Bleak Great War Paintings From the Vain Nevinson

Of all the follies and horrors that were inflicted upon mankind in the last century, none brought more malevolent consequences than the First World War (1914 to 1918). Prior to World War II, it was called the Great War, but it was great only in the stupendous loss of life and treasure it incurred and in the even greater catastrophes it brought in its wake–foremost among them Communism, Fascism and the hot and cold wars required to cope with the human devastation they had wrought. Which is why some of us are disinclined to feel anything resembling nostalgia for the century that ended on Dec. 31, 1999.

Almost as much time now separates us from that Great War as separated the war itself from the Napoleonic era, yet we are still learning new things about its consequences–especially, perhaps, its cultural consequences. Like the Napoleonic era, the First World War had an immense impact on literary, artistic and social thought throughout the Western world, and it is for the peculiar light it casts on that subject that the exhibition called C.R.W. Nevinson: The Twentieth Century , which has now come to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, is of special interest.

Charles Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946) was said to be “the most talked-about artist in Great Britain” in his heyday, and it was his pictures of the Great War that won him that distinction. By all accounts, however, Nevinson was not himself an especially endearing character. “In his youth,” writes Richard Ingleby in the catalogue of the Yale show, “he claimed to have cut a dashing figure, though by his own description, ‘I was always fat, ugly, indifferent and promiscuous.'” Vain and quarrelsome, by turns boastful and quick to voice a grievance, he was constantly rewriting the script of his own life. The bellicose memoirs he published in 1937 under the title, Paint and Prejudice –the echoes of Jane Austen were deliberate and woefully ill-advised–are correctly characterized by Mr. Ingleby as “an unappealing mixture of self-importance and self-pity.” They are certainly not to be relied upon as an account of anything but the artist’s prejudices, which inevitably made any lasting alliances with artists of his own generation an impossibility.

Yet for a brief period immediately preceding the outbreak of war in August 1914, Nevinson was much in the limelight as a leader of the London avant-garde. In June 1914, he collaborated with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the leader of the Italian Futurist movement, on a manifesto designed to create a kindred movement in England. Published in the London Observer , this ill-timed document was entitled “Vital English Art: A Futurist Manifesto” and called for “an English art that is strong, virile and antisentimental.” It was their intention, Marinetti said, “to cure English art of that most grave of maladies–passéism,” and he hailed Nevinson as “an English Futurist painter” who was joining him “to give the signal for battle.”

Military metaphors came easily to the Italian Futurists, who made an ideological romance of violence and war, and this was the absurd program that Nevinson naïvely embraced as an artistic idea on the eve of the carnage he would soon be experiencing firsthand at the battlefront in France. When the war came, he was eager to participate, but ill health prevented him from joining the army. He therefore signed on as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in France and also attended the wounded as a male nurse. “I had seen sights so revolting that man seldom conceives them in his mind,” he later wrote of this experience, “and there was no shrinking even among the more sensitive of us. We could only help, ignore the shrieks, pus, gangrene and the disemboweled.”

This was the experience that transformed the posturing disciple of Futurism into the most celebrated antiwar artist of his day. Inevitably, his fragile health failed him under the strain, and by 1915 he was back in London, producing the war pictures that made him famous. Later that year, after his first exhibition of these paintings, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, ministering to shellshocked casualties in a London hospital–”the worst job I ever tackled,” he later said–but he was discharged when he came down with rheumatic fever. In 1917, he had sufficiently recovered to be taken on as an official artist by the War Office, and returned once again to France–but now, as one of the most renowned artists of his day, whose paintings of the war had won the admiration of such disparate eminences as Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw.

What is important to understand about Nevinson’s war paintings is that they are not the work of a confirmed pacifist. Nevinson clearly believed that England was fighting for a noble cause in the war. Yet he also believed that it was important to face up to the human costs which fighting for such a cause sometimes entailed. Even on that score, however, his antiwar sentiments are tempered by a disinclination to depict its worst horrors. While his war paintings are consistently bleak, they are rarely horrific.

There are thus very few paintings in the Yale exhibition that give us a graphic glimpse of those “sights so revolting that man seldom conceives them in his mind.” One is The Doctor (1916), which derives directly from Nevinson’s experience of attending the wounded. Another is Paths of Glory (1917), which depicts the corpses of English soldiers in the barbed-wire muck of the battlefield. This was one of the few paintings the War Office attempted to censor. Elsewhere, Nevinson’s principal subjects are the regimentation and squalor and boredom of the war at the front–in other words, its dehumanization but not its physical violence.

The fact is, the war was a great boon to Nevinson, but it was also his undoing. It made him famous, but it left him without a peacetime subject that was as compelling as the war had been. After the war, he turned to urban themes for his subjects, and produced some very engaging pictures of New York City, for example, but those images of the Brooklyn Bridge and the harbor with the Statue of Liberty are clearly the work of a cultural tourist. His paintings of Paris in the 1920’s are similarly touristic in spirit. And when, in the 1930’s, he attempted to address the subject of Fascism in his paintings, the results were little more than pictorial cartoons.

The most pleasurable of Nevinson’s paintings are, alas, the earliest–the pictures he was producing under the influence of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism before he acquired a taste for the pseudo-Cubism of the Italian Futurists. It was an illustrational mode of this Cubo-Futurist style that he brought to his war paintings. These were just modernist enough to win the support of the avant-garde and illustrational enough to win the support of the philistines. If not for Marinetti and the Great War, Nevinson would very likely have enjoyed the career of a very conventional painter of landscapes and portraits. He was, in this respect, a casualty of both the modernist avant-garde and of the war itself. Yet as an episode in the cultural history of the Great War, his war paintings are still of considerable interest–but as much for what they omit as for what they depict.

C.R.W. Nevinson: The Twentieth Century , which was organized by the Imperial War Museum in London, remains on view at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven through May 7.