Great War Portraits @ National Portrait Gallery – Review

Published on Artlyst

Of all the events and memorial activities scheduled for this year to mark the centenary of the beginning of the first Great War – that bitter and ugly conflict of arguably worse fighting conditions than the Second World War; a spiralling, futile lottery of chance that several European countries found themselves mired in – one might expect the duty of painterly remembrance to fall on the Imperial War Museum. It is in fact fortuitous that this institution is closed for revamp, for the display at the National Portrait Gallery, being restricted to showing portraits only, in actuality brings home forcefully the notion that war in itself is defined by – nay, comprised of – the people that perpetuated, suffered, and survived it. Instead of displaying the crumpled graveyard like remains of material elements of the war, we have a chronological sequence of figures which highlight two hugely contrasting themes of initial hubris, of pomp and splendour exuded by royal portraits at the cusp of a conflict which was believed to only last until that Christmas, followed by painful reality and horror experienced by all when the conflict dragged on excruciatingly for five years. Within this arc is included an enormous range of responses and emotions, demonstrating the varying uses and purposes of painting; from observing and recording, to a mode of protest or medium by which to make sense of the terrors witnessed. Interesting also is how these varying examples also gives us a cross section of the painterly styles in use throughout this short period of 1914 – 1919.

In this tiny but concentrated show (David Bailey’s ‘Stardust’ currently sprawls through the majority of the NPG: insert cynical comment about the superficiality of our age here if you will) there is the masterstroke of putting Jacob Epstein’s ‘The Rock Drill’ at the entrance, straddling beginning and end. This placement crucially and neatly encapsulates the two themes of hubris and subsequent horror, being sculpted in 1913 at the height of Vorticist and (the wider associated European movement) Futurist optimism in the violent power of machines and revolutionary progress, then truncated by Epstein during the war in 1916. Initially a machine-like figure, armoured and standing on tripod legs, this potent assertion of faith in machinery and destruction is now devoid of its legs and subsequently less than half of its original height, resembling a severed torso incapable of movement, the anthropomorphic metal face now coloured by the regretful and mournful hue of one who has witnessed death in its naked realness.
A gallery of figures involved with the beginning of the Great War fills the first room, glorifying and heavily polished official portraits immortalising the sitters. It is curious to see the small, modest piece of Franz Ferdinand by Theodore Breitwieser, whose assassination provided the catalyst; to put an expression (interestingly a modest, unassuming one) to a famous figure who we regard now as mythical, almost beyond a person. The NPG has done well to secure this loan from the Lobcowicz Collection in the Czech Republic.
The range of themes crammed into the subsequent rooms are so many as to be almost one per painting. An official portrait of Field Marshal Von Hindenburg by August Böcher (1917) – perhaps now more synonymous with zeppelin disaster – demonstrates the hagiography surrounding this figure, as apparently many depictions were produced and disseminated. It is clunky in execution and composition, with the bulky figure awkwardly cramped into the frame, squinting out at the viewer in a less than inspiring manner. Contrasting is his neighbour, a very loose and relaxed piece showing Marshal Foch by William Orpen (1918), showing instead a more complex gaze, deep lidded and at once both business-like and heavily world weary.
Elsewhere is a little seen Walter Sickert ‘Integrity of Belgium’ (1914), an optimistic and rose-tinted – almost literally, given the lighter pastel shades of mauve, pale greens and yellows permeating the piece – account of the ‘unknown soldier’, his enormous bold figure striding with vigour and courage across a landscape, straddling nearly the entire pictorial width. Being too old to enlist or have any notion of the horrors at the front, Sickert makes an idealised image inspiring beautiful patriotism in the audiences at home. Set opposite Gilbert Roger’s 1919 ‘Dead Stretcher Bearer’, similarly an unknown soldier, body tilted away from us, crumpled and ugly in a ferociously painted and thoroughly muddy colour palette, Sickert’s optimism smacks of painfully infuriating naiveté. This contrast illustrates the sad gulf between the idea of glory and ‘Dulce et decorum est…’ with the brutal reality, and similarly the varying purposes of images. The former comforting, reassuring; the latter, reporting, recording, trying to come to terms with.
Continuing this is a harrowing selection of reporting of a different kind; the clinical recording in pastel sketches by Henry Tonks throughout 1916–18 of facial disfigurements suffered by shrapnel and gas victims, paired here with photographs of patients undergoing reconstructive facial surgery, taken from the Huntarian collection in the Royal College of Surgeons.
Striking is the inclusion of a portrait by Lovis Corinth, most commonly known as a painter of staunchly traditionalist style, an academic teacher of method. Here his portrait of Makebaüs Hermann Stuck is startling in its defiance of traditionalism, all muddy in tone and dour, as if he has purposefully not washed his brush in between colours, lending everything an ugly, dishcloth hue. Strokes of the brush leave uneven residue, even swipes of unmixed colour from the tube, left stubbornly. It is a frustrated, angry cry at the ugliness and futility of combat.
It is a compact, intense show. War is ugly, and the range of works all show its various hues and conflicting, tangled emotions for all involved. Particularly, preceding the familiarly bleak works of protest and despair the pomp and importance of the royal and military figures in juxtaposition instead seem almost ridiculous. Seeing the ‘Rock Drill’ again as we leave, the once brutal and war-hungry icon of destruction, now a legless torso raised by a pedestal, it resembles the sorry image of a limbless soldier lifted up by his wheelchair.

Ruin Lust, Tate Britain – Review

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Azeville, Jane Wilson & Louise Wilson, 2006 (Courtesy of Tate)

Ruin Lust is the snappy but problematic title to this Tate Britain show which draws from its own collections to explore – in wildly abstract fashion – the continuing fascination with ruins, from the Eighteenth Century onwards. The less explicit the title, the less prescriptive to the content; the exhibition thus proceeds to consider ‘Ruin’ as referring generally to decay, not just fragments of architecture from a given era, and the ‘Lust’ part transpires to be the range of relationships between artists and the concept of decay, rather than simple admiration or idolatry. Ruin Lust appears to be a pun on the German term Reinelust, comprising two words loosely meaning ‘ruin’ and ‘loss’, although the Tate does not clarify its aims behind the adoption of ‘lust’, as ‘loss’ captures more succinctly the emotional flavour displayed towards ruins. ‘Ruin Lust’ therefore actually undermines the real richness of the show. This is an unfortunate blip in an otherwise exceptionally stimulating exhibition that throws up more questions than it answers. Compared to the current National Gallery show in which paintings from its own collection entitled ‘Strange Beauty’ which in effect expounded a period in the history of its collecting, rather than examine the notion of aesthetics with regard to German art as per the similarly snappy title, the Tate has similarly drawn from its own collection differing and otherwise incongruous pieces which illustrate the varying relationships of artists towards the idea of decay throughout history. The abstract term Ruin Lust provides a starting point from which a barrage of ideas and concepts appear and reappear throughout. It is a brave move, which will stimulate some and infuriate others by its unruly and scattergun nature.

Room one greets us with sombre dark walls and three large scale pieces immediately indicating the range of works to be explored. Though otherwise unrelated, their relation by loose theme of ‘ruin’ produces an inevitable aesthetic comparison which is useful for comprehending what the Tate means by ‘Lust’. John Martin’s apocalyptic ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ (1822), all tumbling rocks, larva and fleeing terrified figures, sits next to the still, eerie but threateningly looming derelict bunker shown in the photograph ‘Azeville’ by Jane and Louise Wilson (2006), representing the contemporary counterpart. Adjacent is Constable’s oil sketch for ‘Hadley Castle’ ca.1828, a romantic study of fragile fractured structures against vibrating landscape settings featuring feverish, textured brushwork. No captions explain the works (apart from Martin’s explaining its damage from the Tate flooding), allowing aesthetic comparisons to suggest themselves. We glean visually a sense of impermanence, of inevitable decay in a threatening, foreboding manner characterised by the consistently grainy textured surfaces of the images and sense of movement by the sheer business of each image space. It speaks of chaos, of order disrupted, yet the original pattern of design is still discernible. It is a curious aesthetic precursor which sets the tone for the following galleries and reflects something of the allure of ruin and decay itself. The next gallery continues this foreboding sense, being dimly lit and reverberating with the unsettling echoes of the sound installation to follow; if intentional this certainly continues the tangible sense of threat which the concept of inevitable destruction communicates.
Where the artworks most closely adhere to the simplest, most literal form of Ruin Lust – i.e. the desire, or idolatry of ruins in the architectural, ancient form – is the selection of sketches and watercolours drawn from the Tate prints collection. Martin sought to depict the ancient towns during ruination, capitalising on destruction and decay itself as a source of drama. By contrast, Piranesi focusses on the sadness of a grand, noble ancient society now lost, seeking to ‘immortalise’ their perceived grandeur through etchings of exaggerated proportions and shadows. Similarly, Richard Wilson’s paintings of the ruined villas of Hadrian and Maecenas as frequented by peasants are quaint, chocolate-boxy studies, summery in colour and only vaguely nostalgic. Tate Britain is spoilt for choice when it comes to Turner’s sketches, and most likely could have filled the entire room with studies of ruined structures in addition to those selected here, amply representing this Romantic attitude towards ruins.
When we progress to the Twentieth Century works however, the imaginative concepts and suggestions come pinging at us thick and fast. It appears that the curators have simply gone through the Tate collections and selected anything visually relevant to ruins and decay, and it would be easy to condemn this as laziness; with Patrick Caulfield sitting next to John Piper and John Stazeker, the word ‘tentative’ springs alarmingly to mind. The captions’ justifications however invite us to consider these works in this new light, with regard to the flowery terminology of the title. Indeed, it becomes a pleasure to explore the various potential interpretations, and again for revising the accepted ‘interpretation’ of the works used in the catalogues.
As such, Caulfield’s 1964 work ‘Ruins’ would more regularly in other exhibition contexts be considered with regard to the development of pop art, or colourism in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Here however the little blue blocks or ‘ruins’, outlined in Caulfield’s distinctive black lines and surrounded by bright yellow are seen in contrast with the preceding ‘noble’, melancholic and gloomy tones rendered by the Romanticists. The scope for potential interpretation of ‘lust’ – Caulfield’s relationship with this subject matter – is in this case thus massively widened for our benefit, with no ready packed conclusion. Is it a relationship of awe, appropriation, irony, or something else?
Indeed, such is his abstract treatment of these ‘blocks’ – for we know them to be ruins by their chipped corners and cracks – that it appears that the ‘ruins’ referred to have progressed from the classical era into an ahistorical concept, a distinction not made explicit by the show and adding some degree of confusion. Adjacent, Laura Oldfield’s work is selected for her focus on contemporary ruins with a 2010 painting of unsavoury, dilapidated London council estates in lurid fluorescent. The final room more coherently and in greater focus explores this theme of contemporary ruin with regard to cityscapes; Oldfield’s placement here is not entirely helpful for the bewildered viewer.
The relationship of appropriation reappears with John Stazeker’s distinct collages splicing retro photographs together. Here two examples are chosen presumably because they include fragments of postcards depicting ancient ruin. They have one foot in the Romantic-esque regard for ancient ruins, smacking of melancholy and loss, but also one foot in the less emotional, practical concern for the use of images of ruins; that of utilising them to create new work not wholly concerned with classic civilisation. At this point certainly it is difficult to differentiate the exhibition’s point with that made during last year’s show focusing on the destruction of images; the whole latter part of ‘Art Under Attack: British Iconoclasm’ (2013) discussed pieces which were formed from the destruction of other pieces, i.e. appropriating previous ideas and images.
Further interpretations ping at us with the inclusion of Tacita Dean’s video work showing the last productions made by the photographic Kodak Company in 2006, far removed from any traditional imagery of classical ruins or architecture. The idea is that a strange, eerie and nostalgic beauty is found through capturing the last breath of a dying medium. It certainly fits the terms Ruin Lust in an abstract manner, though feels an anomaly amongst the surrounding ideas of the other works.
Where the terminology really comes unstuck is the room discussing the art created in response to the conflicts of the Twentieth Century, with such harrowing pieces as those by Paul Nash showing crumpled fighter planes abandoned to rust. The Tate’s argument is that historically this era remained too recent in memory for artists to respond with any feelings of fondness or nostalgia; and indeed to apply the term ‘lust’ rather than ‘loss’ to the artistic products of brutality would be callous in the extreme. It claims instead that artists applied the ‘historic idea of ruin lust in order to come to terms with the aftermath of modern warfare’. This to my mind is to unduly simplify the relationship to the newly scorched earth artists found themselves in, and misses the immense tragedy attached to such works. These are works coming to terms with horror, not a romanticised vision of conflict as per John Martin’s idealised destruction of Pompeii. Muirhead Bone’s 1940 ink and charcoal piece ‘Torpedoed Oil Tanker’ is not so much created for aesthetic pleasure but as a method of recording the aftermath of conflict, very much like coming to terms with something so unnatural. The photographs by Jane and Louise Wilson make another appearance, this time with a caption revealing the bunker that we admired aesthetically in the first room is actually a fragment of the Nazi’s defensive Atlantic Wall. Intentional or no, this ‘reveal’ works powerfully upon us; can we still find aesthetic pleasure in the relics of brutal inhumanity?
These potent questions and ideas owe a lot to such ‘happy accidents’ of comparing such a diverse range of images. Yes, the Tate have clearly plundered their collections for anything remotely related, but such optimistic inclusion has facilitated a whole range of various interpretations of ‘Ruin Lust’ to present themselves. Even the presence of the first John Martin painting is justified because the piece itself is ‘ruined’, having been badly decayed in flooding, as noted in the caption. Does this increase our ‘Lust’ or admiration and protectiveness of it? Such are the wild thoughts pinging around the show that it requires an active engagement of its audience to make it really rewarding; there really are no solid conclusions here, and all the better for it.