Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Great War in Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

Jules Gervais Courtellemont, 1916 
Cultural review shows entertain and repel me in equal measure. Sometimes the cynical, world weariness of these self satisfied know-it-all critics make me laugh. Few, however, provoke a such a negative reaction that I run along, at the nearest opportunity, to the thing being reviewed. The conversation between Rachel Cooke and the host on BBC4's Front Row (Peter Gabriel; Paco Peña; Helen Oyeyemi; Great War in art; Mark Thomas) was uninformed and utterly disgraceful. After a polite twitter exchange with Ms Cooke, I went down to one of the convenient late night openings.

The exhibition in question is the Great War in Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. It is part of the nationwide effort to celebrate and remember the Great War. It sets out various themes around portraits; from the king to the tommy; to the boringly conventional portrait to emerging modernism; from the state portrait to the medical photograph. As the site says, 'in viewing the First World War through images of the many individuals involved, The Great War in Portraits looks at the radically different roles, experiences and, ultimately, destinies of those caught up in the conflict'.

Before I come on to my thoughts, I want to briefly summarise what she said. It was a 'disappointing and perfunctory show' which failed to live up to the title; 'although there are some amazing things in it, the whole is a hotchpotch where the narrative and priorities are odd'. Ms Cooke stated that the first room is 'a total waste of time, [images of the] old order, with King George, Franz Josef and Kaiser, huge stately portraits' and the exhibition only improves when the war is underway. She recommends you don't make a special trip to London to see it. Well no, I get why you wouldn't, but surely you would combine it with a trip to the cenotaph, the IWM and turn it into a 'Great War' odyssey if that was your thing.

For me, the exhibition both started and ended with Jacob Epstein's Rock Drill (1913-15). The NPG, in an inspired move, set the human versus military scene with this iconic bronze. On the one hand you have its supercilious arrogant gaze, then on the other you have its 1916 amended form where the artist discarded the drill, dismembered the figure and cut it in half, leaving a one-armed torso. A solid echo of the 'Selbstbildnis als Soldat (Self-portrait as a Soldier)' (1915) by Ludwig Kirchner later in the show. The European-wide generals and military leaders in that first room were as inhuman as Rock Drill and made my eyes prick with frustrated tears. The arrogance, incompetence and the knowledge of the resultant waste of lives was an empathic leap too far for me.

It is a tiny exhibition which manages to cram in so much. People have stressed the human scale of this show, but it seems to reflect those four years which were short in time but long on violence, social, medical, technological change. In using portraits to unfold the narrative, people can recognise commanders such as Haig, Foch and Hindenburg, as well as identify artists including Orpen, Sickert and Nevinson. All of these names should be familiar due to the many TV programmes about the war. But to see them in their colourful, moustachioed, fleshy, eye witness context, gives them new power to move.

I prefer podcasts to TV and Dan Carlin's Hardcore History on this topic is dramatic and enthralling. I have been able to re-listen to his telling and put faces to these major names. More importantly I was able to add faces to the faceless. And that is the beauty of this exhibition. I would agree with the NPG that 'heroes and medal-winners are shown alongside the wounded and the fallen, representing the bitter-sweet nature of a war in which valour and selfless endeavour were qualified by disaster and suffering'. By the time I went in to the Valiant and the Damned room with its proud doomed airmen, grief stricken stretcher bearers and the brave Everyman and Everywoman, I was strangely tearless and wished I'd known these extraordinary people.

The other two items to note was the film footage from The Battle of the Somme (1916) and the final piece of the exhibition, the photograph by Jules Gervais Courtellemont depicting a deserted, battle-scarred landscape. The NPG say that this is 'the only work in the exhibition not to depict people, this poignant image is, in effect, a portrait of absence. The film was presented to the public as propaganda and minimised death and carnage. However the photo is death and carnage. The two pieces stand as a contrasting artistic monument to those events 100 years ago.

The host was stunned that Ms Cooke had not been moved by the exhibition in question. And indeed, so was I. Next time, Front Row, interview someone with an interest, a connection or some knowledge of the topic in question and ensure you do justice to one of the most human/humane artistic recreations of a terrible and awful moment in European history.

The Great War in Portraits runs at the NPG til the 5th June 2014 where it moves to the IWM.

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