Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions 2: Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions 2: Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One

Article excerpt

Some disasters could not occur in this age of instant communication. The first world war is a case in point: 9.7 million soldiers died, 19,240 British on 1 July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, alone. If all that had been seen on social mediaand rolling news threads, public opinion would have shifted immediately.

A hundred years ago, however, the sheer awfulness of what was happening took more time to sink in. Aftermath, an exhibition at Tate Britain, deals not so much with the art of the war itself as with the shocked and grieving era that followed the cataclysmic conflict: post-war art.

The horrors of the fighting continued to haunt artists on all sides, but not with equal force in every combatant country. In Britain the images were more softly elegiac than across the Channel. There was little appetite for even muted dreadfulness. The story of William Orpen's 'To The Unknown British Soldier In France' (1921-28) is revealing in that regard.

Orpen was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to paint three pictures of the Paris Peace Conference. But the painter, who had seen the battlefield of the Somme as a war artist, was outraged by the way the dead and wounded seemed forgotten by the assembled diplomats. 'Why upset themselves and their pleasures by remembering the little upturned hands on the duckboards, or the bodies lying in the water in the shell-holes?'

So, after completing two group portraits of the delegates, on the third canvas he painted a coffin, draped in the Union Jack, standing in the grand halls of Versailles, and flanked -- originally -- by the almost naked wraiths of two dead soldiers. When this was exhibited at the RA, Orpen was vilified for 'bad taste', sacrilege even, and the Imperial War Museum refused to accept the picture. Eventually, the artist decided to remove those spectral figures.

In retrospect it is striking how mild Orpen's protest was -- even in the unmodified version. Indeed, that was generally true of British war art. Similarly C.R.W. Nevinson's 'Paths of Glory' (1917) was banned by the military censor, leading him to exhibit it with a piece of brown paper inscribed 'censored' over the image, which shows two corpses face down in the mud. …

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