In conjunction with a new exhibition opening at Osborne Samuel gallery, MHM looks at some of CRW Nevinson’s most celebrated war-time works of art.
Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson was a noted British war artist, whose predilection for representing the mechanical nature of war set him apart from many of his wartime contemporaries. Having opted to join the Friend’s Ambulance Unit as a dedicated paciﬁst in 1914, Nevinson subsequently served with the Royal Army Medical Corps but was invalided out of the army in January 1916 suffering from rheumatic fever.
This was not however the end of his war. An exhibition of his paintings later that year in September brought him to the attention of the chief war propagandist Charles Masterman of the War Propaganda Bureau. Masterman successfully petitioned Nevinson to travel to the Western Front painting in an ofﬁcial capacity for the British government.
In spite of his known radicalism Nevinson eagerly accepted, and it is to Masterman’s credit that Nevinson’s work largely escaped censorship, although much of it would have appeared uncomfortable in ofﬁcial quarters.
Nevinson’s work was stark in drawing the public’s attention to the increasingly mechanised nature of modern warfare, far removed from the romantic artistry that often accompanied the early stages of the war, which generally depicted man ﬁghting man (often in hand to hand combat). Nevinson made 148 prints; etchings, drypoints, mezzotints, and lithographs between 1916 and 1933. There is no doubt that his war experience greatly inﬂuenced his subject matter and he produced some of the most poignant images of war in printmaking history.
The Road from Arras to Baupaume
Captain Samuel Davenport Charles of the Lincolnshire Yeomanry was stationed at Arras during the Great War. Serving with distinction, he was awarded the Military Cross for his exemplary gallantry on the Western Front, and was later awarded the Imperial Service Order for his work in civilian life as Principal of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. He was wounded while holding a railway line, beating off countless German attacks.
In 1919, soon after being demobbed from the British Army, Captain Samuel Davenport Charles happened upon this print of Nevinson’s ‘The Road from Arras to Bapaume’ at the Leicester Gallery in London where Nevinson held his first solo exhibition.
With Arras and his time on the Western Front fresh in his memory, the Captain purchased this haunting image of the area where he served. It would come to be a meaningful pictorial memento not only of his service, but also as a reminder of his bravery and survival at the Western Front, where so many sadly perished.
Swooping Down on a Taube
This Lithograph was printed in 1917 and published 1918. It comes from the set of six lithographs entitled ‘Building Aircraft’ published by the Stationary Office as part of the series ‘The Great War : Britain’s efforts and ideals’.
This is the sixth of Nevinson’s six prints, which show the process of building an aeroplane, from making parts, to assembly, and finally to flight. Nevinson took a particular interest in aerial warfare, devoting three prints to showing aircraft in flight.
In this image, a British plane takes a breathtaking dive towards a German Taube aircraft, set against a dramatically-lit sky. The German plane is recognisable by its curved, bird-like profile – taube is German for ‘dove.’
Returning to the Trenches
Drawn on the back of part of a larger sketch for the same painting, ‘Returning to the Trenches’, which was exhibited with the London Group in March 1915 is now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. The painting had already been reproduced in the Daily Express for 25 February 1915 with a report of an interview with Nevinson: ‘I have tried to express the emotion produced by the apparent ugliness and dullness of modern warfare. 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…. Modern art needs not beauty, or restraint, but vitality.’
Now the Bayonets have Won Through
Having first produced this work for the Leicester galleries exhibition, Nevinson later adapted the design and the accompanying text for a poster issued by the National War Savings Committee to promote the raising of funds.
The remarkable design depicts massed fixed bayonets printed in orange against a bright yellow background. The bold design and the superimposition of the black stylised text against a field of fiery colour produce an arresting result.
Nevinson’s design also highlights the optical disturbance associated with ‘dazzle’ effects. In poster terms, dazzle effects were employed to attract the eye against an increasingly hectic background of metropolitan life.
The cultural significance of Nevinson’s poster cannot be overstated. Looking back over the artistic experimentation of the 20th century, the consistent recurrence of dazzle and strobe effects points to the power of this design as a major breakthrough.
This print is also from the set of six lithographs entitled ‘Building Aircraft’, part ‘The Great War: Britain’s efforts and ideals’ series.
This is the second of Nevinson’s six prints, which show the process of building an aeroplane, from making parts, to assembly, and finally to flight. Men and women work together to construct the framework of an aeroplane, which is thought to be a Sopwith Camel, an aircraft used by the British Forces from June 1917. Constructed of aluminium, plywood, and fabric over a wooden frame, the Sopwith Camel was the most successful Allied aircraft used during the First World War.
In this highly stylized image, a female assembly worker stands in front of a substantial wooden bench welding components clamped in a vice. She is holding a welding rod in her right hand. Behind the bench, a gas cylinder, acting as the boundary to the scene, indicates the type of welding being carried out. A second worker (a mirror image of the first) uses her left hand, giving symmetry to the composition. The light emitted from the welding process creates a chiaroscuro effect, which accentuates the workers’ features and casts a smoky silhouette onto the rear brick wall. Both workers wear welder’s goggles and aprons and their hair is tied back in a headscarf and there is a suggestion that the front worker might be pregnant. The image confirms the importance of women’s labour to the war effort and shows the apparent graceful ease with which they readily took over traditional male occupations while still retaining their role as mothers. This is also another from the series Building Aircraft – The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and Ideals.
A Group of Soldiers
The war censors sought desperately to prevent the exhibition of Nevinson’s ‘A Group of Soldiers’ stating that ‘the Germans will seize upon the picture as evidence of British degeneration’.
According to Major A N Lee, censor at General Headquarters, the image depicted ‘the type of man…not worth of the British Army,’ while another critic described the men portrayed as ‘a gang of loutish cretins.’ Nevinson stated that he had simply attempted to represent ‘the British working man’ accurately, and that the four men in the painting were men he had actually seen coming off the tube as they came back from France on leave. Nevinson described the scene thus: ‘the men were so unutterably wretched, their misery was so intense, that the result of it was mad laughter.’
The work was eventually allowed to hang in the exhibition after a dispute was resolved between the War Office and the Department of Information.
This image shows French infantrymen marching with a relentless machine-like rhythm to the battle front. The formal device of repetitive stylized wedge-shaped forms to convey both movement and mass was borrowed from the Italian Futurists, whom Nevinson first met when staying in Paris prior to the war in 1912-1913.
Always seeking a public platform for his art, Nevinson told the Daily Express in 1915, ‘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.’
But his experience as an ambulance driver in the First World War changed him, and in the paintings and drawings he made while serving at Dunkirk, and later when a volunteer in the Royal Army Medical Corps at the General Hospital at Wandsworth, the soldiers are reduced to a series of angular planes and grey colouring, losing their individuality and appearing almost like machines.
That Cursed Wood
This picture, totally devoid of human form, consists of a low, grey horizon along which shattered, spindly tree trunks loom without leaves or branches. Above them, birds and biplanes circle menacingly in a dirty yellow sky. This desolate sketch was inspired by the lines of ‘At Carnoy’, a 1916 poem by Siegfried Sassoon:
Down in the hollow there’s the whole Brigade
Camped in four groups: through twilight falling slow
I hear a sound of mouth-organs, ill-played,
And murmur of voices, gruff, confused, and low.
Crouched among thistle-tufts I’ve watched the glow
Of a blurred orange sunset flare and fade;
And I’m content. To-morrow we must go
To take some cursèd Wood … O world God made!
This exhibition coincides with the launch of CRW Nevinson: The Complete Prints, a new book compiled and written by Dr Jonathan Black, and co-published by Osborne Samuel and Lund Humphries Publishing. The exhibition will run at Osborne Samuel Gallery (23a Bruton Street, W1) from 25 September to 18 October 2014, and a selection of the prints will be shown at the annual New York Print Fair of the International Fine Print Dealers Association (5-9 November, Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street).