Authenticity over artistry: Brushes with War reviewed

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

The first world war paintings of Paul Nash are so vivid and emotive that they have come to embody, as readily as any photograph, the horrendous, bitter misery of the trenches. His blighted landscapes represent the destruction of a generation of soldiers, men who were blasted apart as carelessly as the bomb-shattered mud in ‘The Mule Track’ (1918) or the reproachful twists of blackened wood and pocked land in ‘Wire’ (1918/9). These works are fixtures in our visual understanding of that war.

It is strange, then, to see an exhibition of first world war art that excludes Nash, his brother John, and indeed any of the other artists we associate with the period. No Otto Dix or Max Beckmann, no Sydney Carline, William Orpen or John Singer Sargent. But, one little C.R.W. Nevinson tank etching aside, this is what Brushes with War at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, gives us: a battalion of drawings and paintings from artistic nobodies of rather varied ability.

Anyone expecting the familiar interpretations of the official war artists will be disappointed. Instead we are presented with work produced exclusively by serving soldiers, from all sides. Some of them were trained artists or draughtsmen, but many clearly were not. That Nevinson tank, with its assured line and depth, stands out as the work of a professional.

The exhibition, assembled by the American collector Joel Parkinson and visiting Europe for the first time, is, as such, rather unusual. Authenticity, rather than artistry, is the hook. This is, emphatically, a soldier’s-eye view of combat seen through satirical cartoons, candid portraits and rapid landscapes sketched out from the back of a trench. It is a history exhibition as much as an art show.

The work is intimate in scale and focus, and often revealingly mundane. The tedious grind of the soldiers’ lot is well documented and apparently universal, with the same motifs recurring on each side of no-man’s- land. Bored men lounge around in shelters, peel potatoes, write letters home or stare into the darkness on watch. Weariness and inaction define the soldier’s experience as much as battle.

Men on all sides were struck by the same images of war. The nocturnal scenes, almost impossible to capture on camera at that time, are particularly notable, with soldiers, weaponry and the crocked remains of trees or buildings outlined again and again by the sudden glare of artillery flare or fire. A decorative, arts and crafts-inflected watercolour by Eric Bingham-Gadd exemplifies this, showing urgent men, lit by moonlight and distant flares, hauling their gun into position among shattered trees. It’s both beguiling and terrifying.

The lighting may be poetic but the battle is invariably prosaic and there is a notable lack of either glory or gore here. We see the weapons but rarely what they sow. This is far from the blistering, fractured war of Otto Dix, though death does haunt the edges nonetheless.

The dusky watercolours of F.J. Mears, who signed his name upside-down to signify a world inverted, show inky silhouettes of doomed, hunched men trooping into battle with a contraflow of rats beneath their feet. Elsewhere, his thin, black figures lug great crosses into a field already full of them, Golgotha rebuilt in the Flanders mud. A pencil doodle of pointing guns and falling men by American soldier Bob Tyler, entitled ‘Troubled Thoughts’, is a mind map of despair that must surely have been familiar to all combatants.

There’s nothing jingoistic about these deaths, and nothing heroic in the recuperation of the wounded either. ‘I don’t wanna get well’ is the inscription beneath one nurse, lovingly depicted by an American soldier. Another gives us a fine ink drawing, in the best holiday-postcard tradition, of a soldier embracing a nurse entitled, ‘Unprescribed Treatment’. There was none of that going on in the earnest hospitals painted by John Lavery.

With nearly 300 works on display, the exhibition trawls through the war from the anticipation of 1914 through subsequent stages of stagnation, attrition and desperation. The result is a rich document of the soldiers’ existence that is both fascinating and important.

These soldier-artists were not equipped to paint like Paul Nash, who could elevate personal experience into a universal, damning truth. But their contributions are no
less valid.

When Nash said, ‘I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls’, his tale was a bitter rebuke on behalf of the dead. The intimate observations of Brushes with War remind us that these men also lived.

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