Dulwich Picture Gallery is currently hosting the exhibition A Crisis of Brilliance in the elegantly formal side rooms of its Sir John Soane designed building. The selection of paintings, drawings and letters were chosen by David Boyd Haycock, and form an accompaniment to his book of the same title. This looks at the lives and work of five artists who attended the Slade School of Art in the immediate pre-war period: Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Christopher Richard Nevinson (who chose to go by his middle name), Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash. For this exhibition, Haycock has added another Slade attendee, David Bomberg. He wasn’t as closely entwined in the personal lives of this group, but his work displays a similar urge towards new forms of expression to reflect the rapid changes transforming the beginning of this turbulent new century. It’s Bomberg’s large, landmark painting In The Hold which confronts us outside the entrance to the exhibition proper, perhaps a pointer to his disconnection from the charmed (or cursed) circle. It also stands as an example of the end point of a certain branch of rigorous abstraction which some of the artists within will edge towards (although none will go this far). It also represents a total formalism which others will firmly reject, holding to the primacy and emotional impact of the subject matter of a painting or drawing. The Hold does have a subject – the work of dockers loading and unloading a ship in the East End docks. But any sense of human form or activity is splintered and reconfigured to the point of complete dissipation in the fragmenting compact lens of a prismatic grid, which regiments motion and colour into a rigorously formalised pattern – chaos contained.
The Slade School of Art had been set up with funds from the art collector Felix Slade in 1871, and soon became an alternative to the more traditional, conservative atmosphere prevailing in the Royal Academy. It looked to new developments which were taking place on the continent, and in particular in Paris. The artists here were all aware of the various forms of post-impressionism, which were given a prominent display in the exhibition organised by Roger Fry in the Grafton Galleries in London in 1910. Gertler and Nevinson started at the Slade in 1909, Nash and Carrington in the following 1910 term (Nash actually on staying for one year), and Bomberg in 1911. It was the Slade professor of drawing, Henry Tonks, who came up with the term ‘crisis of brilliance’ to describe their struggles. It was a crisis which encompassed artistic, personal and historical stresses and impetuses, all of them part of an inseparable whole. The seismic historical rupture which affected them all was, of course, the First World War, the advent of which proved to be a brutal coming of age for them, as for so many.
The six artists in the exhibition came from very different backgrounds, and the art school and the trenches were two of the few environments in which they might have been brought together at this time. Gertler and Bomberg were both the sons of poor Jewish immigrants who grew up in the East End; Gertler in Spitalfields and Bomberg in Whitechapel. They first met through their mutual use of the Whitechapel Art Gallery and Library. They would each draw on their experience of Jewish life in their early, pre-war work. Gertler’s The Rabbi and his Grandchild (1913) is a touching double portrait in which the black-clad, greybearded elder is contrasted with his young granddaughter, her full red lips emphasising the bloom of her youth. His cradling of her chin seems half tender caress, half proud display of this fresh new shoot of the ancestral tree. Bomberg’s Jewish Theatre (1913) directs its attention to the audience, as Sickert had done with his music hall paintings. But Bomberg turns his dimly lit figures, outlined like Sickert’s in shades of brown, into interlocking, semi-abstract forms – the indistinguishable mass of the crowd.
Carrington grew up in a comfortable middle class household in Bedford, but found the home environment, and her mother’s Victorian Puritanism in particular, unbearably stifling, and longed to break away. Nash’s father was a barrister, and he grew up in Kensington, before the family moved to a country house in Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire. He soon felt a natural affinity for this new home, and its surrounding landscape in a way that he never had for London. Nevinson’s parents were intellectuals, his father a writer and a foreign correspondent and his mother harbouring literary ambitions. They were both also active in pursuing progressive social causes, his mother becoming involved in the Suffragette movement. Both Nash’s and Nevinson’s mothers suffered from depression and anxiety, which sometimes became overwhelming (they both spent time in sanatariums). Their sons would inherit these temperamental tendencies, their moods periodically turning darkly inward. Spencer was the country boy, growing up in the village of Cookham in Berkshire, the son of successful music teacher and church organist, known to the family as ‘Par’. Cookham would remain his spiritual home and the ground for his visionary imagination throughout his life.
Richard Nevinson - Self-Portrait (1911)These diverse characters would enjoy intense friendships and equally intense falling outs over the years. Carrington was often the catalyst. A woman of evident spirit and allure, she attracted the attentions of Nash, Nevinson and Gertler in turn. Only the pious and unworldly Spencer seemed immune to her charms. The first room in the exhibition begins with portraits and self-portraits they made of each other, captured in the full, romantic flush of fiery, enthusiastic youth. We can imagine these heads buzzing with inchoate ideas and artistic ambition, searching for inspiration and new distinct and personal means of expression. Nevinson’s sensual self-portrait in oils from 1911 sets his ruddy, full-lipped face against a black backround, his brown eyes looking appraisingly out at us from a half-profile position. With its cool insouciance, this portrait has an element of self-possession which borders on arrogance, Nevinson capturing the bullying side of his personality with disarming honesty. Stanley Spencer’s portrait in earthy red chalk from 1914 is face-on, earnest and intent. His eyes don’t look out at us like Nevinson’s, however, but seem rather to be directed elsewhere, an inwardly focussed gaze. A portrait of Nash done in pencil by Rupert Lee in 1913, which again features in the book but not the exhibition, shows off his noble profile, with its Roman nose, sloping forehead and neatly backcombed sweep of hair. Carrington’s self portrait in pencil remains unfinished, and she has a wistful look, gazing upwards as if looking out of a high window. It seems to express her self-doubts and lack of confidence in her artistic abilities. Her portrait of Gertler from 1912 has him sleepy-eyed and tousle-haired, as if he’d just woken up or was on the verge of drifting off. It has an air of relaxed intimacy about it. His portrait of her from the same year, in tempera, has a stillness and translucence which reflects the influence of the early Italian Renaissance painters which Nevinson and others looked back to for a brief period in their early development. This can also be seen in their friend John Currie’s frieze Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron, also painted in 1912. Here, Nevinson and Gertler (and their fellow Slade student Edward Wadsworth) are amongst the group re-imagined as Renaissance figures lined up against a landscape backdrop. Nevinson again looks out at us, meeting our gaze with a challenging fixity, whilst Gertler’s pale profile cuts its outline across his broad ochre cheek. This proximity expresses the close friendship the two shared in their first year at the Slade. It was a relationship which fell apart once they both became enamoured of Carrington, however.
Currie himself was an extreme embodiment of the turbulent emotional lives of these young artists, and their attempt to lead a bohemian existence for which their backgrounds had not prepared them, and to which their characters were generally ill-suited. Currie was a family man with a wife and son, but he became infatuated with one of the models from the Slade life classes, Dorothy Henry, known to all as Dolly. He embarked on an affair with her, which soon brought his marriage to an end. The relationship was stormy and unevenly balanced. Dolly had absolutely no interest in art or high-minded matters of culture. She was just a young girl, 17 when they met, who wanted a good time and a degree of social stability, and mistakenly believed that Currie was the man who might provide both. Currie was unable to see this, though, and couldn’t bring himself to bring things to a conclusion. That conclusion came instead on a violent night in October 1914 when, filled with jealousy and paranoid rage, he shot her and then himself.
Mark Gertler - Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Blue Jersey (1912)Gertler’s portrait of Carrington from 1912, Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Blue Jersey, stands as the perfect expression of her looming presence in his life, which would dominate his world for years to come. The deep blue of the jumper, and the outline of Carrington’s body, fills the lower half of the painting, standing out in contrast to the lighter blues of the sky above. It forms a sweeping landscape horizon, from the hillside shoulders of which her head rises with the sculptural solidity and iconic clarity which would become characteristic of his human figures. The face is capped with a bobbed helmet of brown hair, which almost reaches the upper border of the picture, so that she fills up the entire frame. The cropped hair and loose, simple clothing which Carrington sported made for a striking look in the pre-war era, bold and modern and anticipating liberated 20s fashions by over a decade. It marked Carrington’s attempt to break away from the oppressive Victorian atmosphere of her upbringing. This reinvention of the self extended to her insistence on dropping the Dora and being referred to by her surname alone. She is definitely presented as something of a benevolent goddess in this painting, appearing monumental and blue eyed against the sky, a landscape in herself. Her relationship with Gertler was complex and long-lasting. She struggled to maintain a certain distance in the face of his eager, melodramatic and frequently desperate correspondence, and to hold off from any physical involvement, whilst encouraging his continued and undeniably flattering devotion. Letters from Carrington on display here show a mixture of childish playfulness, complete with charming sketches, and attempts at honest emotional articulacy. Gertler’s letters are much more intemperate, prone to wild declarations and dramatic ultimatums. Both, in their own ways, were struggling with almost constant self-doubt and the lingering legacy of the backgrounds from which they had tried to escape.
The portraits, particularly those in pencil or chalk, display the skills inculcated by the Slade’s emphasis on draughtsmanship, as overseen by Henry Tonks, an exacting and unsparingly critical taskmaster. This can be seen in Carrington’s richly detailed pen and ink drawing of Bedford Market (1912) which, with its crowded, bustling square has a multiplicity of glimpsed narratives reminiscent of Victorian paintings like William Powell Frith’s Derby Day. It suggests that she would have been a skilled book illustrator. Spencer’s pencil and ink drawing Fairy on a Water Lily (1909) also demonstrates the fine draughtsmanship honed at the Slade, and could be a plate taken from an Edwardian book of fairy tales or a George MacDonald style fantasy.
Dora Carrington - Female Figure Lying on Her Back (1912)Life classes were also an important element of the Slade timetable, as we have learned through John Currie’s fateful dalliance with Dolly. These were segregated, men and women studying separately, a reminder that even in the supposedly bohemian environment of the art school, Victorian and Edwardian values held sway. The violent passions and all-consuming anxieties of the Slade artists and their confused romantic entanglements are better understood in the context of this pervasive moral climate. Carrington’s Female Figure Lying on Her Back (1912) is an example of such a life study, a frankly sensual portrait of a woman languorously stretched out on a bed. Her form is palely outlined against a dark background, into which her black hair blends. Her flushed face is turned away from us, her arm crooked back behind her neck, pulling her hair back to reveal a white expanse of throat. Her breast is prominently displayed, and it is this rather than her hidden face which becomes the focal point of the viewer’s gaze. It’s entirely surprising to learn that Carrington had a number of female lovers once her sexuality emerged from its fearful dormancy in the post-war period.
Dora Carrington - Lytton Strachey (1916)Her true soulmate, however, was Lytton Strachey, the essayist and ascerbic lynchpin of the Bloomsbury set. They lived together in the large Mill House in Tidmarsh, Berkshire, which the great success of Strachey’s book of literary portraits Eminent Victorians had enabled him to buy. Carrington was utterly devoted to Strachey. As he was gay, she didn’t have to worry about the physical side of the relationship, which had proved such a cause of tension with Nevinson and Gertler. Their quiet, relaxed intimacy shines through in her portrait of Strachey from 1916, which remains her single best-known painting. He leans back, head and shoulders comfortably propped on the soft hump of a white cushion, which seems perfectly moulded to his contours. His long ginger bead lies flat and forms a continuum with the red blanket drawn around his midriff. The gently downward slope of his reclining body is interrupted by the angled, stiffly upright lines of his hands. With their long, delicate fingers, they hold open a small book, its red covers matching the colour of his coverlet. As Strachey reads his little volume, scanning eyes veiled by the round lenses of his glasses, we are invited to read him, engaged as he is in the activity which defines him as an aesthete and intellectual. It’s a portrait of a mind as much as a body, and as such stands as a perfect expression of her love for him as a person with whom she could endlessly converse and share confidences. When he died from cancer in 1932, she simply couldn’t imagine carrying on in the world without him, and shot herself a few months later.
The pre-war work of all the artists in the exhibition finds them searching for their own distinctive style, the form and subject matter which best expressed their newly coalescing worldview and artistic outlook. To reach this style, they tried on various more or less imitative guises, drawing on the new currents springing up in Paris. Nevinson concentrated on urban subjects, producing condensed industrial landscapes full of the angular blocks of warehouses and factories and the channels of canals which cut between them. Tow Path, Camden Town shows the influence of post-impressionism (via Roger Fry’s 1910 exhibition) and of the London Group of which he was briefly a member (and which emerged from the Camden Town Group). A black chalk outline picture of The Lock, Camden, with its arching footbridge instantly recognisable, moves towards the futurism and vorticism which he would enthusiastically adopt with its concern with geometrical, straight-edged form. Nevinson spent some time living in Paris in 1912, where he met a number of the artists then working there, absorbing a number of new influences. The Viadiuct, Issy-les-Moulineux is a formalised landscape parcelled out into distinct blocks of colour in the manner of Cezanne, the hero of Fry and his circle and model for their new artistic ideals. Racehorse from 1913 moves further towards the abstraction implied in that painting. In Le Vieux Port (1913) he subjects his dockyard scene to cubist diffraction, the inclusion of boldly inscribed typeface numbers making the emulation of Picasso and Braque plain. The grids of the crane frames add a distinctly vorticist element, however. Dance Hall Scene translates the energy of the crowded dance floor into abstract, vorticist arcs and angles, although it should be noted that Nevinson, due to his own tactlessness and tendency to act without prior consultation was never admitted into Wyndham Lewis’ official Vorticist gang. This painting bears some resemblance to William Roberts’ The Jazz Party, painted a decade or so later in 1923, and which can be found in the Leeds Art Gallery.
Spencer abiding concern was with discovering the sacred in the everyday, and his recognition of its presence in the Cookham lanes, fields and riversides he knew so well, and in the people who inhabited the village. This was at the heart of his painting from the outset. He seemed to arrive at the Slade with his artistic intentions already fully formulated. His very first surviving painting, Two Girls and a Beehive (1910), a portrait of two Cookham sisters, is already in the style for which he would become famous. Nativity was a prize-winning painting which set the birth of Christ on what appears to be the edge of a park in Cookham. The visionary depiction of John Donne Arriving in Heaven shows a more stylised English landscape, in which the poet and those who wait to greet him on the heavenly plain are planted like blocklike and monolithic giants, megaliths with crude human features. It was hung at Roger Fry’s second post-impressonist exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1912. By the time of the post-war picture Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (1920), the pieces were all firmly in place: the keen sense of locality; the energetically peopled scene, with its exaggerated, slightly inflated figures; the subdued colour scheme, reminiscent of early Italian Renaissance painters (which also gives them the look of murals); and the pious but ungilded and non-ceremonial view of the divine made manifest in the ordinary.
Mark Gertler - Creation of Eve (1915)Gertler concentrated largely on the human figure, initially painting local subjects drawn from the Jewish culture in which he’d grown up, and from the East End boxing clubs. A pastel study of a Seated Boxer from 1918 is included here. He also gained a reputation (and a steady income) for his portraits, whose solid presence and bold but sensitive colours gave them a strikingly distinctive appearance. Portrait of a Girl (1912) is one such, and gives an idea of why he was so much in demand, with its beautiful blend of autumnal tones set against a mossy green wallpaper background. He also painted more allegorical and religiously symbolic works. Fruit Sorters (1914) has a timeless and geographically non-specific feel; its orchard workers could be from biblical times, or from the current picking season in the garden of Kent. Along with Paul Nash’s Apple Pickers (1914) and Spencer’s The Apple Gatherers (1912), there’s a feel, perhaps gained with the added benefit of historical hindsight, of an immediately pre-lapsarian Eden, a place of easeful bounty which will soon be lost. Creation of Eve (1915) is a primal take on the Genesis tale, full of primitive violence. Eden here is a garden forested with oversized blue flowers. An earthily coloured Adam lies curled on the ground as if he were a part of it, a fertile seed bed. God pulls Eve from his side by her hair as if he were uprooting a fullgrown vegetable. Eve is a pale figure, separate from the brown-skinned God and Adam, who are joined together at arm and knee to form an undivided whole. Eve is torn between the human and divine, stretched thin and taut, aggressively held in a state of tension which looks akin to an assault. She is the female image as objectified by the male viewpoint, split between idealised purity and desired but reviled sexuality. It’s a powerful and at the time controversial composition which could be seen as being as much about the representation of the female in art as much as in religion (the two convergent for many centuries, of course). Consciously or otherwise, it also perhaps expresses Gertler’s own ambiguous feelings towards women, and his agonies over his love for Carrington, which left his desires eternally suspended.
Paul Nash - The Wood on the Hill (1912)Nash’s early pen and ink works are clearly in the lineage of William Blake and Samuel Palmer. The Combat: Angel and Devil places giant figures astride a pastoral Palmeresque landscape, shining against the starry blackness. A hawk-headed birdman descends towards a sword-wielding angel until they are almost conjoined. It seems like a union of the spirits of heaven and earth as much as an archetypal conflict. The Cliff to the North is a mysterious moonlit scene with shooting star drawn from walks along the Norfolk coast. A simple shadowed outline of a figure rising at an approaching or receding angle from the bottom right of the frame is suggestive or more giants in the landscape, part of the jaggedly eroded geology of the sheared-off cliffs. The Wood on the Hill (1912) is one of Nash’s early depictions of the Wittenham Clumps, the twin beech-topped mounds which were to become the ultimate loci of his search for the numinous spirit of place. The stubbled and harvest stacked fields place the scene in a specific seasonal moment, whilst the rising swirl of black, pen-strophed crows implies an accompanying chorus of cawing complaint, perhaps set off by some intrusive presence among the trees. They are joined on this occasion by a dead fly, trapped behind the glass of the frame. It seems to have gained immortality on the postcard reproduction, too.
Mark Gertler - Gilbert Cannan and his Mill (1916)Nash had found his first spiritual home at Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire, to which his family moved from Kensington. He was drawn to nature and the mystery of the English landscape from an early age, and was much more at ease away from the city. The urge to retreat to a personal rural paradise was also strongly felt by Gertler and Carrington (Spencer grew up in his blissful idyll and never truly left it). Gertler spent many weekends at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s manor house in Garsington near Oxford, which she had opened up to artists of all stripes. Pool at Garsington summons up the picturesque atmosphere of the place, its empty and still canvas a theatrical backdrop against which cultured debate, self-consciously extravagant gestures and personal intrigues could be staged. He also spent a good deal of time at Mill House at Cholesbury in Buckinghamshire, a converted windmill and its adjacent buildings in which his friend Gilbert Cannan, an aspiring writer, lived. It was here that he worked on his depiction of natural bounty The Fruit Sorters (1914). The simple, childlike forms of his portrait Gilbert Cannan and his Mill from 1916 (his wife seems to have disappeared from the equation), with its soppy, friendly dogs protectively enveloping his spindly but brightly alert figure evokes a true feeling of home, a safe retreat from the harshness of the world beyond. This is reinforced by the firmly rooted solidity of the tree beside the windmill, with its sheltering umbrella of foliage. As with so many characters in this story, Cannan’s life was not a contented one, however. His literary ambitions were realised by filleting Gertler’s confidences and casting him, along with Carrington and Nevinson, as the barely disguised protagonists of his novel Mendel. When it was published towards the end of 1916, Gertler naturally saw it as a massive betrayal of trust, and the friendship was effectively at an end. Cannan, affected by the ongoing slaughter on the continent, the failure of his marriage and the death of his beloved dogs (and perhaps also by his conscience) suffered a massive mental breakdown. He struggled for a long time to regain the urge to write or communicate in any meaningful way.
Gertler’s painting Near Swanage moves towards Nash territory, both stylistically and geographically. Nash and his wife Margaret periodically lived in an old farmhouse overlooking Swanage Bay from 1934-6, and he produced many paintings inspired by the area, including one of his best known, Landscape from a Dream, now owned by the Tate. Nash also used his familiarity with the Dorset coast and countryside to compile the Shell Guide to the county in 1935. Gertler’s landscape has the mysterious quality of Nash’s work, the sea and headlands glimpsed through borders of obscuring woodland which are both solid and oddly blurred and spectral. The painting has the quietly haunted stillness of a dream, its emptiness suggestive of some significant event which we are waiting for, a lurking presence which will soon make its entrance.
Carrington also found her blessed home counties idyll, a pocket paradise sheltered from the chaos of the twentieth century at Mill House in Tidmarsh, which she shared with Lytton Strachey. She’d met Strachey in 1915 at another such retreat, Asheham House in Sussex, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s weekend cottage. Later, in 1924, she’d move with Strachey to a larger house near Hungerford in the Berkshire countryside. Her painting of The River Pang Above Tidmarsh (1918), lightly shaded by the trees lining the bank, evokes the spirit of summery tranquillity which she found here. It was a tranquillity which allowed her some respite from the personal devastation of war. Of her three brothers, all of whom had gone to the Western Front, one had died in the Somme, one suffered from shell shock, and one was badly wounded.
David Bomberg - Study for Sappers at Work (1918-9)The war had an enormous impact on all the artists in the exhibition, whether they experienced it at first hand or not. Gertler was a conscientious objecter, and even when he was finally called up for the draft in the latter stages, he was declared unfit for service. The war served to further underline his feelings of isolation, the sense of being an outsider in the ‘cultured’ world he now inhabited, which was so far removed from his poverty stricken background and Jewish upbringing. Spencer and Bomberg both enlisted and went to the front, the former with the Royal Army Medical Corps, and the latter as a sapper (a combat engineer, which in this case would have involved building and maintaining trenches) with the King’s Royal Rifles. Spencer managed to stumble through in a daze, as much the innocent fool, conspicuously apart from his comrades, as he had been at the Slade. This innocence seemed almost to act as some sort of protection, sparing him while more experienced men of the world fell to either side. Bomberg eventually took a more direct and practical escape route from the horrors he faced; he shot himself in the foot in 1918. Neither of them would produce significant work reflecting their experiences in the trenches until after the war, when official commissions would result in large scale memorials. Bomberg’s Sappers At Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company, Hll 60, St Eloi was painted at the best of the government Canadian War Memorials Fund. The first version, a large study of which dominates one wall of the final gallery, proved controversial. The forms of the sappers are semi-abstracted, reduced to lines of limbs and bent torsos. They seem on the verge of fusing with the geometries of the framework of props they’re constructing and the tools they’re using for the job. The colours are bright and non-naturalistic throughout, so there’s little tonal distinction between the human and the inanimate. Such an avant-garde transformation of what was supposed to be a celebration of heroic war work into an abstract pattern of motion, structure and colour was not exactly what the Canadian government had in mind, and Bomberg was obliged to produce something a little less radical, even though this was far less extreme than his earlier work.
It was Nevinson and Nash who produced the most significant work of the wartime period. Nevinson joined the Friends Ambulance Unit towards the start of the war, and was posted to the ‘Shambles’, a railway shed in Dunkirk which had been turned into a makeshift hospital in which the wounded and dying were dumped. Here, and in his ambulance trips to the front, Nevinson witnessed the terrible results of mechanised warfare. All the bombastic Futurist rhetoric thrilling to the noise and spectacle of modern warfare was exposed as grotesque and hollow in the face of its reality. Old habits died hard, however, and Nevinson couldn’t help indulging in a little more of it himself when he first came home. But he used the Futurist and Vorticist styles in a way which directly refuted such bluster. He gave it what it had never had before – a moral dimension. In the ironically titled La Patrie, his depiction of the dark interior of the hospital shed, he paints the recumbent rows of bodies with sharp angles and uncomfortably jutting elbows and knees. The faces are reduced to masks of open-mouthed pain. The dehumanisation of the Futurist figure here acts as a metaphor fro the way in which war and its concomitant agonies of pain and death reduces men to a deindividuated mass. This can also be seen in the row of stick-like figures, seemingly connected to one another to form a clumsy composite being, trudging along a bleak, featureless path to the front in the black chalk silhouettes of Return to the Trenches (1914).
Nash joined up near the start of the war in the Artists Rifles (he was the only artist in the regiment), but was initially posted on the home front. He was sent over to France with the Hampshire Regiment in 1917, but injured himself in a fall just before he was due to go over the top as part of the second battle of Ypres. He was back there in the winter of 1917 for the third battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, this time as an Official War Artist, part of a scheme which had been set up by the government in June 1916. What he witnessed at Passchendaele prompted a now famous letter back home to his wife Margaret in which his anger and disgust was couched in almost biblically prophetic and revolutionary terms: ‘I am no longer an artist interested and curious’ he wrote to her. ‘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’. Nash depicted the devastation of the war through its effect on the landscape. The bleak new vistas created by massive bombardment and entrenchment laid out onto the hellish, barren world created and maintained between 1914-18. Nash’s blasted landscapes rarely have any human figures in them. If they are present, they are tiny and insignificant outlines in the middle or far distance, hunched up against rain or falling shells. These are lifeless environments in which they are a fleeting, fugitive presence. Chaos Decoratif, a pen, ink and watercolour work from 1917, is like a prelude to the full-blown apocalypse. The woodland it depicts is still intact, green and alive, with only the splintered trunks of a couple of trees and the beginnings of a trench to suggest the proximity of destructive forces. The outline drawing Graves in a Ruined Orchard updates the pastoral and the gothic traditions to bitterly ironic effect. The ruined building is presumably a farmhouse, but might as well be the remains of an old church or abbey. The graves in front of it are new, bodies planted where the apple trees have been uprooted. This is a newly fashioned facsimile of the gothic, the pastoral despoiled. It could almost be seen as a dark wartime sequel to Nash’s pre-war painting The Apple Pickers. The Pill Box depicts the new wartime vernacular architecture, blocklike concrete forms planted incongruously in the landscape. They are the antithesis of natural form, and anticipate Nash’s introduction of surrealist elements into his landscapes in the 30s, as well as his fascination with megaliths.
Paul Nash - The Void (1918)The Void (1918) is one of the major paintings in which Nash reveals the landscape of war in all its churned and blasted devastation, a morass of poisoned mud upon which human attempts to impose some kind of order seem pathetically provisional. Nash draws on some elements of Futurism and Vorticism to depict the zig-zagging boardwalk along which jagged stick figures trudge, and the angular shafts of rain, shell trails and explosive trajectories. Splintered tree stumps loosely rooted in the quagmire are a reminder of a landscape now erased. It is a ghost landscape from which all colour has been drained save for grey, mud browns, a mouldy khaki and the steely blue of the stormy skies. The only hints of brighter colour come in the form of bloodstains on the frosty ground and the patchwork of the camouflage cover on the van, which crashes out of the left hand side of the frame. This draws attention to it rather than disguising it, which may be why it is lying wrecked and useless. The whole scene is like some great dumping ground, with shells and shell-boxes, rifles, wire and broken lengths of duckboard scattered indiscriminately around. In the foreground, a ragged uniform lies splayed out on the ground like a collapsed scarecrow, its human frame gnawed and rotted away to leave this pitiful outline. The wheels of artillery guns provide the sole circular element to the composition. The guns themselves are half-embedded in the mud, making them resemble some new and malignant fungal growth. In the background, a tank crawls along like a steady and sturdy beetle. The outline of a plane against the white clouds of smoke resembles a double-winged dragonfly, a mechanical parody of life. It is seen here as a small element amongst (and contributing to) the general scene of ongoing destruction. As such, it differs from one of Nevinson’s 1917 paintings as an Official War Artist, Spiral Descent. This is a heroic picture of a divebombing biplane suspended in the endless blue, a celebration of aerial derring-do which partially reverts to the old Futurist tendency towards glorying in war and its machineries. Of course, the spiral descent may well be one which is beyond the pilot’s control, a death plunge rather than a daring swoop into a strafing run. The descent of Nash’s plane is silhouetted against a screen of dense smoke. Just above it is the upper arc of what appears to be a large moon. The world of the elements, of monthly and seasonal cycles abides, even if it is currently veiled or buried. Nash hints at its return once the orgy of destruction finally reaches the point of terminal exhaustion.
The war proved a harsh apotheosis for some of the artists in the exhibition, prompting a new intensity of expression which it was subsequently hard to recapture after its end. Nevinson travelled to America, to the Futurists’ dream city of New York, but his aggressively self-aggrandising rhetoric failed to win him any friends or converts there. Temples of New York (1919) shows how naturally the skyscraping cityscape conformed to his artistic vision. Here he could draw or paint pictures which were both Futurist or Vorticist in form, but also simple naturalistic representations of what he saw. The last of his paintings on display here, Studio in Montparnasse (1926), retreats from any trace of modernism, both in terms of style and subject matter. It shows a naked model at rest in front of a large studio window in a luxuriously appointed Parisian garret, and might as well have been painted in the mid to late 19th century. There’s a slight Vorticist element to the angular blocks of the rooftops beyond, but the heavy on either side of the window suggest that this is a scene upon which the curtain could fall at any moment, leaving us with the warmly coloured details of the interior and shutting out the past which to which the exterior alludes for once and all. What renown the painting has seems to lie as much in the fact that it was once owned by H.G.Wells, a plaque on the frame declaring that he donated it in 1927. Nevinson would continue in this conservative mode, even producing landscapes which owed something to the spirit of Paul Nash (as in Silver Estuary from 1925/7, which can be found in Leeds Art Gallery). By the time he died in 1946, 4 years after a debilitating stroke, he had become a somewhat isolated and bitter figure, raging against the state of the world. His work had long since fallen into obscurity. He is now remembered almost exclusively for his powerful wartime paintings, which gained such renown when they were first shown in one man shows at the Leicester Galleries in London in 1916 and 1918.
Bomberg also drew back from his high modernist style in the post-war period, partly due to a lack of recognition in what he saw as a provincial British art world. He lived for a time in Palestine and painted the arid, semi-desert landscapes in the region. He become involved in Zionist efforts to establish a Jewish homeland there, and his propagandistic work towards furthering that end necessitated a simplification of style in order to communicate more directly. Even if he retreated from experimentalism himself, and his work fell into obscurity, he became a dedicated and committed teacher of a new generation of painters when he returned to England. Amongst his pupils at Borough Polytechnic in London in the 40s and 50s were Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff who, as members of the so-called Euston Road school forged a new kind of semi-abstract art.
Nash’s painting The Sea Wall (1919) dates from the time he spent in Dymchurch after the war, essentially recovering from nervous collapse. It’s another depopulated landscape, half transformed by human agency. The fixed concrete geometries set against the flux of the cold, wintry sea have something of a mausoleum air about them. These are like the solidified and inverted forms of the trench spaces, as if Rachel Whiteread had gone back in time to create a monumental memorial. Nash would continue to seek out the spirit of place across the Southern counties, that uncanny quality hanging over certain sites. He would create a kind of English landscape surrealism which perfectly captured it. He was appointed an official war artist in the second world war as he had been in the first, and created memorable images of predatory bombers, tangled contrails and seas filled with the husks of dead German fighter planes (the well-known Totes Meer or Dead Sea). His ill-health caught up with him shortly after the war ended, a long standing asthmatic complaint leading to a final deterioration. His respiratory problems may have had their origins in, or at least been exacerbated by his time in the trenches. Gas, both chlorine and mustard, was first used in Ypres at the time that he was there. Shortly before his death, and in anticipation of it, he painted a series of views of the Wittenham Clumps, which he invested with his and his wife Margaret’s own cyclical solar and lunar symbolism. With these late paintings, he inscribed something of his own most inward and intimate being into the spirit of this place which had meant so much to him.
Spencer incorporated his war experiences into his visionary worldview with the murals he painted for the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire some years after the conflict had ended (they were created over a five year period between 1927 and 1932). He had also been appointed as an Official War Artist, one result of which was Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916 (1919). Here, as in the Sandham paintings, he tried to depict the compassionate side of human nature, the healing of human bodies rather than their destruction. The Sandham murals rather than the official work were his most heartfelt expression of this attempt to find humanity in the barbarous heart of war, and they were humbly hidden away from the general view of all but locals and dedicated pilgrims (religious or art-loving or both). He tried to remain true to his early Cookham visions throughout his life, striving to sustain the spirit in which they’d first come to him with such preternatural clarity. Even when a disastrous romantic liaison forced him to take up unwanted commissions and travel further afield to avoid financial ruin, he still kept coming back. He seemed to retain his owlish innocence in the face of all that life might throw at him, or all that that innocence and wilfully childlike credulity left him open to.
Carrington never fulfilled her artistic promise, having always been crippled by self-doubt. She did find fulfilment in the applied arts, however, rather like Vanessa Bell did during this period. She worked for Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop, decorated the homes she shared with Strachey, and painted signs for shops and pubs near her rural retreats. Gertler never quite gave up on her, although the brief consummation of their relationship, which he had dreamed of for so long, probably also marked the beginning of its end. After embarking on a completely fresh start, seeking out new directions after the war, his artistic confidence declined, and he struggled to regain the certainties and exploratory energy of his youth. Finally, depressed at the lukewarm reaction to his latest exhibition and by the news of the persecution of the Jews on the continent, he committed suiced on 23rd June 1939.
These six lives, tormented and frequently unhappy though they were, left a rich legacy which perfectly illustrates the different directions art was taking in England in the early years of the century, and the ways in which British artists responded to developments on the continent to produce something distinctively their own. Spencer’s reputation has remained firmly established over the years, as has Nash’s to a lesser extent. Their neo-romantic vision has been seen as a peculiarly British blend of modern and traditional values, and therefore acceptable in a country generally hostile to modernism and artistic experiment. Nevinson, Gertler, Carrington and Bomberg have all suffered from neglect, however, falling into obscurity during their lives and after their deaths. Carrington’s name still carries a certain amount of celebrity heft (enough to warrant a singularly titled movie biopic), but this is more to do with her Bloomsbury connections than her artistic achievements. Their attempts to create a modern British art for the new century have generally been judged as a pale shadow of the continental art of the time, part of a general assumption of inferiority and cultural provincialism. They are now being rediscovered and reassessed, however, finding an enthusiastically appreciative new audience (as the crowded Dulwich galleries attested). David Boyd Haycock’s book and this accompanying exhibition have done much to bring their considerable achievements back into the limelight.