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

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
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.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker