Paintable Pain: Helena Roy reviews ‘The Great War in Portraits’ at the National Portrait Gallery

By the end of the Great War the social, imperial, political and military structure of society had transformed. Humanity was mercilessly plunged into the common predicament of grief and suffering; and the innocence of an entire generation was destroyed. ‘The Great War in Portraits’ at the National Portrait Gallery is a moving commemoration to the people who embroidered the world’s harrowing experience with individual stories.

The exhibition immediately confronts you with a distorted sculpture; at once machinery and man,  then transports you to the war’s lacy Edwardian prelude. Portraits of royals with pomp and circumstance map a family tree spanning Britain, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. These grand portraits of a lost age show striking similarity and blithe ignorance. The portrait of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – whose death led to the deployment of over 70 million military personnel, with eventual losses of more than 9 million – is harrowingly modest.

Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' by Sir Jacob Epstein (1913 – 14)

A room entitled ‘Leaders and Followers’ displays a hierarchy of seniority – commanding officers in traditional garb, ordinary soldiers through a broken lens. A portrait of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig shows him watery-eyed and blank-faced. On observing the portrait he instructed ‘Go and paint the men… They’re getting killed every day.’ The Battle of the Somme, which he led, brought 57,470 British casualties, 19,240 dead, on its first day. Contrasted to his medalled portrait is the cracked ‘La Mitrailleuse’ by C. R. W. Nevinson (1915). The fractured perspective of a volunteer ambulance driver tragically points out the shattered reality of military plans compared to their orchestrated theoretical plots.

'La Mitrailleuse' by C. R. W. Nevinson (1915)

Initial patriotic euphoria quickly faded into angry disillusionment. As time progresses, artists visibly work against the shackles of propaganda, increasing tension as the exhibition progresses. People crowded round ‘Gassed and Wounded’ by Eric Kennington  (1918). The cramped and ruddy conditions muffle almost audible screams of pain.

'Gassed and Wounded' by Eric Kennington (1918)

‘Captain A. Jacka’ by Colin Gill (1919) is painted with clear colours – facial contours emphasised to bring out contorted confusion. Jacka was worshipped in Australian press for incredible military acts – both audacious and lethal. ‘Damaged and wounded’ by Henry Tonks (1916-1918) is small and shy by comparison, but infinitely more devastating than the admiring celebration of killing.

Albert Ball - recipient of the Victoria Cross and the first pilot to become a British popular hero, died aged 21 in 1917
Albert Ball - recipient of the Victoria Cross and the first pilot to become a British popular hero, died aged 21 in 1917
A detail from 'Soldier with Facial Wounds', by Henry Tonks (1916-18)

The methods of slaughter revealed new depths of barbarism: gas, barbed wire, flame throwers, machine guns – all were unimagined horrors that confronted soldiers above the trenches. Between 1914 and 1918, compassion was seemingly smothered by unabated and unjustified cruelty and hatred. The attempt to represent the psyche of a traumatised nation erased traditional artistic styles. ‘Hell: the way home’ by Max Beckmann (1919) throws forth the pain of pointless defeat. ‘Self portrait’ by William Orpen (1917) is blank and objective, stifling emotions against snowy white background.

'Self portrait' by William Orpen (1917)

Today, as part of a generation that never possessed the innocence the Great War destroyed, it can be hard to imagine the trauma to those who survived. The National Portrait Gallery’s unabashed and unafraid display of this tragic transition is one of the most effective renditions yet. When faced with pain that is utterly unspeakable, sometimes art can be the best way to shout.

With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery, the Guardian, BBC and the Tate for photographs.

‘The Great War in Portraits’ is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 15 June 2014, admission is free. For more information visit http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/firstworldwarcentenary/exhibition.php

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