One of the British artists who feature in the Tate’s Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One exhibition (see Aftermath) is CRW Nevinson (1889 – 1946). His Paths of Glory is, alongside Gassed by John Singer Sergeant and The Menin Road, by Paul Nash, one of the most famous paintings British of WWI and it is as a war artist that he is known. But there was more to him that this.
We went along to the Print Room of the British Museum (Room 91, fourth level) to see Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson Prints of War and Peace and to learn a bit more about this artist. Born in Hampstead Nevinson attended the Slade school of art, alongside contemporaries Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Mark Gertler and Dora Carrington. He and Gertler, great friends, set up the Neo Primitives, but fell out in a major way when they both fell in love with Carrington. Nevinson went to Paris where he shared a studio with Modigliani and met the Italian Futurist Marinetti, but infuriated his fellow Briton Wyndham Lewis, then also a friend, by attaching Lewis’ name to the Futurist movement. Wyndham Lewis promptly founded the Vorticists and did not invite Nevinson to join. All that by the time he was in his early twenties.
Upon the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 Nevinson joined the Friends Ambulance Unit and was severely affected by a short time in northern France. Rheumatic fever forced him to return to Britain where he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and began to record his experiences in art. His La Mitrailleuse used futurist techniques to depict men becoming part of the machine and this, together with pictures of the impromptu medical hospital on the edge of Dunkirk made his name. He went on to make drawings and paintings of life on the Western Front as an official war artist, often turning them into prints for the wider market and it was his prints which we saw at the BM. He made a gift of twenty five of them to the Museum in 1918.
Nevinson used futurist techniques when he needed to but he also painted in naturalistic style. He went up in an observation balloon and some of his most intriguing pictures are ones with a viewpoint from high above the ground. He also drew and painted from within a trench and as if looking out of one – high or low viewpoints were something of a trademark. I very much liked the airborne prints, but also The Road from Arras to Bapaume and That Cursed Wood, an image of simplicity and power with literary provenance (the title is from Siegfried Sassoon’s poem). His dry point prints were excellent, though I liked also the woodcuts.
Post war Nevinson was less successful, though there are fine prints from this period of London, Paris and New York. He seems to have been a difficult personality, indulging in feuds and making enemies and to have had something of a persecution complex – his autobiography was entitled Paint and Prejudice. In 1920 the critic Charles Lewis Hind said of Nevinson ‘It is something, at the age of thirty one, to be among the most discussed, most successful, most promising, most admired and most hated British artists.‘ Later he became something of a celebrity artist, despite persistent bouts of depression and ill-health (though he fell out with Kenneth Clarke, something which cost him a position as a war artist in WWII).
The BM exhibition is only a small one, it takes just over an hour to look at and read about the prints on display, but it is FREE to enter and the prints are well worth seeing, especially if you have also visited the Tate’s exhibition Aftermath. Unfortunately it closes on 23rd September, so this is the last chance to see it.