The Great War in Portraits: A Painterly Remembrance National Portrait Gallery

Of all the events and memorial activities scheduled for this year to mark the centenary of the beginning of the first Great War – that bitter and ugly conflict of arguably worse fighting conditions than the Second World War; a spiralling, futile lottery of chance that several European countries found themselves mired in – one might expect the duty of painterly remembrance to fall on the Imperial War Museum. It is in fact fortuitous that this institution is closed for revamp, for the display at the National Portrait Gallery, being restricted to showing portraits only, in actuality brings home forcefully the notion that war in itself is defined by – nay, comprised of – the people that perpetuated, suffered, and survived it. Instead of displaying the crumpled graveyard like remains of material elements of the war, we have a chronological sequence of figures which highlight two hugely contrasting themes of initial hubris, of pomp and splendour exuded by royal portraits at the cusp of a conflict which was believed to only last until that Christmas, followed by painful reality and horror experienced by all when the conflict dragged on excruciatingly for five years. Within this arc is included an enormous range of responses and emotions, demonstrating the varying uses and purposes of painting; from observing and recording, to a mode of protest or medium by which to make sense of the terrors witnessed. Interesting also is how these varying examples also gives us a cross section of the painterly styles in use throughout this short period of 1914 – 1919.

In this tiny but concentrated show (David Bailey’s ‘Stardust’ currently sprawls through the majority of the NPG: insert cynical comment about the superficiality of our age here if you will) there is the masterstroke of putting Jacob Epstein’s ‘The Rock Drill’ at the entrance, straddling beginning and end. This placement crucially and neatly encapsulates the two themes of hubris and subsequent horror, being sculpted in 1913 at the height of Vorticist and (the wider associated European movement) Futurist optimism in the violent power of machines and revolutionary progress, then truncated by Epstein during the war in 1916. Initially a machine-like figure, armoured and standing on tripod legs, this potent assertion of faith in machinery and destruction is now devoid of its legs and subsequently less than half of its original height, resembling a severed torso incapable of movement, the anthropomorphic metal face now coloured by the regretful and mournful hue of one who has witnessed death in its naked realness.

A gallery of figures involved with the beginning of the Great War fills the first room, glorifying and heavily polished official portraits immortalising the sitters. It is curious to see the small, modest piece of Franz Ferdinand by Theodore Breitwieser, whose assassination provided the catalyst; to put an expression (interestingly a modest, unassuming one) to a famous figure who we regard now as mythical, almost beyond a person. The NPG has done well to secure this loan from the Lobcowicz Collection in the Czech Republic.

The range of themes crammed into the subsequent rooms are so many as to be almost one per painting. An official portrait of Field Marshal Von Hindenburg by August Böcher (1917) – perhaps now more synonymous with zeppelin disaster – demonstrates the hagiography surrounding this figure, as apparently many depictions were produced and disseminated. It is clunky in execution and composition, with the bulky figure awkwardly cramped into the frame, squinting out at the viewer in a less than inspiring manner. Contrasting is his neighbour, a very loose and relaxed piece showing Marshal Foch by William Orpen (1918), showing instead a more complex gaze, deep lidded and at once both business-like and heavily world weary.

Elsewhere is a little seen Walter Sickert ‘Integrity of Belgium’ (1914), an optimistic and rose-tinted – almost literally, given the lighter pastel shades of mauve, pale greens and yellows permeating the piece – account of the ‘unknown soldier’, his enormous bold figure striding with vigour and courage across a landscape, straddling nearly the entire pictorial width. Being too old to enlist or have any notion of the horrors at the front, Sickert makes an idealised image inspiring beautiful patriotism in the audiences at home. Set opposite Gilbert Roger’s 1919 ‘Dead Stretcher Bearer’, similarly an unknown soldier, body tilted away from us, crumpled and ugly in a ferociously painted and thoroughly muddy colour palette, Sickert’s optimism smacks of painfully infuriating naiveté. This contrast illustrates the sad gulf between the idea of glory and ‘Dulce et decorum est…’ with the brutal reality, and similarly the varying purposes of images. The former comforting, reassuring; the latter, reporting, recording, trying to come to terms with.

Continuing this is a harrowing selection of reporting of a different kind; the clinical recording in pastel sketches by Henry Tonks throughout 1916–18 of facial disfigurements suffered by shrapnel and gas victims, paired here with photographs of patients undergoing reconstructive facial surgery, taken from the Huntarian collection in the Royal College of Surgeons.

Striking is the inclusion of a portrait by Lovis Corinth, most commonly known as a painter of staunchly traditionalist style, an academic teacher of method. Here his portrait of Makebaüs Hermann Stuck is startling in its defiance of traditionalism, all muddy in tone and dour, as if he has purposefully not washed his brush in between colours, lending everything an ugly, dishcloth hue. Strokes of the brush leave uneven residue, even swipes of unmixed colour from the tube, left stubbornly. It is a frustrated, angry cry at the ugliness and futility of combat.

It is a compact, intense show. War is ugly, and the range of works all show its various hues and conflicting, tangled emotions for all involved. Particularly, preceding the familiarly bleak works of protest and despair the pomp and importance of the royal and military figures in juxtaposition instead seem almost ridiculous. Seeing the ‘Rock Drill’ again as we leave, the once brutal and war-hungry icon of destruction, now a legless torso raised by a pedestal, it resembles the sorry image of a limbless soldier lifted up by his wheelchair.

Words: Olivia McEwan © Artlyst 2014 Photo: ‘Dead Stretcher Bearer’, Gilbert Rogers, courtesy Imperial War Museums

The Great War In Portraits:  National Portrait Gallery London Until 15 June 2014

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