Review: Truth and Memory

Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War

The First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum are awe-inspiring. Or perhaps that’s not the right word. Terrifying might be a better one. As the viewer snakes their way chronologically through the events before, after and during 1914-1918, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information available, of artefacts on show, of individual stories relayed for the 21st Century. The horror of what our ancestors endured is palpable and yet we leave the exhibition with the uncomfortable sense that the most personal reflections of the Great War have eluded us, that there is still more to uncover.

A few levels above, the IWM have attempted to distil the raw emotion of WWI in an exhibition of work by war artists of the time. Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War is not only a hauntingly explicit interpretation of conflict, but also a humbling tribute to the efforts of a united populace.

“The largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years, this major retrospective reveals how artists helped commemorate the First World War and shape a memory of the conflict that endures to this day.” – Imperial War Museum

Though many of the paintings are bleak – the glorification of battle was replaced by a more realistic depiction of warfare during this time – there is, in this exhibition, a powerfulness that is compounded by the immediacy of the work and the artists’ relationship to it. Many of these appointed artists had experienced the battlefields for themselves and this subjective perspective not only adds weight to their paintings, but also instills in their work a visceral honesty that leaves the viewer in no doubt of the repercussions such a catastrophic war had on both the landscape and the on individual.

To cover the entire exhibition would be a task too great for this little blog, but despite its size, every piece of work – be it a painting of two dead British soldiers by CRW Nevinson or the desolate landscape portrayed by Paul Nash in We are Making a New World or even a scene of factory workers on the home front painted by Anna Airy (see links below) – is united in what was, during the earliest half of the 20th Century, the relatively new concept of modern warfare.

Each image is as compelling as the next. From the harsh Vorticist forms of Percy Wyndham Lewis to the delicate realism of Sir William Orpen, the variety of styles utilised during this period aptly demonstrates the demanding nature of the theme.

Like the returning poets who moulded their anguish into words, these artists have explored the darkest depths of humanity and subsequently created work that transcends a century.

• Truth and Memory runs until 8th March.

• Visit IWM or follow @IWM_Centenary or @I_W_M on Twitter for more information.

• Images displayed in this exhibition include:

1. Paths Of Glory, by CRW Nevinson

2. We are Making a New World, by Paul Nash

3. Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells: Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow, 1918, by Anna Airy

4. A Battery Shelled, by Percy Wyndham Lewis

5. The NCO Pilot, RFC. (Flight Sergeant W G Bennett), by Sir William Orpen



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