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Saturday, 22 March 2014

And so it begins: The Great War in Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

We are now a few months in to 2014 and the National Portrait Gallery has opened London’s first major exhibition for the Centenary of the First World War. With many more sure to come, particularly in the autumn, the Ministry ponders the museumification of conflict and war as a blockbuster.

Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' 
by Sir Jacob Epstein, 1913 – 14. Tate.
It seems everyone is planning their First World War exhibition to open over the next few months. It's one hundred years since the beginning of the conflict that arguably shaped modern life as we know it. Museums are physical repositories of history, so surely it is their job to serve as sites of remembrance for major events? And yet, the scramble to put on the biggest and best First World War show seems somehow insensitive. Museum stores are trawled for early twentieth century objects, curators sweating over whether this or that is really from the right era or really from the 1930s. How can our collections be a part of the Centenary? The pitfalls of commemorative exhibitions are well known: glorification rather than critical consideration, forcing your collection to fit a narrative that’s just not there, originality swapped for public appeal. It would be easy to celebrate the heroic and the tragic while forgetting the human story. Is it even possible to strike the right balance between respect, historical accuracy, originality and national pride? 

Reproduction German poster, copyright Imperial War Museum
But fear not, the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition does an excellent job of presenting a critical view of the First World War that fits well within the remit of it’s collections. Nothing about the Great War in Portraits feels forced. Indeed, the curatorial teams have managed to use the conflict as an opportunity to really question the entire idea of portraiture itself. The exhibition is laid out chronologically, and while this might seem like not a particularly original approach, what it does is show the rapid descent of portrait art from celebratory to critical. The first room is full of royals in their regalia- a stoic reminder of the way conflict had always been fought up to this point. By the time you move into the second room, it becomes clear that the Great War wasn’t what anyone had expected. Commissioned portraits of famous generals and valiant troops, fade quickly into the challenging works of Christopher Nevinson and other artists sent to the Front. The average military portrait we are so used to seeing suddenly takes on the darker tones of propaganda when displayed next to the suffering of the troops they are commanding.

The Valiant and Damned, copyright the National Portrait Gallery
One of the most interesting features of the exhibition is the wall of photographs titled, ‘the Valiant and the Damned’. The wall-sized collage seems a little jarring against the rooms of traditional paintings particularly when photography hasn’t featured in the rest of the exhibition. However, the display serves both to integrate the Gallery’s substantial photographic archive, as well as to try and incorporate something of the human voice into the exhibition. The photographs are accompanied by a booklet in which you can read more about each sitter’s experience of the First World War. Finally it’s not just commissioned artists and generals represented but soldiers, contentious objectors, doctors, nurses and poets. The individual voice is something museums are going to be focused on quite heavily in the next round of exhibitions. We like the NPG’s idea, although it works much better as a website interactive than a static gallery display. 

Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington, copyright Imperial War Museum
The largest central room is by far the most poignant. Themed around medical treatment in the War, the paintings by William Orpen and Eric Kennington turn increasingly dark as they were experiencing the atrocities of war. Doctors and surgeons are well representing, struggling to cope with a new mechanized warfare producing injuries never before seen. Henry Tonk’s pastels of facial injuries shown alongside case notes are a particular draw. The pained faces of the wounded in these images seem to morph naturally into the Expressionist works of Kitchener. I can’t recall seeing an exhibition that ties the development of art history so well into political and human circumstance.

Other museums take note- the NPG has set the bar high for First World War remembrance. There is no ounce of glorification to be found in the displays. In fact, you walk away not being able to look at traditional military portraits quite in the same way. The Centenary of the War should be an opportunity to rethink your own collections, rather than cashing in on public interest. With some of the most famous Great War portraits all in one place, the NPG provides big names without compromising on its critical perspective.

The Great War in Portraits is free and on at the NPG until the 15th of June.

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