The Great War in Portraits – National Portrait Gallery London

The National Portrait Gallery in London has an exhibition called The Great War in Portraits running until 15 June 2014. The Museum’s website describes the exhibition as:

In viewing the First World War through images of the many individuals involved, The Great War in Portraits looks at the radically different roles, experiences and, ultimately, destinies of those caught up in the conflict.

Setting the scene in 1914, the splendour and formality of portraits of national leaders are contrasted with a press photograph of Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The narrative unfolds with power-portraits of commanders Haig, Foch and Hindenburg, asserting  military authority, which are displayed together with dignified pictures of their troops by artists including Orpen, Sickert and Nevinson. Finally, images of heroes and medal-winners are shown alongside the wounded and the fallen, representing  the bitter-sweet nature of a war in which valour and selfless endeavour were qualified by disaster and suffering.

From paintings and drawings to photography and film, the exhibition considers a wide range of visual responses to ‘the war to end all wars’, culminating in the visual violence of Expressionist masterpieces by Beckmann and Kirchner.

The majority of the portraits on show are by British artists of British Empire subjects, but there are some from other countries. There is a clear difference in style between post 1918 paintings of war scenes by British and German artists. The exhibition argues that in Britain, victorious but traumatised, many rejected Modernism in favour of a return to past values. In defeated Germany, however, the old order was rejected, resulting in a move the other way.

The curators were obviously restricted in their choice of portraits because few other than politicians, generals, admirals and VC winners would have had their portrait painted. However, there are also a number of paintings of unnamed ordinary British Empire soldiers made by William Orpen, with the aim of showing the importance of collective endeavour in the war effort.

The War Office did not want paintings of dead British soldiers to be shown, censoring one of dead Tommies by C. R. W. Nevision, ironically titled Paths of Glory. However, it was more relaxed about pictures of the wounded. Public exhibitions of war art in 1918 included paintings by Orpen and Eric Kennington of wounded men and hospital scenes.

After the war a group of artists led by Gilbert Rogers, an artist and wartime Royal Army Medical Corps officer, were commissioned by the Committee for the Medical History of the War to paint a series of pictures of the work of the RAMC. Another type of medical painting shown in the exhibition is a number of before and after portraits by Henry Tonks of men undergoing plastic surgery after suffering facial wounds. Some similar photos are also displayed.

The exhibition features other photographs and film as well. A wall displays 40 photographic portraits, some of unknown subjects intended to display different aspects of the war, but many of famous people, including several women. Extracts from two films, one British and one German, about the Battle of the Somme are shown on a rolling loop.

Both films featured a mixture of actual footage of the battle and reconstructions of battle scenes. The British one, Battle of the Somme by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, came out first and was very successful, being seen by 20 million people in its first six months of release. It is available on DVD and on YouTube. The German rival, Bei unseren Helden an der Somme [With our Heroes on the Somme] was less successful. It included footage clearly from earlier in the war and its reconstructed scenes were not even filmed on location. It can also be found on YouTube.

This is a very interesting exhibition. It is too small to make a lengthy journey just to see it, but is well worth seeing if in the area.

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2 Comments

Filed under Reviews, War History

2 responses to “The Great War in Portraits – National Portrait Gallery London

  1. Personally, I would like to see the paintings of the ordinary people. I get more of a feel for the era that way. Generals all seem to pose and look the same, no matter what country or period of time.

    • It was good that this exhibition had a few pictures of ordinary soldiers, albeit anonymous ones apart from the VC winners. I suppose that the problem for a modern exhibition curator is who had their portrait painted at the time.

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