Issue Number: 119
The First World War collided with a wave of brilliant young artists who are celebrated in a major show at Dulwich. Richard Cork reports.
Just before the First World War erupted, an outstanding generation of artists came out of the Slade School of Art in London. Caught up in the energy of a time when modern art was being transformed, they reached early maturity soon after graduating. Now the Dulwich Picture Gallery brings six of them together in ‘A Crisis of Brilliance, 1908-1922’, which charts the artistic development of this turbulent period.
David Bomberg, 'In the Hold', 1913-14. © Tate London 2013. Paul Nash, who started as a traditional landscape watercolourist, was galvanised by the war. After being invalided out of the army, he recovered and gained a commission as an official war artist. Shocked by the death of so many fellow soldiers, Nash was even more distressed when he visited Passchendaele. Void (1918), a powerful outcome of this visit, was among his first and most memorable oil paintings.
C.R.W. Nevinson was one of the most extreme of the Slade Rebels, joining the Italian Futurist movement and becoming obsessed by machine-age dynamism. He, too, was invalided out of the war, and his paintings from 1915-16 show just how gruelling the conflict had become. Stanley Spencer, who grew up in the Thames-side village of Cookham, worked in a military hospital during the war and then served in Macedonia. His heartfelt Unveiling Cookham War Memorial (1922) shows a melancholy crowd paying tribute to the men who had been slaughtered.
Mark Gertler, an East-ender born into a Polish-Jewish family, became a pacifist and refused to join the armed forces. Struggling with the depression which ultimately led to his suicide in 1939, he nevertheless drew and painted with great distinction. So did Dora Carrington, who had an affair with Gertler. The Dulwich show includes one of her finest landscapes, The River Pang, painted in 1918.
The most arresting exhibits are by David Bomberg who, like Gertler, was the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants in the East End. At the Slade Bomberg was exceptionally audacious, and his immense painting In the Hold (1913-14) is a masterpiece. Passengers and crew can here be detected on board a ship, but Bomberg has splintered all their forms by imposing a geometric grid on the entire painting. It is shown at Dulwich with his first version of Sappers at Work, commissioned in 1917 by the Canadian War Records Office before it was rejected as a ‘Futurist abortion.’ Bomberg was dismayed by the crushing verdict, but his work of this period is now seen as an enduring achievement.