Monday, 25 May 2015

Perspectives

As so often happens with this blog, several strands have come together in my mind (while I was gardening) and once again it leads around to war art.  Although this was initially prompted by the Perspectives programme on British TV the other night, in which Eddie Redmayne, currently flavour of the month because of his recent Oscar win, presented his thoughts on the topic, there have been other contributory factors.  I'll come to those later.

Redmayne, it turns out, is not without qualifications for his role as presenter, having studied art history at Cambridge.  Although he perhaps not as fluent a presenter as, say, Alistair Sooke, he is more eloquent than most, and the programme was consequently much better than I'd been expecting. The art does, of course, speak for itself to a certain extent.  You can admire and appreciate the work of Paul Nash, C R W Nevinson, Stanley Spencer and David Bomberg (Redmayne's "favourite") without having a degree in art history.  Colour television certainly helps with that; perhaps it's ironic that the general public in 1914-1918 would not have had much opportunity to see some of these works in their full glory.
David Bomberg - "Sappers at Work"

Apart from the omission (again) of Isaac Rosenberg, who is presumably disregarded partly because he was a poet and has thus been pigeonholed to be dealt with in TV programmes about poetry, another war artist who rarely gets a mention is Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959).  A notable painter of horses, Munnings was the man who captured Major-General Jack Seely and his horse Warrior in oils, as I recently learned from Brough Scott's book Galloper Jack.  The painting is now in the National Gallery of Canada, in recognition of Seely's service as commander of the Canadian cavalry during the war, and Munnings seems to have had as hard a time as almost anyone, at times working a short matter of yards from the front line. 

Another of his paintings, Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron, depicts one of the last cavalry charges of the war, one which came to be regarded as a success and won Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew a posthumous VC.  Brough Scott's book, making a valiant effort to be unbiased in dealing with the exploits of his grandfather, Jack Seely, suggests that it achieved little and was less than critical to the final outcome of the war.  Munnings could not have captured the action "live", as a photographer might, but he did paint it the year it happened and personally knew the participants.  His skilled depiction of the horses' suffering may, however, be the key to the painting's success.  (Flowerdew, incidentally, was saddled with one of the same personal disadvantages in life as Siegfried Sassoon; his middle name was "Muriel".)

The other strand in my thinking about war art this week is the painting at the centre of the Danish drama series, 1864, a work which again strives for neutrality by depicting the Danes as the (albeit unwitting) aggressors in the Second Schleswig War.  I gather that it's about as historically accurate as The Tudors, but that's not really relevant to my subject.  In an English-language scene, James Fox as Lord Palmerston admits that "Only three men in Europe have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein Question: the Prince Consort, who is dead; a German professor, who has gone mad; and I, who have forgotten all about it." 

The painting, which a rebellious present-day teenager finds in the attic of the mysterious old "Baron" for whom she is working as a carer, also appears in the opening credits of each episode.  Whether it is a real contemporary painting or a plot device created specifically for the series I have not yet discovered, but it sends the girl into a hallucinatory episode where she begins to notice the presence of other 19th century artefacts (a pistol, a sword) around the place, and becomes frightened by the idea of the war.  In other scenes it is suggested that the present generation has little comprehension of what it meant to fight, just like the two main characters, the brothers Peter and Laust, who go cheerfully off to soldier at the behest of the "Baron" of their own time.  (Naturally, one is put in mind of Sassoon's poem "Memorial Tablet".)

Although the early episodes don't fully illustrate the horrors that are no doubt coming to the two boys, the first scenes featuring the Baron's son returning as a war hero (in fact, his father has bribed officialdom to conceal the evidence of his cowardice) give us a pretty good idea of the potential psychological damage, as Baron junior begins a reign of terror over the estate workers.  He will, of course, have to go back, and he's not looking forward to it.  

I don't have a snappy conclusion to this blog.  I merely observe how visual depictions of war can combine with the written word to build up a picture that may or may not be accurate.  Say "the Western Front" and most people will immediately visualise desperate-looking, dirty, hungry men in trenches, closely followed by a desolate landscape of murdered trees.   Is that how it really was?


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