The exhibition strikingly brings together for the first time German expressionist masterpieces by Lovis Corinth and Max Beckmann and Ludwig Kirchner’s painting Selbstbildnis als Soldat (Self-portrait as a Soldier) with Harold Gillies’ rarely shown photographs of facially injured soldiers from the Royal College of Surgeons.
Showing how World War I was depicted and reported with a degree of visual detail unprecedented in the history of conflict, the exhibition includes photography and film as well as formal portraits. Rather than presenting a military history of the war, the gallery aims to focus on its human aspect, concentrating on the way the Great War was represented through portraits of those involved, an approach never previously adopted.
“The Great War in Portraits” takes an international perspective. As well as iconic portraits of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Winston Churchill, the exhibition reflects the war experience of those from all social classes who served from throughout the Commonwealth.
Highlights also include Jacob Epstein’s The Rock Drill, one of the great early modernist works related to the War; a contrasted pairing of British and German films devoted to the Battle of the Somme never previously seen together; and a rare photograph by Jules Gervais Courtellemont depicting a deserted, battle-scarred landscape. The only work in the exhibition not to depict people, this poignant image is, in effect, a portrait of absence.
Starting with the eve of war, the exhibition includes imposing formal portraits of the heads of state of the participating nations, evoking those countries that would be drawn into the conflict in 1914. Such grand images are brought into sharp contrast with an understated press photograph of a pathetic-looking Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old student whose opportunistic assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on June 28, 1914 precipitated the war.
“The Great War in Portraits” shows how, following the declarations of war throughout Europe, power devolved from the heads of state to the military leaders of each country. Power-portraits of Haig, Blumer, Foch, Hindenburg and others, are contrasted with portraits of the “followers,” by Sickert, Orpen and other war artists.
In the central section titled “The Valiant and the Damned,” portraits of Victoria Cross holders, medal-winners, heroes and aces are shown juxtaposed with depictions of those whose lives were marked in different ways: casualties, those disfigured by wounds, prisoners of war, and those shot at dawn for cowardice. The idealized language of formal portraits, used as celebration and eulogy, is brought into violent discord with those images, such as notably a selection of Henry Tonks’s pastels of servicemen grotesquely disfigured by wounds, that reveal individual suffering and the human cost of war.
An installation of 40 photographs in a regular grid formation presents a range of protagonists from medal winners and heroes to the dead and the executed, interspersed with artists, poets, memoirists and images representing the roles played by women, the home front and the Commonwealth.
Key loans have been secured from Imperial War Museums, Tate, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, Munich, Allen Memorial Art Museum, the Royal Airforce Museum, Hendon, Oberlin College, Ohio, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
The exhibition and the Gallery’s First World War activities are part of First World War Centenary, the national partnership of commemorative events www.1914.org .
ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE