The British soldier artists of the Great War confronted a world in which nature itself seemed a victim.
Everybody seems to agree that 1916 was the turning point of the Great War. It was the middle year of the war, and in the middle of that year the crucial battle began that changed Allied fortunes. The year had scarcely ended when the London Times‘ war correspondent put his 1916 dispatches together in a book titled The Turning Point: The Battle of the Somme. “It is to the Battle of the Somme,” he wrote, “that historians of future ages will point as the turning point in the war.” But in retrospect one can see that there were many turnings in that mid war year, and that the turn along the Somme was not the most important one. There was a turn in the ways in which civilians were brought into contact with the war. The zeppelin raids had begun by then, and so had U-boat attacks on nonmilitary vessels. There were the combat casualties–more than a million empire dead, wounded, or missing on the Western Front by the end of 1916, roughly half of them in the Somme offensive. There was conscription, which drew a wider range of young men into military service. There were changes in the governance of the war: Kitchener, the war secretary, was dead and Asquith, the prime minister, was out of office.
The Times man was certainly right–1916 was the fulcrum of the war. But the turning was a more complex and less encouraging business than he had imagined. After 1916 the war looked different, but not because a great victory had been won along the Somme.
The most striking turn, and the one that most affected the way the war was perceived (and still is), occurred in poetry and the visual arts. It happened in 1916, but not because of the Somme fighting of any other particular battle; it was simply that by the end of the Somme offensive, a number of young men who had gone to the war thinking that they were poets or painters had had experience of what this war was like for the men who fought in it. Many of the young poets fought along the Somme; the young painters were mostly somewhere else. But wherever they were, they learned about the war.
What they learned was that this war could not be written about or painted in the old ways. War was not a series of heroic individual acts, but a kind of machine that destroyed everything it touched–men, animals, equipment, towns and villages, the earth itself. To render it truly, the poet and the painter would have to turn away from glory and write about or paint the ruination, the unfamiliarity of war.
The turn in painting first appeared in a London gallery in the spring of 1916, when a young artist named C.R.W. Nevinson exhibited three war paintings in a group show. He had never been a combat soldier, but he had been on the Western Front as an ambulance driver and as a private in the Medical Corps. He had seen no major battles and had not fired a shot, but he had seen the casualties and the destruction. He came back believing that “war was now dominated by machines, and that men were mere cogs in the mechanism,” and that is what he painted. La Mitrailleuse (The Machine Gun) is a good example; one critic said of it: “This is modern war, the man a machine, the machine almost a man, no hint of humanity or pity about it, just war, the object of which is to kill.”
In his first one-man show, in the autumn of 1916, Nevinson returned to this point of war-as-a-machine in several paintings and drawings, including Column on the March and Returning to the Trenches, pictures of massed men in motion. The troops in these pictures move mechanically, but they are returning to the trenches, they know what is waiting for them there; so that if these are paintings of machines, they are machines that understand and suffer.
Nevinson’s show was a huge success: All of fashionable London came, every picture was sold, and the reviews were enthusiastic. What the critics praised was just that mechanical quality that I have noted. One critic wrote:
Perhaps unconsciously, Mr. Nevinson has succeeded in all his pictures in finding a symbolic equivalent for this war of vast and cruel mechanism. The soldiers themselves look as though they were the component parts of a formidable engine, drawn together by some irresistible force of attraction.
Clearly a change of consciousness had occurred. And that change was related to a new set of images: visual forms for imagining war in a new unheroic, antiromantic, mechanized way.
In the summer of 1916, while Nevinson was working on the pictures for his exhibition, a politician who knew nothing about art was organizing a government scheme that would have a profound effect on English painting.
C.F.G. Masterman was a former Cabinet minister who had been put in charge of official propaganda. In the spring of 1916 he was visited by a literary agent (or perhaps by a painter, accounts differ), who remarked that the well-known etcher Muirhead Bone had been called up for the army, and that his gifts might be wasted in an infantry platoon. Masterman later asked his wife who Muirhead Bone was, and out of that conversation was born the idea of official war artists.
Bone was an obvious choice, even though Masterman had never heard of him. He had made his reputation as an etcher of views, mainly of historic European cities: He was good at drawing architecture and architectural ruins. He was also fond of landscapes, and especially of those that had an English look about them–views, that is, that reminded him of the romantic landscapes that are the great achievement of English painting.
Bone was commissioned in August 1916 and went immediately to France. It is important, I think, that he went to war for the first time as an artist: He had not learned to see with a soldier’s eye, as Nevinson had. He went in the same spirit in which he had gone to Rome, and he found similar subjects: ruined churches and chateaus, poplar lined roads, and distant landscapes with sometimes the smoke of battle on the horizon. He drew actual trenches on only two or three occasions; no doubt they seemed unpictorial to him, being so shapeless and so unarchitectural.
Two hundred of Bone’s drawings were published, in 10 monthly parts, beginning late in 1916–each part with an introductory essay and a commentary on each picture by C.E. Montague (who would later write the bitter and influential war book Disenchantment). The parts cost a shilling each, so almost anyone could afford them, and for many English people they must have represented what the war really looked like. Bone and Montague agreed that what it looked like was England: The drawings and the commentaries depict the war in familiarizing English terms. Montague’s introduction to the first part begins: “The British line in France and Belgium runs through country of three kinds, and each kind is like a part of England,” and Bone’s drawings support that idea.
Take, as an example, Battle of the Somme: Mametz Village and Wood. This is war-as-landscape, in the most traditional of landscape forms, the hilltop vista. The scene might be the downlands of Wiltshire or Dorset. The seated spectator (seemingly the artist at work) is a romantic convention–you’ll find him in Constable landscapes and in Victorian landscape prints. He represents the viewer of the picture, who is simply another spectator, standing farther back. He confirms that what they are both observing is worth looking at, and that the right relation to it is a viewing relation: That’s what landscapes are for. It is a drawing that has everything to do with landscape, and nothing really to do with the war being fought there.
Bone’s pictures succeeded in England–that is, they achieved what the Ministry of Information wanted: They made the war familiar and they provided images of war that contained neither the dead nor the suffering living. But they failed in France. After the first two parts of Bone’s drawings (titled The Western Front and The Somme Battlefield) appeared, the poet Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother:
They want to call No Man’s Land “England” because we keep supremacy there. It is like the eternal place of gnashing of teeth; the Slough of Despond could be contained in one of its crater-holes; the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah could not light a candle to it-to find the way to Babylon the Fallen.
It is pock-marked like a body of foulest disease and its odour is the breath of cancer.
I have not seen any dead. I have done worse. In the dank air I have perceived it, and in the darkness felt. Those “Somme Pictures” are the laughing stock of the army-like the trenches on exhibition in Kensington.
No Man’s Land under snow is like the face of the moon chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness. To call it “England”!
What Owen is describing here–and by implication demanding of war artists–is a radically defamiliarized land scape, absolutely unlike England or any other landscape on earth. But he is also demanding that it be moral landscape, a new allegory of the evil, the horror, and the ugliness of war. You can see the problem for the artist: How is one to paint pictures that will be entirely strange and yet express moral judgments? It was a problem that Bone had not solved, and could not, because he had not been a soldier.
Bone had come straight from civilian life to his role as the first official war artist. Subsequent appointments came mainly from the forces: The Nash brothers, Paul and John, were infantry officers in France; Wyndham Lewis and William Roberts were in the artillery there; Stanley Spencer served as a hospital orderly in Macedonia, and his brother Gilbert worked in a hospital in Sinai; Henry Lamb was a medical officer in Palestine. Some of them had returned to England as casualties and were sent back as artists (Paul Nash and Eric Kennington were two); others were simply detached from their units and assigned to record the war as artists (Lewis and Roberts ); still others were commissioned to paint their versions of the war when they returned to England. Whatever the procedure, the result was the same: Masterman had gathered a group of war artists who had seen and felt war before they painted it.
By seeking out artists who had known the war, Masterman was shaping his war–artists program in two crucial ways. First, he was making sure that they would be young painters. Of the soldier artists I have mentioned, none was over 31 when the war began, and most were in their twenties; the youngest, William Roberts, was only 19. A few, like Lewis and Nevinson, had begun to make reputations before the war, but most had only recently begun to paint professionally. Because they were young, they were likely to be modernists–aware of the avant-garde movement away from literal representation and toward distortion and fragmentation of reality.
The movement had begun in France and spread across Europe in the years before the war. It had various names: cubism, futurism, post impressionism, vorticism. Nevinson had been a futurist, influenced by an Italian group that emphasized force and energy , and celebrated modern machinery and the violence of war. Lewis was a vorticist leader of the English movement resembling futurism in its love of machinery and destructive force, and in its use of half-abstract geometric forms. But whatever label they used, they all shared the sense that a radically new kind of art had arrived, and had made the past irrelevant and obsolete.
The second consequence of Master man’s decision to use soldier artists was that their paintings would draw upon direct experience, not upon the stock of conventional images of past military art. He imposed no limits on what that rendered experience should be: When Nevinson asked if there was any subject he should avoid, Master man replied: “No, no. Paint anything you please.” And so they did.
It is a paradox that though Master man commissioned these experienced soldier artists to render the war directly, the best of their war paintings were not realistic in the ordinary sense. They went to work as war artists with two kinds of knowledge in their heads: knowledge of war and of the fragmenting, mechanistic, reality-distorting vision of modernism. And they found that in the world of war those kinds of knowledge did not conflict. So Paul Nash, in a letter home from the front, could write: “I begin to believe in the Vorticist doctrine of destruction almost,” and Wyndham Lewis, who had gone to France already believing in that doc trine, found that war, “especially those miles of hideous desert known as ‘the Line ‘ in Flanders and France , presented me with a subject-matter so consonant with the austerity of that ‘abstract’ vision I had developed, that it was an easy transition.”
A modernist method that before the war had seemed violent and distorting was seen to be realistic on the Western Front. Modernism had not changed; but reality had.
The pictures that these young modernists painted of the war are mainly landscapes–paintings, that is, of the earth’s surface–but with fundamental differences . You can see those differences in three examples: Nevinson’s Over the Lines, Lewis’s A Battery Shelled, and Paul Nash’s We Are Making a New World. Space is derationalized and defamiliarized in these pictures: The earth is seen from a great height, or from a position at ground level or below; the background is left empty, or disappears, so that distance doesn’t run out to a horizon line but simply disintegrates.
On the earth, in these pictures, there are no example s of architecture, no aesthetically pleasing ruins, no signs of previous human habitation. More than that, there are no natural forms–no trees that retain the shape of trees, no natural bodies of water , not even natural shapes in the earth itself. In some of the pictures, human figures are altogether absent; in others they are rendered as insignificant or are distorted and mechanized. There is no appreciative spectator to these scenes, as there is in Bone’s Battle of the Somme. You might say that he isn’t there because if he were he would be killed; but he’s also not there because these are not scenes to which appreciation is an appropriate response.
Nothing in these pictures recalls the English landscape tradition; the world they render is beyond landscape. “No pen or drawing can convey this country,” Nash wrote home in 1917.
Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man , only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all through the bitter black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease.
This is a very pictorial description, but it isn’t a landscape; it is rather an antilandscape, like the antilandscape Owen described in his letter about Bone’s Somme Pictures. It is as though the war had annihilated Nature, and with it the whole tradition of romantic landscape, and had left an emptiness. (One of Nash’s war paintings is titled simply Void, and his first postwar exhibit was called Void of War.)
The best of the English war painters solved the formal problem of how to paint the annihilated nature of war by adopting the anti-naturalistic conventions of modernism. But a further problem remained that was not formal: A painter might see the war as a modernist, but he could not help feeling it as a man. “I am no longer an artist interested and curious,” Nash wrote to his wife, “I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”
And how do you paint that?
Nash’s solution was not a polemical one. He continued to paint his geometric, unpopulated war pictures, without visible anger or pity. But this does not mean that he was not painting his feelings about war; he was simply doing so in his own way. Before the war Nash had been developing as a painter of symbolic landscapes in the manner of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, and if you keep that in mind, then his trench-scapes seem bitter comments on his own romantic vision, and on the whole romantic tradition in painting, which the war refuted.
To make sure that his viewers did not miss his point, Nash began to give his paintings titles that bitterly and ironically evoked the lost landscape tradition: Meadow with Copse (a shell pocked no-man’s-land with a few shattered tree trunks), landscape: Year of Our lord 1917 (where the irony is in both parts of the title), and We Are Making a New World (more shell holes, more dead trees, and a sun that rises from–or sets into–a bank of blood red clouds).
Nevinson’s solution was more direct. He began to do figure paintings that were not at all geometric or abstract or futurist–of a child killed in an air raid, a shell-shocked soldier, a doctor at a first-aid station. These pictures seem intentionally clumsy and representational compared with his earlier futurist paintings, but he considered them both important and new–not in technique, which seemed not to matter to him, but in what they said. Of The Doctor he wrote that “this picture quite apart from how it is painted expresses an absolutely NEW outlook on the so-called ‘sacrifice’ of war which up to the present is only felt by privates and a few officers who are to all purposes inarticulate . . . .”
In other pictures Nevinson focused on the noncombatants at home and did satirical portraits with titles like War Profiteers (two painted, overdressed young women, perhaps prostitutes) and He Gained a Fortune but He Gave a Son (a portly man, no doubt an industrialist). These are pictures that express the soldiers’ hostility toward civilians; in subjects and tone they are close to the poems of Siegfried Sassoon.
Nevinson did not abandon trench scenes altogether, but in the last years of the war he sometimes painted them in a more representational style than he had formerly used. That style got him into trouble in March 1918, when a new exhibition of his paintings opened in London. Among the pictures was one titled Paths of Glory, which was labeled and hung but which no one saw: It was covered with brown paper and marked “Censored.” It is a picture of the front as one might see it from the parapet of a trench-the shell-torn earth, the barbed wire; but on that dead earth there are two dead English soldiers. To my knowledge, it is the first war painting by an English artist that realistically shows dead men; not war, but what the dead really look like–a Landscape with Corpses.
Nevinson had committed two offenses in exhibiting his picture as he did: He had violated a government regulation forbidding representation of the dead; and he had also violated a regulation that forbade the unofficial use of the term Censored.
A few months later William Orpen, an older, “civilian” war artist, but a very good one, exhibited a painting of even deader soldiers–that is, of corpses in a more advanced state of decomposition–without any official opposition. But his picture was titled Dead Germans in a Trench. Apparently it was all right to paint the dead, so long as they were German dead.
In any case, by mid-1917 the Information Ministry had begun to shift the focus of its art program from propaganda to history. In the last years of the war, these painters began to establish a new tradition, as the war poets were also doing. There were publications of their pictures (Modern War Paintings in 1917, British Artists at the Front in 1918) and there were exhibitions (Nevinson again in March 1918, Nash in May, Orpen in July). By the end of the war’s fourth year, one could have seen, in London at least, a number of war paintings in the new tradition.
In these paintings one would have seen two turnings, the end of two older traditions. The more conservative painters represented the end of the notion that war was a studio subject, based on slight observation or none, and the beginning of a new realism that came out of direct experience and did not separate the artist from the soldier. The more experimental artists recorded another kind of turn: the end of romantic nature, and of its visual expression, the romantic landscape.
On the Western Front, Nature was dead–not simply in the sense that growing things could not survive the destruction there, but in the sense that the Wordsworthian idea of natural benevolence had died. And if Nature was dead, then landscape painting was dead too. The paintings of men like Nash, Nevinson, and Lewis are not landscapes; they are more like elegies for the death of landscape.
What had happened by the war’s end was that the actual experience of war by artists had compelled a turn of imagination-a turn that had necessary consequences for the forms in which the war was represented in art. If those new forms seemed modernist, avant-garde, vorticist, as they did in many war paintings, that was because the war seemed to confirm the experimental visions of prewar art. But they were modern in a different way. “There is nothing there [at the front) you can not imagine,” Lewis wrote to his civilian friend Ezra Pound,” but it has the unexpected quality of reality. Also the imagined thing and the felt are in two different categories.”
The merely imaginary had become felt reality on the Western Front. The best war painters responded to that reality in ways that were like modernism, but different. The difference distinguished the soldier, who had been there, from the civilian, who could only imagine. It also distinguished the new war art from previous images of war. It was an art made out of ruined, disfigured Nature, out of ugliness; but it was something else-an art that testified to what war had done, to men, to the earth, and to traditional ideas of art. MHQ
SAMUEL HYNES is the author of A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture, from which this article is adapted. Published in Britain by The Bodley Head, the book will be released in the United States in June by Atheneum.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 1991 issue (Vol. 3, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Death of Landscape
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