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Paul Nash  The Menin Road  (1919, Imperial War Museum)

War Artists –
Paul Nash, CRW Nevinson and the Great War

Report of the lecture given by Dr David Boyd Haycock
on May 27th 2014

Prior to WW1 art was classical, colourful and glorified battles.  Artists did not depict the horror, death and destruction.  Instead war was shown as magnificent and heroic.  This was to change due to the advent of modern techniques in both the art world and the mechanisation of warfare.

Both Nash and Nevinson were born in the same year 1889 in London and were educated at public school progressing to the Slade School of Art.  Henry Tonks, one of their teachers taught his pupils to “observe, observe, observe” and much time was devoted to “life” drawing.  “We are making a new world” was the philosophy of students of the Slade School of Art who were turning from the classical style of painting to the new “modern” styles such as futuristic and cubism.

In 1912 an exhibition of Futuristic / Cubist art was held in London.  These new styles were the art of the modern world; the classical renaissance style loved and revered for many years was being questioned.  A publication named “BLAST” was printed exhorting artists to “blast out the old in order to bring in the new” and it was a belief that war would do this.  Within weeks of its publication, WW1 was declared.

C R W Nevinson A Group of Soldiers
  (1917, Imperial War Museum)

In 1914, Nevinson volunteered for the Friends Ambulance unit and went to Dunkirk thinking that war would be cleansing, but instead was traumatised by the sight of the wounded and badly injured soldiers.

He was invalided out of the army in 1915 due to rheumatism and it was during this year that he painted “La Patrie” a painting depicting the wounded French soldiers who had been left virtually unattended in a barn.  This painting was exhibited in 1916 - the modern cubist style of the painting endorsed the grim reality of what was going on and the immense suffering caused.

“La Mitrailleuse” (The Machine Gun - illustrating soldiers under cover manning a new machine gun) also had a huge impact when exhibited as it portrayed the dehumanisation of war, as men became part of the machine.  These new weapons together with tanks and aeroplanes were replacing the horses of the cavalry charges and hand to hand combat.

Paul Nash enlisted but was not sent to the trenches, instead being deployed as a member of the Home Services whereby young men filled the vacated jobs of the enlisted men.  However, he did undergo officer training after which he was sent to the trenches.  Soon after his arrival, however, he fell into a trench, breaking a rib.  He was sent home to recover.  After this recovery in 1917 he applied to the War Artist Scheme which had been set up by the Government in 1916.

Nash’s talent was painting still life – he rarely included soldiers in his pictures, but the clarity of his work and the effects of the war are no less haunting.  One of his first paintings exhibited that year was “The Farm Wytschaete”, a stark modern work showing the bleak, dead landscape which had been scarred and maimed by the shelling, fighting, and fire.  Land had become the wound, the casualty in his work.

Paul Nash - one of his drawings at Wytschaete in the Ypres Salient area  (1917, Imperial War Museum)

After the war both men each showed signs of suffering from what we now recognise as post-traumatic stress syndrome.  As a result Nevinson did not fully recover his artistic flair.  He continued to paint although his later work was of less consequence.  Nash suffered a nervous breakdown in 1923 from which he eventually recovered and went on to become a war artist in WW2.

Both Nevinson and Nash died in 1946.

C R W Nevinson  Paths of Glory  (1917, Imperial War Museum)

My thanks to Dr Haycock for such an enlightening presentation which left me in no doubt of the horrors of WW1, the modernisation of warfare, the hopelessness of the conflict and of course the legacy with which so many survivors had to live.  It also made me appreciate the drama and directness of modern art in conveying such dramatic events and the important contribution made by both Nash and Nevinson.

Irene Akroyd

Related Links (open in new windows):

David Boyd Haycock's website
Imperial War Museums collections

Dr David Boyd Haycock in conversation with one of our members