a student in art management here in London, as I visited the IWM. She taught me about the pivotal role played in these exhibits by the curator. The order of pieces, and the concise and informative descriptions guiding me from one room to the next built outlined artists’ attempts to come to grips with their new subject.

‘A front line near St Quentin’ by Christopher Nevinson (Source: BBC).

SPOILER ALERT: We follow Christopher Nevinson’s testing of paradigm after paradigm to depict the horrors of war. Man is overwhelmed by the power of the man-made; technology is the driver of change. ‘Futurism’ which has an air of technological determinism about it, becomes a conduit for otherwise inexplicable scenes. However, technological determinism, the belief that technological advancements alone create major social change is a limited theory. Perhaps this is why Nevinson abandoned futurism for other paradigms later on. Irrespective of the paradigm, however, what unites the painters of the Great War, British and foreign alike, is this willingness or need to experiment.

At the age of thirteen I followed a class on war art. This class brought home that art is not simply about fiction or the aesthetic but can be a product of down-and-dirty realism. Art could even be grotesque. Worse even, perusing my teacher’s book of WW1 propaganda, I grasped for the first time that visual arts could be dangerously enticing. British, French, and German propaganda sold glory and hatred in what many contemporary historians call a senseless war. As a teenager who was beginning to doubt, and see concepts in three dimensions rather than two, the timing could not have been better.

Any teenager interested in arts, media or history should see this exhibit. This kind of exposure is key to gaining a more sophisticated understanding of art. What’s more, it is a reminder of the soldier and the painter’s struggle, lest we forget.

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