Arts: A man who did well out of the war

In the mechanised horrors of the First World War, CRW Nevinson's modernism found its ideal subject. But what could he paint afterwards?

He blazed like a comet through the firmament and then, like comets everywhere, all but disappeared. This was the career trajectory of Hampstead- born painter C R W Nevinson (1899-1946), briefly acclaimed as the greatest English artist of the First World War. Does he deserve to be forgotten? A major retrospective of his work at the Imperial War Museum gives us an opportunity to decide.

Trained at the Slade alongside Mark Gertler, Stanley Spencer and others, Nevinson's career begins in restless technical experiment, a playing with painterly techniques from the recent past, a rapid shifting through styles successively reminiscent of Vlaminck, Picasso - of both the "blue" and the cubist periods - and others. Among the best of the very early works is an excellent exercise in English Impressionism, a school-of-Seurat painting of a railway bridge at Charenton dated 1911, with thick gouts of smoke wreathing a railway bridge. We cough and rub our eyes with cautious admiration.

By 1914, Nevinson was into Futurism, speed, mechanisation, modernity - he had become Marinetti's chief English spokesperson and ally. They even co-authored a manifesto called Vital English Art, which denounced Nevinson's hopeless homeland's various backward-looking mediocrities: "the pretty-pretty... the sickly revivals of medievalism, the Garden Cities with their curfews and artificial battlements, the Maypole Morris dances, Aestheticism, Oscar Wilde, the Pre-Raphaelites... the Post-Rossettis with long hair under the sombrero."

And so it was goodbye to Morris, whimsy and the Nineties, and hello to the excitements of war and modernity: "War is the only health-giver," proclaimed the benighted Futurists. And Nevinson went along with such idiocies until he got a taste of war's tangible realities while serving as an ambulance driver on the battlefields of France. Everything changed for him then - and so did the painting.

The images he made between 1914 and 1917 established his name as the most vital painter of the horrors of contemporary warfare. La Mitrailleuse (1915), for example, in which a group of machine-gunners huddle in a trench, scarcely more than dehumanised extensions of their weaponry, is a particularly fine example. Sickert called this painting "the most authoritative and concentrated utterance of the war". Other paintings of this period - First Searchlights in Charing Cross, for example, show how the new technologies of warfare seem happily suited to Modernist expressive techniques. But Nevinson steers something of a middle path between convention and experiment, now and later. In a work such as Returning to the Trenches, for example, the body of marching soldiers seem to move as one, locked together like some great machine in motion - which reminds one of Boccioni's experiments in the abstract depiction of speed - but they are also clearly, and fairly conventionally, recognisable, especially in the upper half of the canvas, as individual soldiers. Nevinson has adapted Futurism to his own needs.

Many of these canvases were exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in 1916. That show was an enormous success with critics and public alike, and a further exhibition, two years later, was equally successful. In part, this was thanks to Nevinson's spectacularly successful aptitude for self- publicity. In part, it was due to his images offering an honestly chilling alternative to official lies.

The best illustration of how Nevinson's approach to the Great War differed so markedly from that of his famous contemporaries is on show in a room that houses three great - in size, that is - paintings officially commissioned for the Hall of Remembrance from Stanley Spencer, Sargent and Nevinson. (Nevinson's is on a much larger scale than anything else he ever attempted.) Sargent's Gassed - which depicts a line of soldiers stoically trudging from left to right, many blindfolded, all heroic and upright in posture - is a quasi-propagandistic tribute to human dignity in the most undignified of circumstances, and it was praised to the skies when it was officially unveiled. Spencer's painting of a hospital interior is reminiscent of a church, with nurses flitting about, dispensing soothing balm to the needy, like a flight of angels. It is not so much a scene of war as the gentle, visionary apotheosis of one. Only Nevinson's The Harvest of Battle shows the disturbing and disgusting realities in their entirety - open- mouthed corpses; blundering soldiery; two armies suffering equally amid a welter of mud and squalor.

And then the war stopped, and Nevinson went on living for nigh on 30 years. In part, his predicament was somewhat akin to that of all those eastern European poets who drew so much emotional sustenance from opposing the Communist regimes that repressed them until, all of a sudden, in 1989, the regimes gave up the ghost and stopped the repression. And the poets were left with only their own navels to gaze at. What did Nevinson take for a theme in the aftermath of so emotionally all-consuming a subject as war?

Fortunately, at the turn of the 1920s, he found New York and its architecture, which amazed and delighted him for a time, and then, a little later, turned soulless on him. A number of fine lithographs came out of his renewed interest in urban landscapes. He rediscovered London, and some of his most expressive later works are haunting lithographs of docklands scenes.

But by the middle of the 1930s, the concentration seemed largely to have ebbed away, and his last works include several rather poor and mildly embarrassing allegorical paintings with such grandiose titles as The Twentieth Century (1932-35). In this painting a great, broody thinker, chin on hand, and straight out of Rodin, sits ponderously amid shambolically crowded, overlapping scenes. Soldiers are on the march, with bayonets flourishing skyward; red-flag-waving crowds are seething in the streets; skyscrapers soar vertiginously up and up in a skyscraperish sort of way; and planes buzz around in minatory, fly-like formations. Is this about the onset of Fascism? Vaguely, perhaps. But it's as much about a once remarkable talent now lacking, in its declining years, a focused theme to pit its wits against.

C R W Nevinson: Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 (0171- 416 5000) to 30 Jan

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week