The Great War in Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, London

Written by:
Nicholas Marlowe
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This year sees the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, and museums and galleries across Britain are gearing up to commemorate the great event. The doors of the Imperial War Museum are closed until July 2014, and when it reopens, it will be an entirely new museum, the centerpiece of which, we are promised, will be a groundbreaking reappraisal of the conflict. In the meantime, the National Portrait Gallery has stolen a march with this exhibition of portraits from the war. Has the NPG come up trumps with its preemptive strike? The answer, I’m sorry to say, is a resounding “no.”

There are all sorts of things wrong with this show, but I will confine myself to the two most egregious ones. It’s far too small, for a start. Four cramped rooms and 80 exhibits are simply not enough to do justice to such a huge subject, and presumably because of space constraints, a number of important wartime artists (Eric Kennington, Walter Sickert) are either barely represented or completely absent (John Lavery, John Singer Sargent, Stanley Spencer). By comparison, the David Bailey show, which is running concurrently in the gallery’s main exhibition area, has been allotted ten rooms to display over 300 photographs. No offense to Bailey, but really, a national institution like the NPG should get its priorities right.

My other main criticism is that the role of women in the conflict is almost entirely overlooked. This was the first war in which women played an important, active role, replacing their menfolk in agriculture, industry, transport, the police, and so on; without their contribution, Britain would have lost. Yet in the photographic montage of faces from the war (“The Valiant and the Damned”) at the back of this exhibition, I could spot only five women, out of 40. Even more astonishingly, there are no female portraits whatsoever in the main show. I understand that this imbalance will be redressed in due course, and that there will be future displays in the gallery devoted to women at war, but, for a show that bills itself as the “first national exhibition of the First World War centenary commemorations,” it is a glaring omission.

That is not to say that there aren’t things to enjoy here, although “enjoy” is perhaps not the right word to describe Henry Tonks’ pastels of facially-disfigured soldiers, which are displayed alongside Harold Gillies’ equally harrowing surgical photographs. I’m also impressed by curator Paul Moorhouse’s willingness to consider the German perspective. Indeed, he has achieved something of a coup by securing Ludwig Kirchner’s “Self-portrait as a Soldier” (1915) for the show; it is one of the great masterpieces of German Expressionism. So too is Max Beckmann’s “The Way Home,” from his series of lithographs, “Die Holle” (“Hell”) of 1919. Among British artists, I particularly liked William Orpen’s jaunty self-portrait, wrapped up warm and sketching at the Front.

Orpen, in fact, emerges as the real star here (there are eight other portraits by him in the exhibition). Society portraitist turned war artist, he had a comparatively “good” war, although like many others he underwent a personal journey from heady idealism to bitter disillusionment. Despite having a wife and three children at home, he took up with a pretty French blond, Yvonne Aubicq, and painted her rather obsessively during the course of their affair, which outlasted the war. As an official war artist, Orpen wasn’t supposed to do private work of this kind, but he got round this by giving his frankly lubricious portraits of her spurious titles such as “The Spy” or “The Refugee.” What a pity that there wasn’t room for at least one of them in this exhibition.

Nicholas Marlowe

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