The cover features one of my favourite war paintings, Orpen’s ‘Thinker on the Butte de Warlencourt’. A soldier squats to ease the weight of his immense pack, and looks quizzically at the viewer, as though wondering how on earth the devastation around him could have been allowed to happen. A very human figure in the middle of a mechanical war, he sets the tone for Lawrence Dunn’s survey of the artists who went to the Front and fixed their experience into images.
The publishers have kindly sent me a review copy of Images of the Great War, and I have enjoyed reading it. It is a plentifully illustrated compendium of pictures of the war. These are mostly paintings by artists recording sights and incidents that they had actually seen (Fortunino Matania is sidelined because, although he did visit the front, his pictures owed more to his imagination than to observation). The expected names are here – Paul Nash, Nevinson, Muirhead Bone, Wyndham Lewis John Singer Sargent, and so on. Each is represented by half a dozen or so characteristic pictures, supported by a brief biographical article, often containing anecdotes about the artist’s war service. As well as these obvious choices, the book introduces us to lesser-known pictures by lesser-known artists, on unusual subjects. Here, for example, is ‘The Interrogation’, by Francis Edward Dodds.
In addition to the articles on painters, there is a chapter on war photography, and one photographer, Frank Hurley, gets a section to himself. It discusses interestingly the ‘composite’ technique by which he created his celebrated images.
‘The Raid’, for example, is made up from three negatives. Two different ones showedsoldiers leaving their trenches. Both of these had smoky skies, but the aeroplanes are superimposed from a quite different photo. Does this make the picture a fake? Mr Dunn points out that in rearranging elements of reality in striking combinations he was doing what painters have done through the ages. (He also reminds us that Hurley would have exposed himself to sniper fire to take the pictures.) If the images today seem dodgy, perhaps its because in the intervening century we have developed an ethics of photography that privileges the unretouched. We like to pretend that photos give us reality unmediated, even though this is never quite so. Hurley’s ‘combinations’ disturb this complacency, so our reaction is to want to exclude them.
Bruce Bairnsfather’s cartoons are very properly given in a generous selection. Better than anyone else he summed up the self-image of many soldiers – long-suffering, exasperated, but doggedly keeping going whatever the provocations of the Germans and the weather. there is also a section on the war memorial sculpture of Charles Sargeant Jagger. Many war memorial soldiers look like weedy saints; his are tough capable men.
The sections on various artists, photographers and themes are from time to time interrupted by a poem. These are mostly by soldier-poets, but some are by the ladies at home. The female poets seem to me nothing like as good as the female artists. Olive Mudie-Cooke is a favourite of mine. Here’s her ‘In an Ambulance : a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient’.
This is a book that I would heartily recommend to anyone wanting to find out about a range of First World War artists. Other books (Sue Malvern’s, for example) will take you deeper into the subject, but this one covers a large number of artists in an accessible way that will pique any reader’s interest, and lead them to want to discover more.
You can see a preview of the book on the Amazon website.
Find out more about Lawrence Dunn at: http://austinmacauley.com/author/dunn-lawrence