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War artists brought out from the trenches and into the light

AS the country marks 100 years since the start of the war that was meant to end all wars, it can sometimes feel as though we are only just beginning to appreciate the First World War's impact on modern life.

LOOKING BACK: Andrew Graham-Dixon highlights the artists of the First World War in his forthcoming series for BBC4. Picture: Phil Holmes
LOOKING BACK: Andrew Graham-Dixon highlights the artists of the First World War in his forthcoming series for BBC4. Picture: Phil Holmes

Think, for example, of the art that emerged from the conflict, and chances are the names which come to mind are John Singer Sargent, Stanley Spencer and CRW Nevinson. But what of Paul Nash, David Bomberg and Walter Sickert?

Bringing these British artists further into the light is one of the aims of critic and television presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon in Artists of War, his forthcoming series for BBC4.

Ahead of its transmission later this year, Graham-Dixon and director Phil Cairney will be showing exclusive footage from the series at Art Screen, a new arts documentary festival which is taking place in Glasgow between April 10 and 13.

In comparison with poetry, say, or photography, painting from the First World War has been relatively overlooked, Graham-Dixon agrees.

"Richard Cork has written about painters in the First World War so it hasn't been completely neglected. It is more associated with poetry in people's minds perhaps because during the early part of the 20th century Britain was a very literary culture and people were generally perhaps a bit more interested in poetry than they were in painting," he says. "But I think things have changed."

In keeping with that shift, the Imperial War Museum in London will this summer stage Truth and Memory, billed as "the largest exhibition of First World War art for 100 years".

Both Nash and Bomberg fought in the war as enlisted men. To have first-hand ­experience of the battlefield was unusual for artists, and due to the nature of the weapons being used, unusually dangerous. Trying to even get a glimpse of the conflict was far more perilous than in previous wars.

Sickert, who was 54 when war began, observed from afar. "He is a member of this older generation but he is brought up on the idea of somehow painting the reality of modern life," says Graham-Dixon. "But what he paints is the sort of curiously dislocated reality of someone who knows it is happening but isn't actually there."

In common with millions of others, artists were exposed to previously unimaginable horrors and reflected this in their art. Henry Tonks, for example, as a surgeon as well as an artist, depicted the horrific facial injuries he encountered. It was not just the subjects that changed; the way artists looked at the new century just begun was also transformed.

"One of the main impacts the war had on European art, not just British art, was that it horribly punctured this pre-war, rather naive, idealistic belief in the idea of the machine age," says Graham-Dixon.

Before the war some artists had revelled in the sense that humankind was entering a new, more advanced era. The future was bright, ordered and reliable. In Italy, says Graham-Dixon, some artists went as far as looking on war as a great cleanser, a way of sweeping away the old to make way for the new. Then the reality of battle arrived.

"That kind of modernist idealism took a huge beating, so that in the years after the war, if you look at a lot of painters' works, even somebody like Picasso, the kind of fracturing of form that he was going in for in his Cubist years, he moves away from that after the war and tries to find something somehow more monumental, more calm, more classical, if you like.

"There is a sense of that happening, and there is also this slightly odd, as you get in the case of Bomberg, this strange, stunned, silent realism where it is almost as if everybody's got shellshock, they're painting in this sort of stupor."

If artists were ready to explore the carnage before them, the public was of a different mind after the war.

"There is a reluctance to look at it on the part of a lot of people," says Graham-Dixon. "People who actually fought don't want to look at it, and people who weren't involved in the battles don't really either want to look at it that closely for understandable reasons. Funnily enough a lot of war artists after the war is over don't themselves want to keep grinding people's noses in it."

As any visit to a gallery shows, the First World War was not the beginning of war art. Battle paintings were a long-established tradition, but they tended to give official versions of events, and in the case of Napoleon especially, a great deal of hero worshipping went on. As in so many other instances, the First World War changed that.

"What the First World War inaugurates is that tradition of the artist perhaps as a rather subversive figure," says Graham-Dixon, "not necessarily saying what his government wants him to say."

It was not just with the charcoal stick or brush that painters had their say; Bomberg, for example, wrote poetry as well. "It is very different from his war art because it is so explicit in terms of expressing what he feels. War art tends to work often when it is subversive, tends to work more through ambiguity. It makes you, the viewer, draw your own ­conclusions, you have to create the meaning a bit more actively."

In addition to Artists of War, Graham-Dixon has two more series, on the art of China and the gothic revival, on the way. Though television has become something of a crowded market for critics and historians, the 53-year-old Londoner's near- Stakhanovite work rate - which encompassed, at one point, a Fringe show on Caravaggio -ensures he remains one of the more well-kent faces on television.

Even though he has made more than 30 documentaries, from A History of British Art to Renaissance, the secret of a successful arts documentary is hard to pin down, he says.

"One of the things I try to do is not to work from a script. Well, I work from a script of a kind in the sense that I know what I am going to say but I don't actually know how I'm going to say it. If it works, that creates a kind of interest and suspense that's more effective than a pre-prepared spiel."

Artists of War, April 12, Glasgow Film Theatre, 3.30pm

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