C. R. W. Nevinson

nevinson soldiers

Yesterday at Leeds Art Gallery Sue Malvern (author of the excellent Modern Art, Britain and the Great War, Witnessing, Testimony and Remembrance ) gave the latest in their series of talks on art and the Great War. Her subject was: ‘C.R.W.Nevinson, the “bad” boy of modernism.’
It was a good bracing talk. She doesn’t rate Nevinson highly, though she reminds us that during the War he was often seen as the pre-eminent war painter, with a greater reputation than, for example Nash. She sees his talent as mostly one for gaining publicity (and can’t you just think of some a couple of today’s artists of whom that is equally true?) and poured especial scorn on the truly dreadful ‘problem pictures’ he produced in the 1930s, like this one, The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice (1934). It’s a horrible hectoring picture, seemingly intent on seeing how many clichés can be collected in one aesthetically dead image. (c) IWM (Imperial War Museums); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sue Malvern quoted an Anthony Blunt review of Nevinson in the 1930s, from the Spectator. I looked it up in the Spectator’s (much improved) archive, and here is his assessment in full:

In the other room at the Leicester Galleries are paintings by Mr. C. R. W. Nevinson, an artist of a very different kind from Mr. Gertler. If the latter is disagreeable but serious, the former is facile and frivolous. A wonderful gift for picking up some passing trick and exploiting it without any understanding of its proper application makes of this exhibition an anthology of all the unimportant achievements of English painting for the last twenty years. Some mild imitations of a technique evolved by the hangers-on of Cubism, such as Souvenir de Bretagne (73) ; some insensitive landscapes (41 and 58) in a style in which sensitiveness is the essential for success ; some crudely symbolical paintings in an effetely Catholic manner ; a thin fantasy, Castles in Spain (72)-these are some of the dishes offered to us by Mr. Nevinson.

About the thirties work at least the horrible old Communist is dead right. But I can’t help arguing. ‘ A wonderful gift for picking up some passing trick’ is a fair description of Nevinson’s first war pictures, which use the tricks of Futurism to convey war’s excitement (and, I would say, to ask the viewer to collude with war’s violence). But then he began to paint differently, turning his back on Futurist trickery, to produce images like A Taube or The Food Queue. These have none of the exciting momentum of futurism, but produce an effect of heavy stasis, a war that must be endured, and will keep producing on misery.



Nevinson FoodQueue
Sue Malvern made the point that he was very conscious of the publicity value of these paintings, and exploited any hint of censorship. There was the stunt, for example, of covering up the path to Glory with a ‘Censored’ sticker’. But for me at least they remain some of the most striking and true pictures of the War. I agree that he was a bit of a poser before the War, and a windbag afterwards, but I’d say that these pictures are the real thing. Go back to the top of this article and look at that group of rather thuggish, utterly believable soldiers. Well, he’s not the only artist or writer to have found his subject during the war, and then to have been at a loss afterwards about what to do with his talent.


  1. Bill
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    Nevinson certainly exaggerated his own war service after the war, but he was hardly alone in that. But I am not sure how much of a “stunt” it really was, sticking the word “censored” on a painting that the War Office had refused to approve for official exhibition. Nor do I know if Wikipedia can be trusted in the statement that “The censor (also) objected to A Group of Soldiers (your ‘utterly believable’ soldiers) on the grounds that “the type of man represented is not worthy of the British Army”” or if Nevinson was indeed reprimanded for using the word “censored” in public without permission. If so, he can hardly be blamed for drawing attention to official idiocy (and likely using it for his own purposes). Presumably, the government preferred the earlier futurist “trickery” and glorification of violence. And the picture of the French machine gunners does remain impressive.

    • Jonathan Lighter
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

      It was Major A. N. Lee, the official overseer of British war artists, who objected to Nevinson’s portrait of the soldiers, evidently because he feared their lax and unattractive appearance could play into the hands of German propaganda. (The public in Britain and Germany expected good soldiers in European art to look either disciplined and snappy or boyish.)

      Paul Gough gives Nevinson’s written reply to Lee as follows:

      “I will not paint ‘castrated lancelots’ though I know this is how Tommies are usually represented in illustrated papers etc. – high-souled eunuchs looking mild-eyed…and mentally and physically incapable of killing a German. I refuse to insult the British army with such sentimental bilge.”

      • Bill
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

        Yet Nevinson’s troops are actually more soldierly than, say, Kennington’s Kensingtons in the glass painting.

      • Steve Paradis
        Posted January 31, 2015 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

        And here’s the caption for it:

        “They can say what they bloody well like, but we’re a fuckin’ fine mob.”

  2. Posted January 23, 2015 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    William Orpen also had trouble with Lee, but used less frontal tactics to combat him. He was on good terms with Haig, and when Lee wanted to have him barred from France, Orpen apparently sat in Lee’s headquarters, waiting for a pre-arranged telephone invitation to dine with Haig in order to fix up a date for Orpen’s official return to France. Lee accepted that Orpen had out-manoeuvred him, and later the two became friends.

    • Bill
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

      To quote Orpen’s “An Onlooker in France”

      “Early in July I returned to France. (…) We stayed in Boulogne a few days till our billets were fixed at St. Valery, and during this time I painted a portrait at “Bumpherie” of Lee, who had then become the boss of Intelligence (F) Section and was Colonel A. N. Lee, D.S.O. Things had changed. “The stream of goodwill, it would turn a mill” at “Bumpherie.” “Dear old Orps”—nothing was too good for him. “Do you think you could put in a word for me to ——?” “If —— speaks of the matter to you, just mention my name.” Oh yes, the Colonel was really my friend now, and all the underlings appealed to me—and a good friend he has been ever since. Dear old Tuppenny Lee; I hope he’ll forgive me writing all this, but he was a bit tough on me that first year, and he knows it jolly well, but he has more than made up for it since by a long chalk. There was only one wrong note in the harmony at “Bumpherie” then, and that was a “Colonel” with a large head and weak legs. He never forgave me—he wasn’t that sort of fellow.””

      There seems a tinge of irony to the “friendship”. But Lee never really liked being a censor, and would have much preferred to be a “proper” soldier.

  3. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Not everyone would discount Nevinson’s “Unending Cult” painting as “hectoring.”

    It has a truly nightmarish quality; even the shades of red, white, and blue are fittingly ghastly. The faces of the saints and the virgin Mary are blank, inhuman masks, and Jesus is an attenuated shadow-figure, a victim of the “Cult” he is too insubstantial to hinder. He is propped up not to save but to rally to arms. The images of battle and carnage, packed impossibly together, repeat not just into the distance but eternally up to – and beyond – the upper border.

    Painted a year after Hitler took power, the canvas could be called “prescient.”

    Depending on one’s taste in art, of course.

    • Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

      I’d call it a very bad painting because it’s using stock symbols to create an emotive effect, without any grounding in actuality. The utter contrast between the brutal weapons of war and the – as you say – insubstantial figures of good seems to reflect a mere panic in the face of technology. The painting reflects no thinking about how humans should react to the threat of war, apart from fear – so I don’t think we can call it prescient.
      In his early futurist-style paintings, Nevinson had celebrated violence; but at least the designs were clear and effective. In his best war paintings, he looks objectively at the results of violence, and tells us something about actual life. That group of soldiers – too thuggish for official taste – show the resilience, and maybe the thuggishness necessary to win the war.
      The symbolic problem pictures of the thirties were good at getting press coverage in the popular papers, but their messy and crowded composition conveys nothing clearly, and surely confuses rather than illuminates the political situation.
      Are the guns and bayonets in ‘The Unending Cult’ symbols of fascism and the threat of Hitler? If so, Why are Christian icons shown as the victims, when in Spain and elsewhere the Church was on the side of the fascists (as indeed Nevinson sometimes seems to have been)?

  4. Posted January 24, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Awesome blog, thanks for posting George!

  5. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted January 24, 2015 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    “Prescient” only in the sense that a great war was certainly coming. And rather soon. I see no specifically fascist images

    The painting doesn’t convey “fear” to me. It conveys something appalling, which is rather different. And what’s appalling isn’t only war itself, but also its resurgence throughout history, including the future. (It’s an “unending cult.”)

    There are three kinds of persons depicted: the dead; the ineffectual, hypocritical, or fraudulent religious figures; and the crashing tide of seemingly enthusiastic participants.

    If the images are individually cliches, their presence jam-packed together in a surreal context beyond space and time is not. Whether it was “too easy” to paint doesn’t enter into my judgment.

    It isn’t a great painting, but it isn’t a flop either. (Perhaps I’m biased, having once long ago experienced a nightmare that looked much like this one.)

    But as I suggested, one’s true reaction to a painting is largely a function of taste. I appreciate Picasso as a theorist, but I must say his work leaves me cold. Nevinson’s painting, whatever its unfashionable “flaws,” does not.

  6. Bill
    Posted January 26, 2015 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    Not being able to get over to Birmingham by today, I have to rely on memory re “The Unending Cult” but I am fairly sure it was technically quite poorly painted, as compared to other Nevinson work. I have also glanced through “Paint and Prejudice” (luckily enough available online) to see if that gave any clues about the state of his thinking at the time he painted it. I had forgotten quite how bizarre Nevinson could be, in between his paranoia and eccentric name-dropping (eg “I met A.E. Housman and to watch the poet dressing a crab was a revelation”) but it did remind me that at about the same time as he painted “The Unending Cult” he was also collaborating with Princess Troubetzskoy on ‘Exodus : A Warning to Civilians’ a “sensational” novel apparently about “the collapse of civilisation and the terrifying insane panic which follows the destruction of London from air attack”. Perhaps it is part of the same nightmare. Levinson points out that he was the first artist to paint whilst airborne (likely true, I suspect) and aerial warfare seems to recur in his work.

    • Jonathan Lighter
      Posted January 26, 2015 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Bill. Very interesting.

      In the Postmodern world of free-for-all criticism, though, I’m not sure if the phrase “quite poorly painted” retains very much meaning.

      • Bill
        Posted January 27, 2015 at 4:44 am | Permalink

        Actually, technical analysis has survived better than the concept of “taste”, but you are right that “poorly” would be better replaced by a word like “clumsily”. I note I misnamed Nevinson as Levinson at one point in my last comment – “descendent of lightning”. Hmmm.

  7. Posted January 26, 2015 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    For an even worse example of late Nevinson, see: pic.twitter.com/GeL3KvZ7u1

    • Bill
      Posted January 27, 2015 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Apparently described by Nevinson as “A Cartoon for a Mural Decoration of a Public Building or Seat of Learning, suggested by the Clash between Thought, Mechanical Invention, Race Idolatry, and the Regimentation of Youth”. I assume a degree of irony, but you can never quite tell with him.

      • Posted January 27, 2015 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        I wish I could believe he was ironical, but he took himself rather seriously, I gather.
        These ‘Problem Pictures’ of his sold fairly well at the time, but apparently a lot of them have simply disappeared over the past eighty-odd years, as they have gone utterly out of fashion.

  8. Bill
    Posted January 27, 2015 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Many of Nevinson’s titles for his paintings are ironic – “Glittering Prizes” and “Paths of Glory” most evidently – although I agree that he rarely displays any irony directed towards himself. All the “problem pictures” seem to have pompous titles (or sub-titles). Although he was always unashamedly commercial, I doubt he produced them (or any particular subject) simply to make more money. I’m sure, even then, there was much more profit in churning out war scenes, portraits and landscapes. After he gave up the “problem” pictures, he seems to have spent a couple of years painting flowers. In fact, I believe he never sold “Twentieth Century”, but gave it to a Newcastle gallery a couple of years before he died.

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