As a child, many summers were spent at Butlins in Skegness. I dreaded these trips for many reasons, but once I was allowed to wander off on my own, I would always head for the Merry Go Round -this one, in fact:
Quite why I wanted to trap myself on this perpetual ride to nowhere is unclear now, but I was fascinated by the gaudy colours, the looped music and the grotesque expressions on the horses’ faces.
With this in my memory banks, it is not surprising that when I visited Tate Britain for the first time in years, I was struck by the paradox of the beauty and the horror apparent in Mark Gertler’s 1916 painting, The Merry Go Round.
The first thing to strike you is the uniforms. You can imagine a Sunday afternoon on the local green; soldiers and sailors are out with their sweethearts for a carefree stroll before they depart to fight for their King and Country. To allow the closeness that society would not allow, the couples would ride side by side. But then you see their expressions. These are not faces that exude happiness and joy -the feelings that this ride would usually instil. These faces are fixed in a scream; the ride is in perpetual motion: there is no escape from what is to come. The use of primary colours gives a childish perspective to this scene which adds to the horror.
Gertler was a conscientious objector and he initially had problems in showing this. When it eventually was shown, it was regarded by many critics as the most important war painting. D. H. Lawrence wrote to Gertler: “I have just seen your terrible and dreadful picture Merry-go-round. This is the first picture you have painted: it is the best modern picture I have seen: I think it is great and true. But it is horrible and terrifying. If they tell you it is obscene, they will say truly. You have made a real and ultimate revelation. I think this picture is your arrival.”
For more on Mark Gertler:
There is a second picture with the same title that is equally as fascinating: Cyril E Power’s linocut print from 1930:
This print is dizzying in every aspect and is an excellent comparison to Gertler’s work. While Gertler has frozen his ‘victims’ in time and space; never to leave, Power has his figures flying through the air at a frentic pace, creating a dazzling kaleidoscope of movement. At first, you can experience the thrill of the ride, but you very quickly realise that the riders are at the very edge of their seats and the danger becomes all too apparent. The use of just two colours: Chinese and chrome orange and Chinese blue and the curves create density but the lighter shades at the outer edges form the force lines and it is this that evokes the fearful nature of this ride.
It is clear that Power was influenced by the Vorticist movement, and his other works are equally as fascinating. Two books are worth mentioning:
- Cyril Power Linocuts: A Complete Catalogue by Phillip Vann
- British Prints From The Machine Age: Rhythms Of Modern Life 1914-1939 by Clifford S. Ackle