First World War Portraits

This compact little exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is an ideal reintroduction to some of the protagonists of the First World War.  First there are the monarchs: the Tsar, the Kaiser, the Emperor, and King George V with their stately mien, flashes of gold and military accoutrements – accompanied by a small and pathetic photograph of the young Serb who brought three of them down.

Orpen Haig

Next door there are the military leaders (Haig above, Foch below right) – most, it seems, dragged out of semi-retirement.  William Orpen was chosen to immortalise them, his flattering impressionistic style making them appear distinguished yet human, the honours pinned to their uniform the only flash of bright colour. Orpen is an often forgotten name in British art; it is good to see here how he earned his once impressive reputation.


Accompanying the leaders are a few selected pictures of the ‘ordinary soldier’ – one also by Orpen, the Grenadier Guardsman facing his superiors alike in stance, from a canvas of equal size.  Others show Tommies in action in the trenches: crouched below the tangle of barbed wire firing a machine gun in C.R.W. Nevinson’s angular, futurist style ‘La Mitrailleuse’ – and the aftermath in ‘The Dead Stretcher-Bearer’ by Gilbert Rogers (below). In the central display cabinet these glorified or explicit portraits are countered by postcards of these same figures that were widely produced and disseminated, small, disposable or collectable – and back in 1914-18 not confined to the rarefied halls of the gallery.


Churchill portrait by William Orpen 1916Through the entryway into the large final space one is confronted by Orpen’s 1916 life-size three-quarter length portrait of a very gloomy Churchill. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill had just suffered the ignominy of the defeat at Gallipoli, for which he was consequently forced to resign from government. It is more powerful than any of the satisfied elderly ‘hero of the nation’ portraits that followed, and works here to conjure up exactly the feeling of tense uncertainty that every man in power must have felt as each offensive increased the vast list of the dead and the position returned again to stalemate.


At the far end of the room entitled, melodramatically, ‘The Valiant and the Damned’ there is a wall of digitised photographs of a diverse selection of participants in the war, from Mata Hari and Wilfred Owen to the first black officer in the British Army. On the right of this are portraits of a number of ‘heroes’ of the war, whose personal stories of bravery are fascinating to read; on the left are some pictures by official war artists of the actual conditions facing the unlucky casualties of trench warfare, such as Eric Kennington’s ‘Gassed and Wounded’ (above). There is also a small and graphic display of Henry Tonks’ – now well-documented, but until recently not available to public view – pastel portraits of plastic surgery patients alongside the medical photographs showing the progress of the treatment.


In contrast to the documentary realism of such official British war art, the curator has inserted a few German Expressionist paintings inspired by the conflict which show how the chaotic situation in Germany conversely encouraged radical modernism to flourish. Kirchner’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Soldier’ (above), all jagged forms and intense, nauseating colour, places the war in the context of a disillusioned and decadent Berlin. It is an interesting juxtaposition to end on: Epstein’s ‘Rock Drill’ (below) stands at the entrance/exit, a forceful statement of a pre-war modernism that was quenched – the robotic sculpture literally amputated – by the allied reaction to the horror of the first mechanised war.

Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' 1913-14 by Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959

Concerning Colour

There is no arguing against the fact that the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny is an ugly example of 1970s architecture.  But its functionalist concrete and institutional brown carpets are currently lit up by a collection of the most intensely coloured paintings of the twentieth century.  The title is also misleading: ‘Van Gogh, Picasso, Kandinsky…’ – when there is only one Picasso and one Van Gogh in the whole exhibition, and they are not even the most characteristic, being among the least colourful.  Why this necessity to promote only the most famous names, already profusely exhibited, when the real heart of the collection and the exhibition are the German Expressionists and Fauves?  And this exceptional combination is the real attraction of the show – such a perfectly chosen juxtaposition is only matched by the uppermost rooms of the Courtauld Gallery in my (limited) opinion.

Here, Kirchner escapes the dissipated streets of Berlin, the ultra-chic women with sharp bobs and pointed shoes who, against nauseous acid colours, in their black angularity stalk like sinister crows.  Here are displayed the light-hearted pleasures of modernity – the unicycle! – the zesty neon green embodying the freshness and vitality of the countryside.

It is a joy to see the Murnau paintings of KandUinsky, von Jawlensky and Gabriele Munter.  The pure, saturated colours gleaned from the Bavarian countryside more than equal those of the south of France.

The colours play off against one another, catching the blaze of late afternoon sun.  The flashes of board and sketchy marks of wax crayon at the contours of the tree trunks admit the spontaneity and intuition of the artist – though cannot match the skill which Derain converts the negativity of bare canvas to the positive as dazzling white light, the substance of the pigment consequently – and paradoxially – made recessive.

These illustrate the science of Chevreul developed almost dogmatically, though startling in its visual impact.  In contrast, I enjoy how well the clash of pink and red and a mop of a black turban make such a good portrait.