Hughie O’Donoghue RA contemplates art of the First World War

Acts of remembrance

Published 15 July 2014

As an exhibition honouring the British art of the First World War opens at the Imperial War Museum a century after its outbreak, the painter discusses the impact of these works.

  • From the Summer 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Tread carefully as you go amid the dark trees and fallen branches with their faint scent of rusting metal. Nailed to a tree in Trônes Wood, inside a plastic bag, a fading photograph marked with handwriting tells you that it was here that Joseph Partridge from Portsmouth, born on 24 July 1891, became lost. He was killed in the battle for this part of the Somme and nothing remained of him.

    This is a personal monument, a memorial and an act of remembrance, and it stopped me in my tracks as I walked in the wood and peered into the boy’s fading face. Like all successful monuments and works of art, it is unexpected but it connects – it speaks of love and loss.

    This connection is explored in Truth and Memory, the largest exhibition of British art of the First World War ever assembled, which reopens London’s Imperial War Museum in July. Included in the show is Paul Nash’s painting We are Making a New World (1918). In it we are confronted with an image of the wasteland that was the Western Front, the demonic world, a shell-holed wilderness of fractured tree stumps where the sun’s rays struggle to break through opaque brown clouds or perhaps an oncoming wall of mustard gas.

  • Paul Nash, We are Making a New World

    Paul Nash, We are Making a New World, 1918.

    © IWM Art 1146.

  • The title of Nash’s painting is ironic. But it is a literary irony, and one of the real legacies of the war for the visual arts was the development of visual irony, as exemplified by Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, his ‘readymade’ men’s urinal. Its date is 1917, when the war was possibly at its lowest ebb. As men drowned in mud on the Ypres Salient established norms of civilisation had disappeared. There was widespread disillusionment, certainties had gone and the world had become absurd, so Duchamp made an art of the absurd. Western civilisation was in the toilet. But that was then, and the old irony of the war has since been transformed into the old irony of the now. Irony has permeated contemporary art practice to such an extent that it has become orthodox.

    I find the irony in Nash’s title irritating. I feel it is telling me what I should think when I look at the painting, in a way that is not so different from the way picture captions in the war publications of the time led you by the hand – On the alert for the furtive foe comes to mind. In contrast John Nash’s Oppy Wood, 1917, Evening is just that. You are left to look and do the thinking yourself.

    Since autumn 2013 I have been working on a group of new paintings, ‘Seven Halts on the Somme’. These works share a geographical location with some of the paintings in ‘Truth and Memory’, but they are separated by the best part of 100 years and thus approach the subject from a different perspective. Our memory of the First World War is now cultural as opposed to personal, so my paintings are about remembering, putting flesh back on the bones of something, a creative act as opposed to simple recall. Remembering and painting are close companions; both seek equivalents for something profound, a calling to mind of something not to be forgotten.

  • Hughie O’Donoghue RA, Trônes Wood

    Hughie O’Donoghue RA, Trônes Wood, 2014.

    From the series ‘Seven Halts on the Somme’.

    © The artist. Photo: Francis Ware.

  • My paintings develop slowly; they grow in counterpoint to a meditation on their subject matter. As possibilities are explored and excluded, the painting gains in density, layers overlapping in a process of trial and correction. Sometimes dramatic changes occur but there is never a return to the blank canvas where one began. The memory of the painting’s gestation is there to be seen in its surface patination, a record of the struggle for, and the excavation of, its subject.

    The series title ‘Seven Halts on the Somme’ refers to seven places where the army was stopped, people were stopped and I have stopped and paused for thought. The trees at Trônes Wood have now regrown and though their foliage is dense, sunlight can still penetrate the tree canopy and illuminate the ground. Something happened here that demands of us that we remember.

    Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War is at the Imperial War Museum from 19 July - 8 March 2015.
    Hughie O’Donoghue has two exhibitions: Seven Halts on the Somme Verey Gallery at Eton College, Windsor, by appointment only, until 6 Dec and The Measure of All Things at Chapter House, Westminster Abbey from 15 July – 30 November 2014.

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