Brushed aside by the chaos of conflict: A Crisis of Brilliance at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

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A new exhibition shows how the First World War crushed the ambitions of a generation of  talented artists, who felt they had failed to portray the full horror of the slaughter

The politicians and organisers planning the centenary of the First World War next year might be well advised to go down to the Dulwich Picture Gallery before they go too far down the road of memorialising it. There they will find just what it did to a generation of bright young artists who came to it full of the joys of modernity and came out of it, not with any sense of national triumph nor any belief in the dignity of death, but with a fractured sense of loss and inadequacy in their efforts to describe it.

The exhibition is not a show about war art as such. Rather it is an examination of a group of six young artists – Paul Nash, C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington and David Bomberg – all of whom had  studied at the Slade School of Art in the years before the war.

You could write the history of 20th  century British arts in particular years of particular schools – Goldsmiths, the Royal School of Art etc – and how each generation tended to come from one and then another. The Slade at the time was the place to study. Under its head, Fred Brown, and its master of drawing, Henry Tonks, it had already spawned one generation of fine artist in August John, Spencer Gore and Wyndham Lewis. Now it was doing the same with a second group of what Tonks   termed the school’s “second and last crisis of brilliance”.

They were a more varied lot than their elders, in background as in style. Gertler and Bomberg were both sons of poor Jewish immigrants who had been  financed by the Jewish Educational Aid Society. The others were largely middle class from educated backgrounds. What they had in common was a rigorous and old-fashioned discipline in graphics and copying the old masters at the Slade.

While Paris was agog at the new work of Picasso, Matisse and others, most of these Slade students were still exploring the style and canons of the Pre-Raphaelites. The waves coming from Europe and shown in a succession of  exhibitions by the artist and critic Roger Fry, could not be ignored for long, however, for all the strictures of Tonks on his students not to attend them. If this show has a particular star it is the often  ignored Bomberg, who took up the lessons of cubism and the Italian Futurists with extraordinary confidence. At the very beginning of the exhibition, on the end wall of the Dulwich Gallery, now beautifully rehung and repainted, is his In the Hold, painted in 1913/14 when he was just 22. It’s an abstract masterpiece of colour and energy, based on figurative studies of dock labourers and then broken up into dynamic squares.

Stanley Spencer, recognised as a great artistic talent from the start, also seemed to find his style and his pace early on. The Dulwich show includes his first known painting, Two Girls and a Beehive, done when he was just 18. It  already displays his taste for earthy  colours, solid figures and the presence of Christ. By the time he completed  The Nativity a year later, his themes and compositions were already mature.

Nevinson, who spent several months in Paris after leaving the Slade, went in several different directions before finding his style. The Towpath from  1912, at the same age as In The Hold, is actually a rather good neo-impressionist study of atmosphere and canalside setting. Within a year he was following a quite different line in Dance Hall Scene, a  colourful study of frenetic movement and swirling lines.

Paul Nash, by contrast, at first struggled desperately and unsuccessfully with figurative painting and only found his form with landscapes and nature while Gertler, the angriest of the group and ever the outsider, gained a reputation, and commissions, as a portrait painter, before changing tack and  concentrating on forceful pictures of rabbis and Jewish life in an effort to  reassert his roots. Dora Carrington, the only woman represented, never really gained the self-confidence to push  either herself or her work.

What would have happened to the six if there had not been war is difficult to determine. Stanley Spencer would presumably have continued down his path of mystical visions of his native Cookham, while Nash would have  remained, as he did, a master of landscape and Gertler continued his quest to develop a specifically Jewish art. But the war did happen and it profoundly affected them all.

It made the reputation of Nevinson as a war artist for a start. He’d joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit set up by his journalist father and saw early on the devastation of the Front. With pictures such as Ypres After the First Bombardment and his study for Column on the March he used the fractured forms of vorticism to convey the dehuminisation which the mechanised war was bringing. Nash, who went to the front as an infantry officer and painted in oils for the first time in his life, did the same with a nature blasted to bits by bombardment, painting first as a participant and then as an official war artist.

Bomberg, at first turned down as a volunteer because of his dishevelled  appearance, enlisted in 1915 with the Royal Engineers and was later withdrawn from active service to work as an official war artist for the Canadians. Spencer was only reluctantly drawn in when the effect on his beloved community in Cookham made it impossible for him not to join, in his case the Royal Army Medical Corps. He also ended as an official war artist.

Gertler, on the other hand, would have nothing to do with it, retreating to the country and later refusing the offer of work as an official artist, whilst Dora Carrington, gay herself, became a devotee and companion of the  openly homosexual Lytton Strachey, 13 years her senior and a leading figure in the Pacifist movement. Her portrait of him in 1916 is full of both affection and also a certain awe.

It is tempting to look on these painters in the same way as the war poets, as artists who changed the way the country, and we now, viewed the war. It is certainly true that both Nevinson and Nash produced some of the most devastating and defining images of the conflict. Nevinson’s La Patrie of 1916 and Nash’s Void of 1918 still shock with their visions of the destruction of man and nature. So does Bomberg’s Study for Sappers at Work: a Canadian Tunnelling Company, Hill 60, St Eloi, painted for the Canadian War Memorials Fund of 1918 and rejected as a “futurist abortion”. He did a safer and more acceptable version that was accepted but the rejection, according to his wife, rocked his self-confidence thereafter.

Even at the end, however, none of them except Gertler opposed Britain’s participation in the war. It was war  itself that appalled them. Spencer, whose war work never quite reached the same intensity as the other war  artists, nevertheless returned a changed and deeply saddened man. His Unveiling Cookham War Memorial is a profoundly moving picture of grief and disbelief four years after the end of the war. Nash had a nervous breakdown and simply stopped his autobiography at 1914, saying that all after was different. Nevinson departed for America. Bomberg died in 1957 virtually forgotten while Gertler gassed himself in the studio in 1939, ill with tuberculosis and with the dread of another war then  unfolding. Carrington killed herself a few months after the death of Lytton Strachey in 1932.

War wasn’t responsible for all their travails. But then nor was it the forging of them. Neither Nevinson nor Nash, nor indeed Spencer, ever really felt that they had produced an art equal to the occasion, or an expression that  resolved the pain it caused within. It made them feel less of the world and less of themselves, and that is the  legacy which needs recalling.

The Dulwich exhibition is not a grand one but it is a revealing and ultimately painful one.

Nash, Nevinson, Spencer, Gertler, Carrington, Bomberg: A Crisis of Brilliance, 1908-1922, Dulwich Picture Gallery (dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk; 020 8693 5254) until 22 September

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