Rebel Visions: the War Art of CRW Nevinson

Final year student, Marianne Thomas, reviews the Barber Institute’s latest exhibition…

Having only opened on 24th October, the Barber Institute’s exhibition, Rebel Visions: The War Art of CRW Nevinson seems to be proving very popular. Visitors to the gallery from the local area and further afield have been praising its unique and insightful view of the First World War. So, encouraged by the thought-provoking atmosphere of this centennial November, I decided it was high time that I take a look for myself.

On entering the gallery, I had no idea whatsoever who Nevinson even was, but a concise timeline and introduction displayed within the exhibition space soon put me straight. His biography was rather fascinating – starting off with an art education at UCL, he began working as a Medical Orderly in France in 1914. This led to him witnessing the terrible casualties that would haunt his art for the rest of his life – his position as an official war artist in 1917 only emphasised that.

The way in which Nevinson’s wartime experiences are manifested in his work is clear from the outset, and it is his lifelong and distinctive viewpoint of warfare that the exhibition focuses on. Clearly laid out with succinct, yet informative interpretation labels, Rebel Visions looks at works created during the First World War as well as the post-war years. From the section of the display dedicated to the war period, there were two paintings that really grabbed my attention.

Nevinson, La Patrie, 1916 © Birmingham Museums Trust

Nevinson, La Patrie, 1916 © Birmingham Museums Trust

The first was La Patrie, painted in 1916. This image depicts a makeshift French hospital, where Nevinson worked during the autumn of 1914. The figures of the wounded soldiers are incredibly striking. I’m not much of a Cubism connoisseur, but the men represented in La Patrie certainly seem to fit the stylistic mould. Nevinson uses strong geometrical shapes to form the faces and make them seem contorted with pain and suffering, while the harsh lines of the soldiers’ bodies reminded me of broken machines or fallen robots. The extensive use of black in the painting also adds to the morose feeling, while the title seems to suggest that Nevinson is being satirical – this hardship is what the “motherland” has given its children, and Nevinson doesn’t shy away from highlighting that.

 

Nevinson, 'War Profiteers', 1917 (Reproduced with the kind permission of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.) ©The Nevinson Estate / Bridgeman Images (http://barber.org.uk/rebel-visions-2/)

Nevinson, War Profiteers, 1917 (Reproduced with the kind permission of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.) © The Nevinson Estate/Bridgeman Images (http://barber.org.uk/rebel-visions-2/)

The second painting that really stuck with me was War Profiteers, produced a year later. Showing two women dressed lavishly but with mask-like facial features, the image, together with its title, implies that some women actually benefited from warfare, encouraging a feeling of repulsion in the viewer. It certainly achieved this with me; the women appear to be enjoying themselves at the cost of so many lost lives, and the fact that Nevinson paints them in shades of blue only serves to emphasise further their cold demeanours and attitudes. I found myself wondering what contemporary viewers would have made of this controversial and finger-pointing viewpoint, and then realised that this blatant criticism of the elite was probably what earned Nevinson the title of “rebel”.

Then, I decided to take a look at the post-war images and found a painting which grabbed my attention even more. The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, 1934, is my favourite painting from the exhibition. This image made me appreciate fully Nevinson’s importance as a war artist – I love how busy and full of meaning it is. A crucifix takes precedence at the centre of the painting, while a huge cannon is represented directly beneath it. Mourning saints are depicted around the edges and images of both traditional and modern weapons fill the foreground. Religion and warfare are juxtaposed, arguably in conflict with one another. Also, the fact that this painting was created just before the Second World War could suggest that Nevinson continued to observe political unrest, regardless of state propaganda to say the contrary, and, perhaps this shows just how “rebellious” his visions were.

Nevinson, The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, 1934 © the artist's estate / Bridgeman Images photo credit: Bridgeman Art Library (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/the-unending-cult-of-human-sacrifice-6305)

Nevinson, The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, 1934 © the artist’s estate / Bridgeman Images
photo credit: Bridgeman Art Library (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/the-unending-cult-of-human-sacrifice-6305)

So, upon leaving the exhibition, I had a much clearer idea of who CRW Nevinson was and what he represented. None of his works glorify warfare; the events are portrayed as being brutal, cold and machine-like, destroying the lives of any soldiers who were involved. One hundred years after the First World War began, I think that Nevinson’s work is as important as ever, and this exhibition certainly succeeds in hammering home his message.

See Rebel Visions: The War Art of CRW Nevinson 24 October 2014 – 25 January 2015, free entry, Barber Institute of Fine Arts

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