“Weeping Window” by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper. It has been on tour over the last four years since it was first exhibited in a much bigger version at the Tower of London – when it was called “Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red” (a more evocative title, I think) – so the sight was not a surprise. The impact, however, was – from a distance, it really does look like a dreadful wound in the side of the building (below).
To Manchester today to see the exhibition “Lest We Forget” at the Imperial War Museum. (I’d seen the paintings before in London, but they are definitely worth a second look.) After four years of marking the centenary of the First World War, everything seems very familiar – war artists, war memorials, Imperial War Graves Commission initiatives, letters home, dog-tags – but it is still moving.
As an aside, I haven’t seen any post-war British art like that of Otto Dix or George Grosz (possibly because I haven’t looked hard enough) – works that portray savage horror, pity and rage at the injustice of the war and its aftermath. The anguish and unease are always there in British art – the war artists like Paul Nash and CRW Nevinson, or the non-commissioned bronze by Charles Sergeant Jagger that I saw last month at the Tate which was far more despairing than his public work. The only real sign of British dissent I saw at the IWM was from a 1937 newsreel, when a former soldier burst out of the crowd lined up at the Cenotaph, raging at the hypocrisy of the armistice commemoration – but his trigger may have been more to do with the impending new war than the aftermath of the old.
Gassed by John Singer Sergeant, 1919, oil on canvas
This painting is such a surprise from someone better known for society portraits, but it is very powerful. It portrays men suffering the after-effects of a gas attack as they are led to medical tents. It’s carefully composed – there is even a football match going on in the sunlight background (shades of Brueghel’s Icarus) – and that manifest skill and taste jar with the horror of it. Sergeant’s sketchbooks were on display: there was a beautiful sketch of the orderly helping the men, just as Sergeant saw him and just as he painted him. Sergeant wrote: “The further forward one goes, the more scattered and meagre everything is. The nearer to danger, the fewer and more hidden the men – the more dramatic the situation the more it becomes an empty landscape. The Ministry of Information expects an epic – and how can one do an epic without masses of men?” Which brings me to:
The Menin Road by Paul Nash, 1919, oil on canvas
Where is the road? As Sergeant said, “the fewer and more hidden the men”. There is another at the very bottom, floating in the pool; the livid colours of the painting give a clue to the rest of him.
A Battery Shelled by Wyndham Lewis, 1919, oil on canvas
Distortion and abstraction seem like the only sane response to the war by artists who served in it (although CRW Nevinson also travelled in the opposite direction, from cubism to realism). Trees, humans, shells . . . all indistinguishable from each other.
(I first saw this painting in the IWM in London. There was a class of children sitting in front of it – 10 years old or so, multi-ethnic, ordinary Londoners – with an adult. She encouraged them to look at the painting and asked them questions, eliciting the kind of responses she could build on. It was great to watch the children having their eyes opened – but, oh, why wasn’t I taught like that!)