If one accepts the premise that the most interesting art created during and in response to the Great War was made by British artists and that the most powerful art created after and in response to the Great War was done in Germany, then the conclusion is that over decade fine arts changed in order to find the proper language to depict this unprecedented War. The art produced from 1914 to 1918 was intensely personal and often autobiographical, a record of what was seen, heard, smelled and felt by the artists who were witnesses. One sees the style shift with the situation, suggesting a strong sensitivity to specific conditions. This range of reactions was especially true among the British artists, some of whom were “official,”making art for the government’s propaganda and information arm at Wellington House, while other artists were moved to make art on their own terms. I would argue that only Great Britain produced great works of art during the Great War. While the British poets of the Great War wrote the most haunting words, the painters of those four terrible years—1914 to 1918—were the ones who gave this war its colors, its visual vocabulary, its unique mode of expressing the loss of humanity, the scope of the destruction, and the price that was being paid for a purpose long since forgotten. The once alien styles of the avant-garde, Cubism and Futurism, were so expressive of the unprecedented conditions on the battlefield that the public suddenly understood once incomprehensible art movements. That said the first “official” artist, Sir Muirhead Bone, was academic and conservative,as were those who were so designated after him: Eric Kennington and William Orpen, an Irish artist who viewed the War through dubious and critical eyes. Being a traditional or realist artist, however, was no barrier to expressive power and one of the most telling “portraits” of the new super weapon, the Tank, rearing up as it climbed over a trench, was by Bone. The first Official War Artist, a title created in 1916, Bone greatly admired Christopher Nevinson, an English Futurist, who combined Cubism and Futurism into a raw and slicing visual language which powerfully expressed the very special horrors of modern war.
A soldier in his own right, Nevinson, like many of the British artists, was deeply familiar with the battlefield and understood all too well how a mechanized war turned its men into machines, dehumanizing them. Using the fragmented rhythms of Cubism, Nevinson showed soldiers as cyphers, as robots, marching off to war in cadence, in unison. The bodies of these men are depersonalized and gripped by the the slanting lines of Futurism which push them forward to the Front, where remote generals, heedless of the lives in their hands, would waste those young men. The artist, who worked in hospitals during the early years of the War, humanized these same men in his painting of a military aid station near the front lines—a change of style that personalized the sufferings of the individual. Nevinson’s most famous painting, La Mitrailleuse, of a French machine gun team, was exhibited at the Grafton Galleries exhibition with the Allied Artists Association. He had invalided out in January of 1916, had married, and did the painting during his honeymoon, and showed it in March. Speaking of this painting in 1937, Nevinson said, ‘My obvious belief was that war was now dominated by machines and that men were mere cogs in the mechanism..”It was said I believed man no longer counted. They were wrong. Man did count. Man will always count. But the man in the tank will, in war, count for more than the man outside..” And he asserted, “I was the first artist to paint war pictures without pageantry, without glory, and without the over-coloured heroic that had made up the tradition of all war paintings up to this time.”
David Boyd Haycock quoted the reception of this famous painting in his book, A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War: “As the critic Lewis Hind wrote of La Mitrailleuse in the London Evening News: ‘When war is no more this picture will stand, to the astonishment and shame of our descendants, as an example of what civilised man did to civilised man in the first quarter of the twentieth century.‘ Walter Sickert agreed. He declared in the Burlington Magazine: ‘Mr Nevinson’s Mitrailleuse will probably remain the most authoritative and concentrated utterance on the war in the history of painting..’A student critic from the Slade concurred, reporting in the UCL Magazine that Nevinson’s work “is intensely expressive of a sort of mechanical brutality which seems a fit comment upon the pitiless science of modern warfare. The very form of his technique accentuates it.”
The fame of this painting and the support of Sir Muirhead Bone resulted in Nevinson becoming an official War Artist in 1916, placing in the position of being a war correspondent instead of a soldier. The Official War Artists were expected to record the war for the purpose of history. In this role, Bone was exemplary and the black and white drawings done by Nevinson during this stint in the military were accurate and careful, dramatic, yes, but also reportage with the avant-garde tamped down. Many of the artists as“official” war artists were working for the government. Their art was exhibited in public during the war to a people anxious for information. The British government strictly controlled information and photographers were discouraged from visiting battle zones. As Nevinson found out, explicit paintings would be censored. Showing at the Leicester Galleries in 1917, Nevinson, in a rare return to realism was not allowed to show the ironically titled Paths of Glory (1917), a powerful painting of soldiers dead in the taupe and khaki landscape of mud and death. Defiantly, the artist, plastered strips of brown paper across the splayed bodies of the dead soldiers with the word “censored” written on them. Most of his paintings were distanced by the avant-garde, dominated by style which became a form of narrative in itself, conveying the message of the pity of war. Even after the War, some artists still found the radical avant-garde styles of Cubism and Futurism to be not only necessary but also the only and best mode of expression for this modern war.
The Futurist and Vorticist artist, David Bomberg, was commissioned by the Canadian government to paint the heroic work of the “sappers” or the miners and engineers, who tunneled beneath German lines during the Messines offensive in 1917. Bomberg’s initial version of the Canadian Tunneling Company, working beneath the famous Hill 60, was rejected as being too modern by the Canadian War Memorial Fund. Crushed by the rejection, Bomberg had to dilute the modernity of his approach to please his clients for the final version in 1919. Also working after the War but in a different mood, Stanley Spencer, one of the many Slade School of Art artists who “covered” the War, used a compassionate gentleness to tell his experiences. Spencer, who served in the medical corps on the Eastern Front in Macedonia, used his Renaissance style to good effect in his important cycle of nineteen murals in the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Berkshire. This 1932 project that took five years was a coda and a statement of post-war healing in its account of soldiers recuperating from their wounds. Frankly religious, like the artist, these murals are quiet and solid, painted in a historical style, rather like Giotto, that speaks of peace, rather than War. Stanley Spencer, who became “Sir Stanley Spencer,” showed the difference time and place and space can make in the modes of depicting War in all its moods.
In contrast to the quiet soft colors of Spencer, the paintings made during the War have a distinct color palette of grays and blacks and occasional reds, suppressed greens, advancing an atmosphere of unending bleakness. The battlefields of Christopher Nevinson, like those of John Nash, had to be abstracted, rendered in the stabbing and slashing lines of Cubism and Futurism, as if to mimic the rain of bombs that turned verdant countryside into the far side of the moon. The old fashioned traditional visual language for landscape painting, from John Constable to Claude Monet, were cruelly unsuitable for the kind of remorseless devastation that destroyed farms and fields, ripping up earth into quagmires of shell holes. One hundred years later, these fields of southern Belgium and northern France are still riddled with the detritus of this War, including live ammunition and unexploded bombs. The farmlands are giving way to suburbs and archaeologists are fighting to explore and preserve the buried strata of an underground existence. Some of the trenches are still extant and are kept in good condition, like museums, but the forests have returned, the fields are now green again and the golden sun shines down, wiping out the dark grim colors of the artists.