Tuesday, 23 November 2010


'The Poetry is in the Pity' (Wilfed Owen)

I was watching a DVD recently of the glorious Blackadder Fourth series and the final
scene was for me, one of the best comedy sketches ever written. As Captain Blackadder's many hilarious attempts to get out of the war by faking madness fails, the realisation finally dawns on him and his men that there is no way of getting out of the trenches. The whistle blows and as they go over the top in a barrage of gunfire, they morph into fields of blood-red poppies.

This most moving of scenes and using comedy to depict the senseless slaughter can be an effective way to bring home the madness of war. The war artists and poets at that time also used different and ground breaking methods to interpret the futile carnage.

My theme for this trip is art and artists of each country that I travel through and my first stop after leaving England will be the small town of Ypres in Belgium. A place of significance in World War One, as this was where the war became industrialised with the first use of gas. The invasion was stopped in its tracks in Ypres, culminating in slaughter on an unprecendented scale. Thousands died for a few hundred yards of ground, only to lose it again a few days later.

As with all wars, the government created official war artists to portray the propoganda. In earlier times, painting had depicted the glory, nationalism and heroics of the battlefield but a small band of exciting, influential artists from the legendary , London Slade School of Art, such as Paul Nash, Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson and Stanley Spenser, used innovative techniques to interpret the war in a different way. They wanted to show us the human face of war, its pain: its waste. Here was, 'a crisis of brilliance' as the title of David Haycock's book states and they became the Futurists and Bohemians of the twentieth century.

Atmospheric landscape paintings of 'No-Mans Land' by Paul Nash for example, used his talent as a former landscape artist to develop his painting into a futuristic and mono-toned style. Not for him the blood and guts of trench warfare, instead rendering the destruction and desolation of the moonlight, cratered battlefield, using the new vortice style of painting, then fashionable with a new breed of more abstract and expressionist French artists of the time, and just as powerful. The 'Merry-Go-Round' painting by Mark Gertler was another.

In contrast to Nash, Gertler's 'The Merry-Go-Round' used, flat, bold colours in the surrealistic style. The uniformed soldiers, sailors and civilians are posed sitting stiffly upright in regimented rows, astride identical wooden horses of the merry-go-round. No horror or gory scenes here but with mouths agape in silent screams, the endless revolving door effect, 'this blaze of violent mechanical rotation'as D.H. Lawrence lauded it, illustrates the futility of trench warfare. It is one of the most potent anti war paintings of modern times.

That was the brilliance of this small band of influential and innovative group of artists, who brought home the horrors to those who wanted to glorify the war.
And none more so than one of my favourite war artists, Stanley Spenser.

I recently visited the Spenser Memorial Chapel at Burghclere near Newbury. Here is where Spenser painted one of the most iconic war memorials. Due to his religious and sensitive personality, as well as his pastoral upbringing, his war paintings, using his unique aerial viewpoint, and his familiar, distorted, cartoon-like figures, were based on the dual themes of redemption and hope by depicting the mundane, everyday life of the soldier.

I was surprised how modest and insignificant this single storey building was and being set back from the road, I nearly missed it as I drove by. Three walls in the tiny, square chapel (or the 'Holy Box'as Spenser affectionately called it) painted from floor to ceiling (Hampshire's own Sistine Chapel - Spenser)reflect his life as an orderly in the war, often painting scenes of bed changing, or collecting empty tea urns to scrubbing hospital floors. But the dominant scene is the 'Redemption' painting covering the end wall of the chapel. Strewn with piles of white, wooden crosses and with soldiers of opposing sides emerging from their graves to greet their dead comrades and laying their crossess at the feet of a diminutive Christ figure at the top of the painting, is an awe inspiring sight and absolutely breath taking. This more reflective theme for me, is more powerful than seeing images of horrific carnage. It is a truly magnificant painting.

In the way that Spenser used more innocent scenes to interpret the war, Wilfred Owen was the opposite. One of the foremost poets of WW1, he used vivid words and phrases to illustrate the horrors of the trenches. In is acclaimed poem,'Dulce et Decorum Est'he describes in graphic detail the effects of gas on a soldier who, with hands numb with cold and shaking with fear, fumbles to put on his gas mask... phrases such as....'obscene as cancer'......'if you could hear the blood come gargling from the froth corrupted lungs'...'he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning'. And then ending the poem with those immortal lines;

'My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desporate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum Est Pro patria mori'
(it is sweet and right to die for one's country)

Wilfred Owen died aged just twenty five, one week before the end of the war. According to historians, his mother received the telegram while the neighbours were partying in the street outside, celebrating the armistice.

During this most reflective of months, it was good to reunite with my love of art once more and with this being the theme of my trip, I cannot wait to get going.
It may only be November but I feel that my journey has already begun.

As my next blog will not be out until early January, I would like to wish you all a very Merry and Peaceful Christmas.