Beauty from the horrors of war

The revival of BRLSI’s History and Culture group continues apace, tonight with a subject that included both history and culture – British artists in the First World War. The speaker could hardly have been more appropriate (or eminent) – Professor Paul Gough (pictured above), broadcaster, painter, writer and Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of the West of England, who’s just published a book on the subject entitled A Terrible Beauty.
Prof Gough began by pointing out that the idea of beauty from war is, on the face of it, an oxymoron, before explaining how a disparate group of artists proved that art does have a role in portraying even the worst of horrors. Not all were official War Artists – many were serving soldiers, some of whom had been taught to draw by the army for reconnaissance work, while others clamoured to get to the Western Front only after the fighting was safely over.
Among the professional artists who did go during the war was Richard Nevinson, pugnacious and widely disliked but also the archetypal modern artist, whose angular, futurist paintings captured the danger hiding in empty spaces in a battle zone. Stanley Spencer had fought Nevison (literally) at the Slade, before graduating to a more peaceful life painting swans at Cookham, but service as an orderly in military hospitals in Bristol and Macedonia had him painting the outcome of conflict – the injured and dying – before taking on his most famous commission, the Memorial Chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire.
Paul Nash, Prof Gough told us, spent the pre-war years painting ‘vapid’ watercolours, but war brought something out in him and he became one of the greatest British painters of the early 20th century, albeit at the price of an early death from asthma brought on by war conditions. William Orpen, meanwhile, had made a fortune painting society portraits before going to the Front out of patriotic duty. He was thwarted in his ambition to paint the ultimate interpretation of the war by the American John Singer Sargent, who began by asking if the troops fought on Sundays, but ended by painting Gassed, the 18-feet wide leitmotif of the Great War.
Prof Gough’s richly illustrated talk covered many other artists, including the ‘rather terrifying’ Percy Wyndham Lewis, later founder of the Vorticist movement and editor of its magazine, Blast (subject of a BRLSI lecture last year), John Nash, painter of the famous Over the Top, and Percy Smith, whose Dance of Death etchings are surprisingly rare examples of overtly anti-war messages in the art of the time. The most striking aspect of the works shown was how modern most of them seemed – but of course this was the era of modernism, a subject we’ll be hearing more about at BRLSI in October (see below). In the meantime, Prof Gough’s talk gave us an excellent insight into art, and artists, of all schools in the most terrible of contexts.
• BRLSI is holding a Modernism Weekend on Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th October 2010, organised by BRLSI’s Literary and Humanities convenor, Dr Robert Blackburn.