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Scenes from Battle of the Somme Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, 1916. film stills (1917), copyright Imperial War Museums

The Great War in Portraits: juxtaposing the horror

1 March 2014 Charlie Kenber

“You’ll find evidence of great heroism, great selflessness, friendship and extraordinary endurance under impossible conditions.”

The First World War utterly transformed the face of Britain and the world. Empires fell, attitudes shifted and millions perished as a result of the industrialised killing that took place on the fields of France and across the continent. There has not been a conflict since in which human life was so casually snuffed out with such relentless, mechanical efficiency.

To mark the approaching centenary of its outbreak, an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery gets under the skin of what exactly the ‘Great’ War eviscerated and destroyed. Using portraiture as an entry-point, the exhibition revolves around juxtaposition: of enthusiastic anticipation and grim reality, of celebrity and anonymity, of heroes and victims.

At the entrance to the exhibition, curator Paul Moorhouse has clearly emphasised this theme by placing Jacob Epstein’s striking The Rock Drill. Initially sculpted in 1913 as a powerful half-man, half-robot straddling a pneumatic drill, the piece was, as Paul tells me, “a symbol of mechanised man…this was going to be the twentieth century: technology was going be a great cleansing, beneficial force.”

However by 1916, affected by the war and the loss of his closest friend, Epstein was moved to rework the sculpture, removing the drill and severing three limbs. “The horrors of the war were already becoming familiar,” Paul says. “It’s a limbless creature, a terrible mutated victim.”

Therefore, “it’s not only one of the great early works of modernist sculpture, but it also says a lot about the war and the trajectory: from exhilaration and anticipation which was common at the beginning of the war, to something more closely resembling resignation and despair. That is the framing motif which lies across the exhibition.”

Continuing the theme, Paul has juxtaposed the grandiose portraits of the continent’s leaders with a police photograph of a dishevelled Gavrilo Princip, the man who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, setting in motion the series of events leading to war. Similarly a section entitled Leaders and Followers contrasts images of celebrity (the military leaders), with the anonymous struggle of the common soldier.

One of the main challenges when staging an exhibition examining such an horrific conflict is in how to distil the experience. We are frequently presented with shocking casualty statistics: on the first day of the Somme alone 19,200 British soldiers died, and by the end of the war 70 million men had been mobilised globally, 9 million of whom were dead. However as Paul notes, “three years after working on this exhibition I still find it enormously difficult to grasp these statistics. I find them difficult to comprehend.”

This coupled with the death in 2009 of the last British survivor, Harry Patch, makes it difficult to truly understand what the soldiers on both sides went through. “We have the military histories, we have the statistics, we have the lines and the arrows on the map,” Paul says, “but how do we connect with human experience? What do we do to make it tangible?”

On the other side of the spectrum the exhibition works hard to illuminate as many positives as it can, “you will find characteristics of human nature which I think are ennobling,” Paul continues. “You’ll find evidence of great heroism, great selflessness, friendship and extraordinary endurance under impossible conditions.”

In an exhibition full of moving, disturbing and even beautiful images, it turns out to be the only picture devoid of people that presents the most striking portrait of the war. The photograph by Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, placed by the exit, “depicts a devastated landscape in northern France. Human life appears to have been extinguished from it as a result of the battle. In a very profound sense it appears desolated and absent, but of course it’s full of people, because those who were there and those who fought have been reduced to the dust which now covers the earth.”

And with that the exhibition leaves us with a clear reminder: whilst we cannot change the past, we can try – hard as it might be – to understand.

The Great War in Portraits is on until 15th June at the National Portrait Gallery. Admission is free. Further information is available here.

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