Christopher Nevinson; Painting the War
The Future of Futurism

On April 23rd in 1915, the poet Rupert Brooke died on the island of Lemnos from a mosquito bite on his lip. Already weekend by dysentery and heat stroke, he fell victim to blood poisoning, a soldier to the end. He had been given a chance to return home, to go back to “Blighty,” as England was called then, but he refused; a soldier stays with his men. The death, undoubtedly one of honor, was, in its way as beautiful as it was pointless. Brooke was spared the experience of Gallipoli, a campaign that had been his destination and would be the Waterloo for his good friend Winston Churchill. An aspiring poet, at the time he died, promising, on his way to becoming noticed, Brooke was emblematic of that lost generation mowed down by a twentieth century war fought with a nineteenth century state of mind. A famously handsome and well-born young man, privileged, connected to those who mattered, this poet has come to exemplify all that was lost in the Great War, all the promise that could never be fulfilled, all the stories that came to an abrupt and untimely end. As beautiful in life as he was in death, Brooke left behind a thin sheaf of poetry, a few slim volumes, and his last poem, read from the pulpit of Saint Paul’s that Easter Sunday as an energy, not just for the last romantic generation, but for an entire way of life that was falling on what the poet John McCrae called “Flanders Fields.” Brooke’s masterpiece, his farewell was The Soldier:

If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England. There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, A body of England’s, breathing English air, Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

“W.S.C.,” whom everyone knew was Winston Churchill, wrote the obituary for Brooke. “Rupert Brooke is dead,” he informed bluntly, as if everyone knew who Rupert Brooke was. And perhaps they did.

He expected to die: he was willing to die for the dear England whose beauty and majesty he knew: and he advanced towards the brink in perfect serenity, with absolute conviction of the rightness of his country’s cause and a heart devoid of hate for fellow-men.
 The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward in this, the hardest, the cruelest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought. They are a whole history and revelation of Rupert Brooke himself. Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, ruled by high undoubting purpose, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.

By the time the summer of 1915 was over the First Lord of the Admiralty would find only defeat in humiliation at Gallipoli and by the end of the first year of the War, Brooke’s high-minded willingness to sacrifice himself for his country would wane daily. It was true, as Churchill wrote to his brother, “We shall not see his like again.” The British troops, who must have been extraordinarily well educated, would explain their experiences in terms of poetry: “Went to war with Rupert Brooke, came home with Siegfried Sassoon.”

Wilfred Owen, who would survive the war, until four days before it ended, he was killed, asked in Anthem for Doomed Youth, What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. And Sassoon, embittered, living on sarcasm to kill the pain, answered in The General: ‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said When we met him last week on our way to the line. Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead, And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.   ‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack. But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

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Returning to the Trenches (1914)

The paintings of Christopher Nevinson follow this same trajectory, from élan to despair. In 1914, his painting Returning to the Trenches is jaunty with color, with Futuristic wedges of red and blue uniforms marching briskly down the dun-colored road, their guns already spiked with bayonets. The kepis on the heads of the assembled soldiers speak plainly of those early months of the War before the French military would realize that heads would be better protected with helmets to deflect the bullets and that red trousers were vividly visible on the battlefield. Later, the uniforms would fade into a futile pale blue, a color selected by the designers who sincerely believed that the infantry would blend in with a sky they fondly imagined as always blue. Like one of Giacomo Balla’s abstract paintings of speeding automobiles, the automatons roll forward, predictive of the mechanized slaughter of de-humanized human beings. Indeed, Nevinson himself argued, “Our Futurist technique is the only possible medium to express the crudeness, violence and brutality of the emotions seen and felt on the present battlefields of Europe.”

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A Dawn (1914)

But in the same year, Nevinson clearly recognized that there would be nothing romantic about this war and his print A Dawn is a pivot around the Trenches painting and shows the anonymous faces of doomed men, features drawn with apprehension. Already these men know their fate, but pushed forward in an snaking mass that vanishes into the distance, the soldiers move on as a mass, unable to resist the propulsion towards death. A year later La Mitrailleuse is up close and personal, dragging the viewer into an emplacement which is home to a machine gun. The crew is still wearing red pants, visages carved with Futurist diagonal features, which are both expressive and faceless. There are four men, one dead, and three living, who are attentive to their task, tending to the gun in their dugout. They are firing what appears to be a British Vickers gun, although the official French gun was the Hotchkiss. The Futurist styling, as Marinetti had long predicted, allowed Nevinson the seamlessly blending humans and machine, fusing them seamlessly together. Suddenly the Adrian steel helmets that protectively cover their skulls mechanize the men and signified a modern mechanical war.

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Nevinson, who surely should have known the true costs of war, blustered in The Daily Express while on leave in 1915, “All artists should go to the front to strengthen their art by a worship of physical and moral courage and a fearless desire of adventure, risk and daring and free themselves from the canker of professors, archaeologists, cicerones, antiquaries and beauty worshippers.” In The Daily Graphic, he pounded his chest, “I am firmly convinced that all artists should enlist and go to the front, no matter how little they owe England for her contempt of modern art, but to strengthen their art of physical and moral courage and a fearless desire of adventure, risk and daring.” At this point, Nevinson sounded like a mad Futurist, oblivious to the carnage he had witnessed at Dunkirk. But then, for BLAST No. 2, he wrote in the same year, 1915, “As to Desirability, nobody but Marinetti, the Kaiser, and professional soldiers WANT the say.”

The painting Returning to the Trenches had been shown in the London Group exhibition of 1914 and was favorably reviewed, but La Mitrailleuse was truly innovative and eloquent and brought the artist much acclaim when he showed it at the Grafton Galleries for the Allied Artists Association. Nevinson would have brought his vivid experiences, gained from direct experience on the front lines to his art and, for those in the art world with little war experience, La Mitrailleuse must have been a revelation. English journalist and art critic, Charles Lewis-Hind exclaimed, “You peer into a pit in the zone of fire; barbed wire stretches across the surface of the machinomorphic pit; above is the grey, clear sky of France. In the pit are four French soldiers. One lies dead. The three living men are conscious of one thing only – the control of their death-scattering mitrailleuse. There it lurks, rigid and venomous, ready to spit out immense destruction. And the gunners? Are they men? No! They have become machines. They are as rigid and as implacable as their terrible gun.” The French critic Guillaume Apollinaire took the time to write that “…people are taking about an Englishman who has been painting the present war: C. R. W. Nevinson. The secret of his art, and of his success, lies in his way of rendering and making palpable the soldiers’ sufferings, and of communicating to others the feelings of pity and horror which have driven him to paint. He has set down on canvas the mechanistic aspect of the present war: the way in which man and machine are fused in a single force of nature. His picture, La Miltrailleuse, makes this point ideally well.”

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La Mitrailleuse (1915)

Suddenly Nevinson was an important artist, providing a London audience, hungry for a truly satisfying account of this new and unfathomable war. In September of 1916, the critics, now apparently fully mollified towards avant-garde art, joined the public in praising his work exhibited in “Paintings and Drawings of War by C.W.R. Nevinson (late Private R.A.M.C.)” Paul Gough, writing in his recent book A Terrible Beauty, that the artist “created a pictorial form that borrowed just enough of the Futurist style to flavor his rather academic compositions..By an adept,indeed inspired, juggling act, Nevinson established a balance between literal representation and the near-abstract and the near-abstract visual language of modernist art that had been prevalent but widely condemned in the pre-war ear.” Despite the somewhat dim praise, Gough later wrote, “..it is not too great a claim to make that Nevinson’s work marked the beginning of a new form of war art.”

In fact, when one compares this artist’s achievement,which was to create a new language in the visual arts, eminently suitable for the Great War, with the work of other artists during the War, his and his British counterparts were far superior to their European counterparts in their interpretations of the conflict. True, in order to show the war to the English art audience, Nevinson had to tame Futurism and underplay Cubism, but, torn between his attraction and repulsion towards the spectacle that is killing and dying, the artist suddenly turned to realism to tell painful truths. Two particularly moving paintings with similar compositions–victims lying face down and unmoving–show the pity of war. In Taube (Dove) of 1916, Nevinson called upon his memories of the early shocking days in Dunkirk to show a small boy, his fragile body prone on a street of torn and shattered cobblestones. The child lies alone, no mourners approach, his plaid coat, split open and revealing his slight and pale body. A victim of an early bombing of civilians by the German plane, the Taube, the boy remained in Nevinson’s memory. The artist stated, “Dunkirk was one of the first towns to suffer aerial bombardment, and I was one of the first men to see a child who had been killed by it. There the small boy lay before me, a symbol of all that was to come.”

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Taube (Dove) (1916)

Equally tragic is the faceless anonymity of dying in a war increasingly without meaning was exposed in Paths of Glory. Painted in the same year in which he was appointed an official British War Artist, 1917, the image of two English infantrymen lying face down in the mud, tangled in barbed wire, lying in wait for someone to come and take them to their graves. Perhaps not as striking as Column on the March (1915) in its gray deterministic progress, Paths of Glory nonetheless is artless in its sincerity. Nevinson had inquired of Charles Masterman, head of the government’s War Propaganda Bureau, what his limits were, Masterman was causal in his reassurances that the artist could do as he pleased. Using a famous fragment of a famous poem,  Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard, which warned, “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” Nevinson perhaps took the response too literally and submitted the mud colored painting for approval, only to have it censored, which is to say that it could not be exhibited during the war.

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Column on the March (1915)

Nevinson’s revelation that there was no glory, only a sad end in mud, for the soldiers on the Western Front, was an affront to the government. Deserted battlefields, such as Flooded trench on the Yser (1916), and soldiers seeming to be engaged in useful acts, like In the Trenches (1917) were acceptable. Their now desired Futurist style had the effect of softening and disengaging the brute reality of mechanized killing, bringing an element of fiction and unreality, even an early surrealistic unbelievability to the present horrors. Paths of Glory was frankly old fashioned and suddenly unsettlingly present. Even though Nevinson had been informed of the government’s decision, he decided to exhibit the painting at the Leicester Galleries in 1918. Defiantly, he called attention to the unsuitability of this work by wrapping it in brown paper bound by a strip of tape over which he scrawled “censored.” The result was a storm of publicity that echoed down the decades. Whether in homage to Gray or Nevinson, Humphry Cobb wrote a novel in 1934 of the Great War of the same name, made into a vastly superior film by Stanley Kubrick in 1957.

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Paths of Glory (1917)

The case history of Christopher Nevinson as an artist is also that of the avant-garde artist as a war artist. Can the two categories ever be combined? In asking this question, yet another query comes to mind–in a world where art separated itself from the lived experiences of the society in favor of an aesthetic exploration of innovative art, can telling the truth, that is, engaging with war, the ultimate reality, be avant-garde? Other artists seem to have experienced great difficulty confronting the Great War and, for the most part, their efforts were less than compelling. On the French side, the illustrators and the graphic artists took up the task; in Germany, the artists were eloquent only when the returned home; the Russian artists turned to folk art, only occasionally utilizing the achievements of Suprematism, and even then ambiguously; the Italians fell strangely silent, except for the hospital trains of Gino Severini, until after the war when aeropittura emerged. If one does a comparative study of art created by avant-garde artists during the Great War, it is a surprise to realize that the British artists, so often tardy in the art world,  rose to the occasion, exhibiting a surprising range of voices–avant-garde and traditional, abstract and traditional, conservative and radical, supportive and critical–but their activities would be shrugged off by most art historians. War art and art about war belongs, it seems, to a separate category. This website continues to attempt to knit the art done during the First World War back into the art historical narrative in the next post.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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