Nevinson’s War

A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013 – London

Our initial burst of museum-touring will conclude today with a pair of brief introductions to European art ca. 1900-1920 via the Tate Modern and Tate Britain. Good thing I took a pass/fail art history survey my senior year in college, right? Otherwise, I might worry that I was totally out of my depth.

(Note: my plan is to bring along a colleague who can more knowledgeably discourse on art, literature, and things of their ilk. But for the sake of this blog series, I’ll proceed to wing it.)

Giorgio de Chirico, The Melancholy of Departure (1916)
Giorgio de Chirico, The Melancholy of Departure (1916) - Tate Galleries

One of the central themes of the course will be WWI as a crucible of modernity — that is, did the experience of total war serve to reaffirm or challenge the ideas, presuppositions, habits, etc. at the heart of the modern era in Western history? And an excellent way of identifying such continuity/discontinuity is by observing trends in art during the first 2-3 decades of the 20th century.

We’ll do this in France and Germany as well, but London is particularly well suited to the task, since the Tate galleries (not to mention the Imperial War Museum itself) possess numerous works by artists who participated in or sought to document the war of 1914-1918. That list includes David Bomberg, Muirhead Bone, Giorgio de Chirico, George ClausenMark Gertler, Eric Gill, Augustus John, Eric Kennington, William Orpen, Gerald Pryse, Charles Ricketts, Gino Severini, and likely the greatest British artist of the war, C.R.W. Nevinson.

C.R.W. Nevinson, "Self-Portrait" (1911)
C.R.W. Nevinson, "Self-Portrait" (1911)

Born to a war correspondent father and a suffragist mother, Nevinson came under the influence of the Futurist movement after completing art school in 1912. He became acquainted with the movement’s leader, the Italian poet F.T. Marinetti, who had drafted “The Futurist Manifesto” in 1909. Words like energy, audacity, rashness, and danger ring out from its pages as Marinetti urged his fellow Futurists, living as they did “on the extreme promontory of the centuries!”, to leave tradition behind, embrace modern technology, and “exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.” Violence and struggle he treated as creative forces, even to the point of writing a sentence that could only have been written in a time before World War I:

We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

C.R.W. Nevinson, La Mitrailleuse (1915)
C.R.W. Nevinson, La Mitrailleuse (1915) - Tate Galleries

Nevinson initially found Futurism exhilarating, and issued a joint manifesto with Marinetti that was published in English newspapers. In it he proclaimed a desire “To have an English Art that is strong, virile and unsentimental,” an art “strengthen[ed] by a recuperative optimism, a fearless desire of adventure, a heroic instinct of discovery, a worship of strength and a physical and moral courage, all sturdy virtues of the English race.” (quoted in his semi-reliable memoir, Paint and Prejudice)

But the glory of imagined war faded when he experienced the real thing as an ambulance driver on the Western Front. After returning to London, he retained the Futurist style, but now its sharp angles served to condemn the dehumanizing effects of technology and modern warfare, a theme best seen in his most famous work: 1915’s “La Mitrailleuse.” The French machine-gunner of the painting’s title is treated as little more than an extension of the machine itself. In an interview that year with the British newspaper The Daily Express, Nevinson explained, “‘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.”

C.R.W. Nevinson, Acetylene Welding (1917)
C.R.W. Nevinson, Acetylene Welding (1917) - Tate Galleries

The same approach shows up in a later work produced in 1917: a lithograph of women working in war industries. Commissioned by the British Ministry of Information, it makes for an odd example of WWI propaganda. Indeed, the Army censored another of his 1917 works — “Paths of Glory” (inspired by the same line in a Thomas Gray poem that gave Stanley Kubrick’s WWI film its title), though Nevinson still presented it as part of an exhibition — pasting a brown paper strip with the word “Censored” across it.

C.R.W. Nevinson, Paths of Glory (1917)
C.R.W. Nevinson, Paths of Glory (1917) - Imperial War Museum

Note that, as the war progressed, Nevinson abandoned the geometric forms central to Futurist painting, and reverted to a style of painting inspired by French Realists like Gustave Courbet in the mid-19th century — unromanticized, photograph-like images of ordinary (for soldiers on the Western Front, at least) life.

Tomorrow is the seventh day of the trip, and so we’ll rest… And sing songs!

<<Day 5               Day 7>>

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