Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War – Imperial War Museum

On 4th August 1914, exactly 100 years ago, Britain entered the First World War. After weeks of debate and political wrangling the war began, sweeping Europe into four years of, largely unforeseen, destruction that toppled monarchs and killed millions. The Imperial War Museum, established in 1917 as the guardian of the war memory, recently reopened after an extensive redevelopment project that included an overhaul of the First World War galleries in time for this very day, the centenary of that first moment at war.

I was hoping to tell you about them in this post, but unfortunately they were so busy that it was impossible to get in and it wasn’t clear that ticketed-entry was in operation (IWM – a sign would have been helpful!). So I’ll try again another day, but in the meantime I visited the art gallery, always the quietest place in the museum, which across two sections examines the ‘truth’ of war from the perspective of serving solider and official artists, juxtaposed against the ‘memory’ of the conflict which draws on work commissioned by the British War Memorial commemoration scheme. The decision to separate these two things is a good one and draws a clear distinction between the changing purpose of Great War art.

‘Truth’ takes a number of war artists in turn and by looking at their attempt to convey a realistic picture of war, shows how their individual style developed as the years passed. Nevinson began the war as a volunteer ambulance driver and his famous La Mitrailleuse (recently seen at the National Portrait Gallery) is a beautiful example of the Futurist style, as is the bombing of Ypres – a dynamic depiction of buildings crumbling under barrage. But as the war progressed, and by then an official war artist, Nevinson’s figures became increasingly naturalistic, moving away from his original style and resulting in the controversial, but beautiful, Paths of Glory showing two dead soldiers face down against a mud and shiny barbed-wire landscape.

William Orpen, initially a society portrait painter, was similarly affected by the events he observed, painting almost ghoulish scenes of peasantry and soldiers, often washed in a sickly green, and deathly battlefield landscapes in pale white. These make for a stark contrast when displayed across from his stunning and fresh-looking portraits of Royal Flying Corps officers – some of the most beautiful in the collection. This part of the exhibition gives an interesting insight into how Orpen’s styles co-existed, almost as though two different people had painted them. There’s also work by John and his more famous brother Paul Nash in We are Making a New World whose sunlit battlescape just hints at opportunity as well as desolation.

Across the landing in an entirely separate gallery, ‘Memory’ considers the commemoration of war and the various works commissioned by artists, many of whom had never seen active service or experienced the battlefields. This physical distance is a good decision by IWM emphasising the different roles art played in these two contexts and forcing the viewer to adjust their perspective on what these two sections mean. There’s Percy Wyndham Lewis’s striking A Battery Shelled contrasting the stylised figures of soldiers struck by a German bombardment with the detached naturalistic figures of gunners in the foreground. This sits alongside Travoys Arriving with Wounded by Stanley Spencer showing servicemen being taken to a dressing station – no Great War exhibition is complete without a Spencer or two – and this piece reinforces the overall themes of redemption, heroism and sacrifice which unite the ‘Memory’ section.

Nowhere is this more strikingly portrayed than in the enormous John Singer Sargent painting, Gassed, presenting lines of men temporarily blinded by mustard gas being marched to the field hospital for treatment, while others lay around their feet. Rather than just implying the devastation of war, it is a painting that’s equally about redemption with the hurt men being taken to safety. There’s also a room of paintings by female artists who were largely absent from British War Memorial scheme collection as they were rejected on completion, and only later donated to the IWM (who by that point had acquired all these pieces). These depict wide-ranging subjects from home front life to the predominantly male world of airboat factories. Their inclusion here tells us as much about the experience of war as it does about the politics of such commemoration which seemed then to have been a largely male domain.

Truth and Memory gives us a contrasting picture of war as it was fought and how officials wanted it to be remembered. The IWM has an incredible collection of paintings from a raft of artists and they are very cleverly arranged to make you think about the way the war has been presented. By carefully differentiating between how the war was lived and how it was remembered, the IWM is referencing recent scholarship that draws a contrast between how men viewed their experiences at the time and later through the prism of survival and victory. So if you can’t get into the new First World War galleries then head up to this exhibition instead and you’ll begin to understand not just how artists represented the war but how their work still affect our perception of it 100 years on.

Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War is at the Imperial War Museum Art Galleries on Level 3 until 8 March 2015. Entrance is free.

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog is for people looking for more discursive and in-depth reviews of a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. I am also part of the London theatre review team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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