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.
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.
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.