This is effectively hinted at by the faceless figures in the foreground with hooded cloaks, images that remind one of the traditional representation of Death as a hooded skeleton. Even the blasted trees etched against the skyline speak of destruction on a scale unknown before the Great War.
The fact that Nevinson has applied a Cubistic-Futuristic analysis of form to his subject brings the moment of its creation even more vividly into focus. This image of war was forged in the crucible of nascent Modernism.
The painting is currently hanging at the Fine Art Society in Bond Street on the right-hand wall, just past the reception desk. It is not particularly large and has been hung amid a medley of other pictures. But its psychological power jumps at you. It belongs to an American collector who bought it from the Fine Art Society for an undisclosed sum in 1976. The Society had paid pounds 9,350 for it at Sotheby's. The asking price this time round is pounds 160,000.
There are two more Nevinson paintings of the Great War further down the hall. They belong to a British collector who is moving house and has left his extraordinary collection of Charles Rennie Mackintosh furniture and early 20th-century pictures on exhibition with the Bond Street dealers while his new home is decorated. It is quite an exhibition. His two paintings help to underline how Nevinson approached the task of putting war on canvas; he manipulates geometric form to convey the sheer ordinariness of a nightmare.
Nevinson became an official war artist in 1917, but The Road to Ypres was painted when he was serving as an ambulance orderly. His involvement in the war gives it an edge which the later, official pictures do not have. He has not been commissioned to paint this picture; an inner necessity has driven him to put his vision on canvas.
The son of an author and war correspondent, Nevinson studied at the Slade but the period he spent in Paris in 1912-13 was the key influence on his art. He shared a studio with Modigliani and mingled with the Italian Futurists and French avant-garde. It was Futurism that caught and held his imagination; he became its leading exponent in Britain. In June 1914 he published Vital English Art: A Futurist Manifesto in the Observer in collaboration with the Italian writer Filippo Marinetti.
Drawing on the Cubist exploration of form, Futurists sought to paint the dynamism of the machine age. 'We proclaim . . . that universal dynamism must be rendered as dynamic sensation; that movement and light destroy the substance of objects,' ran the manifesto. The parallels between this explosive eruption of modernist art and the horrific invention of modern warfare are dramatically revealed in Nevinson's paintings.
In an essay on the artist's war pictures published in 1918 under the title The Great War, the critic J E Crawford Flitch demonstrated how Nevinson's contemporaries regarded his achievement. 'In those years, following the decay of Impressionism as a vital force, when the traditional forms of painting were broken up in the mortar of Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, a new instrument was being forged, whether by chance or a kind of prophetic foresight, which seems curiously fitted to deal with the tremendous insignia of modern war . . . The new painting has little patience with the adventitious accidents of the scene, it seeks to come to grips with the underlying reality. And it finds this reality in the significance of pure form and dynamic rhythm.'
By a curious coincidence, a portrait photograph of Nevinson taken in 1919 by Bertram Park is coming up for sale at Sotheby's on 7 May. Park, a fashionable portrait photographer, much employed by the Royal Family, has tampered with the negative in order to accentuate the interplay of Cubistic planes, turning the photograph into a tribute to Nevinson's war pictures. It is estimated at pounds 1,000 to pounds 1,500.
Most of C R W Nevinson's war paintings are owned by the Imperial War Museum and the Tate Gallery. 'The Road to Ypres is an excellent
picture and one that I would hope could find a home in a public gallery,'
Richard Morphet, the keeper of modern paintings at the Tate, told me.
'It was offered to us and we declined it with great regret. We already have three First World War subjects by Nevinson - which doesn't mean that we wouldn't like this one as well.' The opportunity for a British gallery to acquire it may not occur again since the painting has come from America for sale and can be freely re-exported.
The price is not excessive by current standards. The highest auction price on record for C R W Nevinson's work is the pounds 165,000 paid in 1988 for a post- war idyll titled Punts on the Thames at Henley. While happy pictures habitually sell for higher prices than tragic ones, 'happiness' here balances out against the quality 'greatness'. It seems fair that the two pictures should be worth roughly the same.
AMONG the many unique features of the Great War may be included the minor peculiarity of its being the first to be officially and contemporaneously recorded in paint. The artist is in khaki.
He follows the flag. As the guns are being dragged over the shell-broken road to the gun-pits, their monstrous gait and processional movement are registered by the trained eye and practised hand. The smoke of the barrage has scarcely rolled down the wind before it has been caught and fixed in the sketch-book. Never before was the outward aspect of a war so closely observed and so minutely documented.
But a doubt suggests itself. Is war, is this War, after all in fact paintable? Appearance is not reality. Appearance may be observed, but reality, to be known, must be experienced. That is why the report of the official artist has more value than the official photographer. For the camera observes everything and experiences nothing. It is inhumanly impartial and cannot speak the language of the spirit. Concerning the things that we most wish to know, it is dumb. We ask for the truth, the whole truth, and it gives us nothing but the facts.
But can the painter give us the truth? Has any artist who has undertaken a Cook's Tour of the Front, appropriately clad and authentically commissioned though he be, seen the war? War was, and still is, a spectacle. But it is also an experience. It is not an experience of physical danger, nor yet of physical discomfort, wholly - sensations common to peace as to war. It is an experience not of moments, but of seasons and years. It is a mode of life, it is a society, a government, a custom, an atmosphere, a technique, an intercourse, a conviviality, a business, an idleness, a madness, a monotony, a game, a penal servitude, a rebirth, a second nature - all these. It is, in a word,
a state of mind.
From 'The Great War' by J E Crawford Flitch, an essay on Nevinson's war paintings published in 1918.
These two passages from Flitch's essay 'The Great War' capture the inspiration behind 'Flooded Trench on the Yser, 1915' (right) and 'Ramming Home a Heavy Shell, 1918' (below):
'It is to be noted that this is the first war which has created a specifically 'war landscape'. In Western Europe the 3 1/2 years which have passed since the petrification of the moving battle of the early days of the War into the arrested battle of trench warfare have created a belt of country of varying width, stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier, from which not only all the works of the labouring generations . . . but even the immemorial landmarks of nature have vanished.'
'Stated by an unilluminated mind, the fact that the British soldier is simply the British working man in khaki would have only the flatness of a truism. Stated by Nevinson, it has the freshness of a discovery and the deep significance of a revelation. For the British working man, war consists in doing a job for which he has no liking, and only a makeshift training. His sudden conversion into a soldier means for him the learning of a new trade. He is forced to exchange the status of a master-craftsman for that of an apprentice. He has exchanged his clothes but he is not at home in them.'
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