“Pulsating with Life”: Young British
Artists and the Great War

- David Boyd Haycock

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      The years immediately prior to the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 were incredibly vital ones in the history of British art – a vitality that through to 1919 produced a remarkable output of internationally significant (if sometimes internationally underappreciated) modern art – in particular, paintings, drawings and prints that in their vigour and intensity captured the profound horrors of “the war to end wars”. A launch pad for that vitality was provided by two ground-breaking exhibitions of “Post-Impressionism” curated by the Bloomsbury Group artist and critic Roger Fry in 1910 and 1912; Fry’s predominantly French artists, including Manet, Gauguin, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Picasso, were introduced en masse to a largely unsuspecting and conservative British public, many of whom reacted with shock and disgust. The critic for the Pall Mall Gazette described the paintings in Fry’s first show as “the output of a lunatic asylum” [1], whilst The Times suggested that such work “throws away all that the long-developed skills of past artists had acquired and bequeathed. It begins all over again – and stops where a child would stop” [2]. The recently-founded Italian Futurist movement, under the leadership of its dynamic founder, Filippo Marinetti, fared little better in England. As much as he loved London’s vitality, Marinetti declared in a lecture that England itself was “a nation of sycophants and snobs, enslaved by old worm-eaten traditions, social conventions and romanticism.” Where, he asked, was the modern, industrial art of the first industrial nation? Where were the paintings of this extraordinary new machine age? Nowhere; it simply did not exist. English art, he told his English audience, meant nothing to him: “The fact is that your painters live on a nostalgic feeling, longing for a past that is beyond recall, imagining they live in the pastoral age”. The National Gallery’s collection of Turners and Pre-Raphaelites, he declared, should be dragged out into Trafalgar Square and burnt. War, he suggested, would be the solution to Britain – and the world’s – cultural ennui [3].
      Whilst many older artists resisted these new movements, the younger generation was enthused (if also sometimes confused) by it. Augustus John, Spencer Gore, Percy Wyndham Lewis (who in 1914 founded the radical Vorticist movement in the wake of Futurism), C.R.W. Nevinson, David Bomberg, Vanessa Bell, Stanley Spencer and Mark Gertler were among those who were willing to participate in the experiments of the avant garde. For them, the artistic climate was excitingly vibrant, filled with opportunity and possibilities. And then came the War, an appalling interruption to their ambitions. When a female friend of Gertler’s suggested at the end of August 1914 that he should enlist, he wrote back raging against the “wretched sordid Butchery!!” He told her he was moving to the countryside, “to rot away my life until the Butchery is completed” [4]. Other young artists, however, were more excited. Paul Nash told a friend in October that same year, “I should hate the slaughter – I know I should, but I’d like to be among it all it’s no ordinary War” [5].
      The fate of art during wartime, and how exactly such a grotesquely mechanized and modern conflict could be represented in paint, troubled British critics. To some, this war was the logical solution to the decadent threat that writers such as Max Nordau had written of in the 1890s; to others it was merely its unnatural culmination. Many hoped the war would bring an end to the period of experimentation and radicalism in both art and politics that had characterised the previous few years. One critic even suggested the war would usher in “a masculine new age, with no feminist politics, more masculine literature, and a reversion to traditional art” [6]. Others spoke of the need for art that would take people’s mind off the carnage. Some thought the “lunatic” antics of the avant-garde, whilst providing entertainment in peacetime, were inappropriate to these more sombre days. To others, the representation of this conflict in art seemed impossible. Wars of previous centuries had produced works of great beauty, such as Paolo Uccello’s fifteenth-century masterpiece The Battle of San Romano, in the National Gallery. Elizabeth, Lady Butler, who had memorialised British military episodes of the nineteenth century, was still alive and still painting. But hers were popular representations of former times, when men had marched or rode into battle in scarlet and blue uniforms behind flags and banners. Even the more recent Boer and Zulu Wars had produced their share of picturesque imagery. This first great European conflict of the twentieth century was, however, unlike anything anyone had ever experienced before. How was it to be represented in art? An article published in The Athenaeum in September 1914, “Art after Armageddon”, offered an answer: “In an age of brutal strife, the art, if any, will be brutal also, the extremes of Futurism being alone suitable to express its spirit” [7]. But the following April The Times wrote of “The Passing of the Battle Painter: No Inspiration in the Trenches” [8].
      One of the first British artists to bring home to a domestic audience an authentic, modern representation of this new, brutal, unpicturesque and machine-like war was Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889–1946). Like many of the most exciting young English artists then at work, Nevinson had studied at the Slade School of Art in London, where his contemporaries had included Bomberg, Gertler, Spencer and Nash. Unlike them, however, Nevinson had enthusiastically joined Marinetti in the Futurist project, developing a semi-abstract technique of painting inspired by Cubism, and embracing the notion that war would be the great game-changer in modern art and culture. This attitude changed, however, in the face of a real war. Nevinson would later write in his autobiography that he considered himself “as having no patriotism... Brass bands, union jacks, and even “Kitchener Wants YOU” had no power to move me” [9]. He also came to abhor the position of his Futurist friends. Marinetti and his colleagues had hastened back to Italy with the intention of provoking Italy to join the conflict: Marinetti duly announced “We wish to glorify war — the only health giver of the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive arm of the Anarchist, the beautiful ideas that kill” [10]. But Nevinson’s father, who was a leading war correspondent, and had witnessed the initial encounters of the Great War as German invading forces clashed with French and Belgian troops, would in late October record in his dairy that his son was “much disturbed about the war & the Futurist support of its horror. Declares he will abandon Futurism” [11].



[1] The Pall Mall Gazette, 10 November 1910.
[2] The Times, 7 November 1910.
[3] William C. Wees, Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1972), p. 96.
[4] Mark Gertler to Dorothy Brett, 6 September 1914, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas, Austen (hereafter HRRC).
[5] Paul Nash to Emily Bottomley, October 1914, in Claude Colleer Abbott and Anthony Bertram (eds.). Poet & Painter: Being the Correspondence Between Gordon Bottomley and Paul Nash, 1910–1946 (London, Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 76.
[6] The New Age, 29 October 1914, 635; quoted in Michael Walsh, C.R.W. Nevinson: This Cult of Violence (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2002).
[7] The Athenaeum, 12 September 1914, quoted in Walsh (2002).
[8] The Times, 30 April 1915.
[9] C.R.W. Nevinson, Paint and Prejudice (London, Methuen, 1937), p. 70.
[10] Michael Walsh (2002), op cit, p. 105.
[11] Henry Nevinson, diary, 25 October 1914, quoted in Michael Walsh, Hanging a Rebel: The Life of C.R.W. Nevinson (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2008), p. 94.