Way behind the curve but one of the advantages of a day in London back in June, was the opportunity to catch The Great War in Portraits Exhibition on its final weekend at the National Portrait Gallery.
"In viewing the First World War through images of the many individuals involved, The Great War in Portraits looks at the radically different roles, experiences and, ultimately, destinies of those caught up in the conflict.
Setting the scene in 1914, the splendour and formality of portraits of national leaders are contrasted with a press photograph of Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The narrative unfolds with power-portraits of commanders Haig, Foch and Hindenburg, asserting military authority, which are displayed together with dignified pictures of their troops by artists including Orpen, Sickert and Nevinson. Finally, images of heroes and medal-winners are shown alongside the wounded and the fallen, representing the bitter-sweet nature of a war in which valour and selfless endeavour were qualified by disaster and suffering.
From paintings and drawings to photography and film, the exhibition considers a wide range of visual responses to ‘the war to end all wars’, culminating in the visual violence of Expressionist masterpieces by Beckmann and Kirchner."
I had had this exhibition in my sights since reading A Crisis of Brilliance earlier this year, with especial reference to Henry Tonks and his portraits of the injured soldiers. Though not one of the five artists featured in the book, Henry Tonks emerged as a compelling and influential player, a London Hospital-trained doctor, house surgeon to Sir Fredrick Treves in 1887 but eventually to become Assistant Professor of Drawing at the Slade. It was the link to Treves that had piqued my interest.
Whilst student nurses at the London Hospital in the mid-1970s we were subjected to a tour of the old hospital museum. I've since visited the newer one and of course revelled in it...back in the day it was all a bit of a grisly pointless chore and we'd rather have been scrubbed up and in an operating theatre, or enjoying the drama of casualty. But I do have lasting memories of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, and the museum displays, because Sir Frederick Treves was the doctor who had befriended and cared for Merrick in his final years and prior to his (Merrick's) death at the age of twenty-seven in 1890. By association it seems likely that Henry Tonks would have been involved in Merrick's care and thus facial disfigurement would hold no fear.
Praise was a rare commodity from Henry Tonks. Art was his religion and his criticism could be ruthless and withering, whilst the control he exerted over his Slade students was legendary. Fearing the influence on his students of Roger Fry's Post-Impressionist exhibition Henry Tonks forbade them to attend. The instability, danger and uncertainty about civilisation, reflected in the work of the avant garde, would contaminate the Slade ideals and teaching, something far too precious in the mind of Henry Tonks to be jeopardised.
'Go and paint the men, they are getting killed every day...'
ensured that the artists most certainly did capture the essence of what was happening, and in any way they saw fit, and The Great War in Portraits presented an inspiring microcosm of that.
Walking into the first 'room' of this very compact exhibition (David Bailey's 'Stardust' liberally scattered over the main exhibition areas...) was like walking into the midst of a really important meeting, all the key political and military figures of the conflict, many in almost life-sized portrait, gathered around the walls of what felt like an office space...a war cabinet, and goodness me how alike so many of them looked. The royals like peas in a pod, the khaki generals kitted out to the nines; all imposing and authoritative, confident in bearing and purpose, and if it wasn't for the fact that we all know what happened next, well I could almost have been beguiled into trusting them to sort it all out. Haig, Hoch, Hindenburg, the Kaiser, King George V, Tsar Nicholas all there.
This, in exhibition terms, is all in stark and rather elitist contrast to what happens next, their hubris bouncing off the walls as we walked on and through, the failings and detached isolation of those leaders shut away in that room becoming ever more apparent as the pictures increased in their pain, horror and intensity. Here Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington
And, whilst at the Laura Knight exhibition it had been the hands that had drawn my attention, here it was the eyes. Immediate, direct and piercing, insistent that I met their gaze, and expressing every possible emotion from fear and terror to resignation and a weary acceptance.
In the end the Henry Tonks paintings were fewer in number than we had hoped for but maybe all the more powerful for that.
Working as a field orderly at the outset of the war, Henry Tonks was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1916 wherupon his interest in facial disfigurement took him to the Aldershot-based clinic of Sir Harold Gillies another pioneer of plastic surgery. Anyone who has worked in an operating theatre, and has compiled what is known as a General Set of instruments, will be familar with the name of Gillies...
'Gillies please nurse...' and you would (hopefully) slap a pair of forceps into the surgeon's waiting hand.
The paintings on display clearly demonstrated not only the harrowing severity of the wounds but also the changes and improvements that surgery could make. And yes, they are disconcerting and that says a great deal about the human need for, if not perfection and beauty, at least for facial symmetry and a completeness. It is not hard to see why so many soldiers returned to lives of loneliness, and great sorrow and embarrassment.
As always it is not only the impact of an exhibition on the day, but the thinking and reflecting on it in the weeks and months to follow, that make the effort to get there so worthwhile and The Great War in Portraits has been no exception. Sadly the exhibition is now over but If you have time to spare and the inclination to know more, this very accessible essay by Suzannah Beirnoff Flesh Poems : Henry Tonks and the Art of Surgery offers an absorbing insight into the work of Henry Tonks and the whole subject of the relationship between art and surgery and the complexities of public perceptions...
'...‘Nowhere do the sheer horror and savagery of modern warfare appeal so vividly to the mind and senses as in a tour of these wards’.Unlike the patriotic and sentimentalized figure of the ‘broken soldier’, the wounded face was taboo. Facially disfigured veterans were very rarely included in the public visual record of the war (despite the fact that some 60,500 men suffered head or eye injuries compared with 41,000 who had one or more limbs amputated). With few exceptions, newspaper and magazine stories did not publish photographs of facial casualties, although amputees were often pictured, their prosthetic limbs objects of fascination and even beauty...'
Having nursed children with severe facial deformities at Gt Ormond Street I can confirm that at nineteen it was a serious shock to my system, but one out of necessity that I quickly assimilated. I can also confess that the only occasion in my entire nursing career when I felt even remotely in danger of passing out was whilst watching a film of a Tessier facial reconstruction in the School of Nursing. Not even the real thing... a film for goodness sake. Paul Tessier, considered the father of cranio-facial surgery, had in turn been mentored by Sir Harold Gillies and interestingly when I eventually saw part of the procedure for real in the operating theatre ( with a wall to lean against and my gaze ready to avert just in case) I couldn't take my eyes off it, and I happily scrubbed for plastic surgery operations thereafter with no problem.
I feel sure many of you also saw this exhibition... I wonder if it has stayed with you too?
As luck would have it we had timed our visit to the Gallery to coincide with a choral recital by The Portrait Choir, an assembly of young and aspiring singers from music conservatoires around the country, and we caught snippets of the 1603 Officium Defunctorum by Tomas Luis de Victoria as we wandered around. It is a form of requiem mass entirely suited to the images we were seeing, balm for the soul, soothing and mollifying in equal measure and the whole experience all the more moving for it...here's the Graduale to soothe you too,
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine:
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
In memoria aeterna erit iustus:
Ab auditione mala non timebit.
Eternal rest give unto them , O Lord:
And let perpetual light shine upon them.
The just shall be in everlasting remembrance,
He shall not fear the evil hearing.