I’m a fan of the painter CRW Nevinson – and I particularly admire the way that during the War he shed his fashionable futurist style for one that was more alive to human detail. Before the War he had been closely associated with Marinetti, and sometimes with Wyndham Lewis. His pictures reflected these influences – harsh, spiky and tough. When war came, he began with tough battle images in this style, notably La Mitrailleuse:
It’s all hard surfaces, with the men painted like machines. This is painting that is complicit with the War, sharing its values, subordinating humans to the machine. One of his pictures of this period could be turned easily into a poster advertising war bonds:
As he saw more of the War, he realised that honesty required a less macho approach, and used a more naturalistic style, and one more able to represent the vulnerability of humans.
Most famously, he painted The Paths to Glory, which displeased his official patrons. This was not the kind of war image that they wanted official war artists to disseminate. He exhibited it at the Leicester Galleries with a label “Censored” hiding the corpses.
I have always considered this as an admirable gesture towards truth-telling. But I’ve been reading a good new anthology of WW1 poetry, called The Winter of the World. This contains many poems I didn’t know before, including one by Louis Golding, then an ambulance driver, and later a best-selling novelist. He is writing about an exhibition of frank photographs of combat, and he is offended by them. The poem goes, in part:
In the gallery where the fat men go
They’re exhibiting our guts
Horse-betrampled in the ruts;
And Private Tommy Spout,
With his eye gouged out;
And Jimmy spitting blood:
And Sergeant lying so
That he’s trampled in the mud,
In the gallery where the fat men go.
Which is a reminder that not it was only the authorities that disliked the presentation of violent and truthful images – soldiers could be offended as well, by any suggestion that their suffering was being used for entertainment.
It’s an odd poem – protesting against violent images, while deploying them itself. Perhaps Golding felt that his were generalised or disguised (Tommy Spout obviously a made-up name, for example) whereas the photos were of their nature actual intrusions on the actual dead. The aesthetics of violence are full of fine distinctions like this.