At the end of this interactive, immersive exhibition, we are asked to consider the question posed by its title and vote on a scale of how in danger of ‘forgetting’ the First World War we are.
The title is normally to be found on war memorials all over the world. Originally used by Rudyard Kipling in his poem, Recessional, and linked to Deuteronomy 4: “Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen”. However, the switch from declarative to interrogative should be enough to ask visitors to look at the ways in which we commemorate war.
By exploring this moving and at times, chilling, exhibition, the answer must surely be that it will be impossible to forget, whether we remember it through the voices, films and photographs of those who took part, or the art and literature inspired by the four years of conflict that resulted in the death and injuries of millions of people. For some it may be that war is wrong on any level and that the atrocities then and through to modern conflict are enough to say any kind of commemoration is wrong and the exhibition sensitively explores this area too.
It is impossible not to be moved by the realisation that the sheer volume of war dead in such a short space of time took the authorities by surprise. As was the norm, the dead were buried where they lay at first, with some being repatriated for burial at home. This practice quickly ended and a ban was put in place, thus distressing those whose loved ones were dying on the battlefield in such numbers.
The exhibition looks at national and international memorials to individual personalised tributes. The central space has paintings from the IWM’s collection that were originally commissioned to be part of the National War Memorial Hall, a project that was unfulfilled due to lack of funding!
The original remit to the artists requested to contribute was that the dimensions were to be as Uccello’s ‘Battle of San Romano’, held in the National Gallery, 72 x 125 inches, as this was deemed fitting for depiction of battle paintings.
Ten paintings in total are in this exhibition. Highlights include:
A BATTERY SHELLED, PERCY WYNDHAM LEWIS
The inclusion of Wyndham Lewis in such a memorial project outraged many: far too modern! As Britain’s leading avant-garde artist and founder of the Vorticist movement, Wyndham Lewis’s cubist figures toiling amongst the shells and observed by the impassive artillerymen with the smoke of the distant guns jagged above their heads, perfectly brought the new styles into the old ways of commemoration.
GASSED, JOHN SINGER SARGENT
As a renowned society portrait artist, perhaps the inclusion of John Singer Sargent may have surprised some, but this was a scene witnessed by Sargent and beautifully brought to life. Each one of those soldiers was someone’s son. Henry Tonks described the scene in a letter to the Ministry of Information:
‘After tea we heard that on the Doullens Road at the Corps dressing station at le Bac-du-sud there were a good many gassed cases, so we went there. The dressing station was situated on the road and consisted of a number of huts and a few tents. Gassed cases kept coming in, lead along in parties of about six just as Sargent has depicted them, by an orderly. They sat or lay down on the grass, there must have been several hundred, evidently suffering a great deal, chiefly I fancy from their eyes which were covered up by a piece of lint… Sargent was very struck by the scene and immediately made a lot of notes.’
THE HARVEST OF BRITAIN, CRW NEVINSON
As one of the official war artists, Nevinson was well placed to be able to present a suitable battle scene, but, as with most of the artists, the aftermath of such a scene was where pathos as well as fact could be brought together. In a letter to a member of the Ministry of Information, Nevinson wrote about this work:
‘A typical scene after an offensive at dawn. Walking wounded, prisoners and stretcher cases are making their way to the rear through the water- logged country of Flanders. By now the Infantry have advanced behind the creeping barrage on the right, only leaving the dead, mud, & wire; but their former positions are now occupied by the Artillery. The enemy is sending up SOS signals and once more these shattered men will be subjected to counter-battery fire. British aeroplanes are spotting hostile positions.’
The factual descriptions belie the tragedy of the scene Nevinson gave us. The wounded and blinded men across the centre of the image were mirrored in Singer Sargent’s Gassed, which was paired with this work. However, it is the central figure in the foreground that is impossible to ignore.
THE MENIN ROAD, PAUL NASH
Similarly, the small details can create the biggest impact. The floating helmet in the first pool is hard to ignore. A typical symbol in war painting to signify the fallen soldier, the ripples add a new level of sorrow to such a desolate scene. How long ago did he fall? Paul Nash, out of all the war artists, delivered the most brutal condemnation of the conflict that he was a part of. In a letter to his wife, Nash wrote:
It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.
TRAVOYS ARRIVING WITH WOUNDED AT A DRESSING-STATION AT SMOL, MACEDONIA, SEPTEMBER 1916, STANLEY SPENCER
In his flat, Renaissance style, Stanley Spencer captures not the way in which the wounded were brought out of the battlefield, but with, as he put it, “grandeur… all those wounded men were calm and at peace with everything, so the pain seemed a small thing with them.” A direct opposition to the way in which Paul Nash depicted the war in France. Spencer was serving in Macedonia
OPPY WOOD, 1917. EVENING, JOHN NASH
In contrast, John Nash’s work reveals a love of nature and the despair in which it has become the innocent victim of warfare. In contrast to the man-made dugouts carved into the landscape, the broken trees reveal man’s destruction at its worst. By painting the sky with such vibrancy, Nash gives hope to a new dawn.
Across all of the exhibition is a soundscape that brings a poignancy to the whole event; sounds from the battlefield, sounds of nature and of silence, alongside bagpipes, drums and choirs. A musique concrète that ensures that you can never forget. An answer to the question the curators posed at the very beginning.
The exhibition ends on Sunday 24th February 2019.