“Pulsating with Life”: Young British
Artists and the Great War
- David Boyd Haycock
Nevinson’s machine-gunners were possibly an influence on his former Slade friend, Mark Gertler, who in 1916 produced what would eventually become another defining British image of the Great War. A self-declared pacifist, Gertler never witnessed the war on the Western Front first hand, though he did have experience of German air-raids on London, and the moral pressures put on young men not in uniform. The inspiration for The Merry-Go-Round (1916, Tate Gallery, fig. 2), however, was the colourful Bank-holiday funfair on Hampstead Heath: “Multitudes of people” he told his friend, the artist Dora Carrington. “Bright Feathers, swinging in front of the clouds in coloured boats, coloured ropes a Blaze of whirling colour, the effect … something like a rainbow” . The painting that resulted from this inspiration depicted a carousel of soldiers and civilians, fixed grins or screams on their faces, caught in an endless circus ride from which escape is impossible. It appeared to have a clear pacifist message – though the painting also owed a debt to Futurism: in his “Initial Manifesto”, Marinetti had praised “aggressive movement, feverish insomnia, the double quick step, the somersault, the box on the ear, the fisticuff” . Gertler’s aggressively energetic painting displayed all these traits. (Indeed, another work from this period was of a boxing match). It was an artistic progression well beyond his early still lives and portraits. When his friend, the writer Lytton Strachey, saw the painting in Gertler’s studio in July 1916, he called it “his latest whirligig picture”. “I admired it, of course”, he told the collector and patron Lady Ottoline Morrell, “but as for liking it – one might as well think of liking a machine-gun” .
Like La Mitrailleuse, the painting was included it in a London Group exhibition, though it was largely overlooked by the critics, none of whom saw it as a metaphor for the war’s relentless cycle of violence. It was another of Gertler’s literary friends, the writer D.H. Lawrence, who first perceived its significance. He was sent a photograph of the painting in October, and he told Gertler, “This is the first picture you have ever painted”. He went on:
[…] it is the best modern picture I have seen: I think it is great, and true. But it is horrible and terrifying. I am not sure I wouldn’t be too frightened to come and look at the original.
If they tell you it is obscene, they will say truly. ... I do think that in this combination of blaze, and violent mechanical rotation and complex involution, and ghastly, utterly mindless human intensity of sensational extremity, you have made a real and ultimate revelation. I think this picture is your arrival — it marks a great arrival. ... I realise how superficial your human relationships must be, what a violent maelström of destruction and horror your inner soul must be. It is true, the outer life means nothing to you, really. You are all absorbed in the violent and lurid processes of inner decomposition ... It is a terrifying coloured flame of decomposition, your inner flame.
To Lawrence, the painting was a real indication of who Gertler was, of what he was experiencing in the horror of the war – albeit as a civilian – of the “ecstasy of destructive sensation” that must be burning inside the tormented young painter: “I have for you, in your work, reverence, the reverence for the great articulate extremity of art” .
By this stage in the War the British army was no longer able to fill its depleted ranks with volunteers, and early in 1916 the government passed conscription Acts. Gertler registered as a conscientious objector; he told a friend that if was conscripted, at least he would be given a gun that he could use to finish himself off. (He would subsequently commit suicide in 1939). His poor health, however, would keep him out of any form of military service. Nevinson, following his return from the Front in early 1915, had subsequently volunteered with the Royal Army Medical Corps; but he too had no wish to be sent to France as a soldier. His escape from military service came with the establishment by the government of a scheme to employ artists to record the war.
The Official War Artists scheme had received official backing in June 1916, largely through the efforts of the Scottish printmaker, Muirhead Bone . His suggestion that artists be sent to France to record the War met a need that had been noted in a wide number of circles. “What a pity it is that practically no pictorial records of the war have been made by competent eye-witnesses”, a Slade student had written in the UCL Magazine in March 1916: “the Authorities apparently grant few facilities to experienced men to visit the battle line” . Things started to change in 1916. With the honorary rank of second lieutenant and an annual salary of £500, Bone was sent to the Front as the first Official War Artist; he arrived on the Somme in August and immediately set to work. Over the next two and a half years many more artists either asked, or were invited, to join the programme. Among the first were Bone’s brother-in-law, Francis Dodd, followed by Eric Kennington and William Orpen.
Bone liked what he had seen of Nevinson’s war work. Masterman, too, felt there was “no doubt he has genius … I think he might do some work original in character but quite remarkable in substance” . Masterman was also impressed by Nevinson himself: “He is a desperate fellow and without fear”, he told the author, John Buchan, who was employed as the Director of the Department of Information, “only anxious to crawl into the front line and draw things full of violence and terror” . Nevinson’s talent for imitation was remarkable: he could play the role of war hero, but this was hardly an accurate impression. With his father (and possibly Marsh) at work behind the scenes, at the end of June 1917 Richard was accepted into the War Artists scheme. He would not, however, receive either salary or rank: his income would be generated solely by the sale of his work, of which the government would get first choise. Dressed in his father’s war correspondent uniform and with a press brassard on his arm, he arrived in France at the beginning of July, where he was provided with a car and driver.
As Masterman gave the Official Artists free rein, Nevinson was uncertain what exactly was expected of him. “Nevinson and Kennington have continually asked me for instructions as to what they should draw”, Masterman observed in October, “but I have always taken the view that it is not for a Government Department to attempt to regulate artists in their work, art being so largely individual in expression” . This was a commendable attitude. The Official War Artists were not simply producing propaganda; they were there to make historical records, too. It was hoped, furthermore, that this independence would highlight British traits of autonomy, in distinction to what was considered the authoritarianism of Prussian Kultur. This, if anything, was one of the high-minded British ideals behind the war . The British avant garde would storm the moral high ground.