Missed opportunity at the National Portrait Gallery's 1914-18 exhibition

Jan Woolf says the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition is "top heavy" and has passed up the opportunity to show us how faces are truly transformed by war.

Portraits of WW1

The National Portrait Gallery’s centenary exhibition gives us four rooms of portraiture from 1914 – 18 of ‘images of the great many individuals involved.’ 

Note here the neutered language for what was in fact a species crime of unimaginable suffering, claiming millions of lives and a whole generation of physical and emotional pain and disability. 

The exhibition is clear in its aims to start with the formality of portraits of royalty, politicians and generals – commissioned (as all propaganda portraiture is) to gird the national loin.  Churchill, by that fine painter William Orpen broods in Gallipolli ‘guilt’ on a wall by himself. 

So from the first two rooms of those who made the war, we reach the more ordinary folk who suffered it.  The ‘Valiant and Damned’ has a vast grid of photo-portraits of others including poets Rosenberg, Owen and Sassoon – Walter Tull and Edith Cavell and others of profile from the war (another neutered word coming up) effort!  

Look at the eyes of the people in this grid, very different from the self-satisfied looks of the first room, and so we’re on the trajectory from pomp to misery. Gassed and Wounded a painting by Eric Kennington shows visceral horror – and faces – unlike Gilbert Ross’s The Heroic Stretcher Bearer – a well fed dead body heroically positioned but bloodless – decently covered.

We reach the true face of war with Henry Tonk’s colour wash portraits of men with terrible facial disfigurement. But even here I felt that they were aestheticised, with the only unaffected feature, the actual eye, still gleaming with life and defiance. Compare this to the photographs below it, where the eyes tell different stories of crushed humanity and desperation in the knowledge that their lives had collapsed. I was very moved by one woman, in tears, saying ‘oh those beautiful boys.’

Good portraiture should reveal the inner state.  An exhibition of the true face of war might be hard to look at but would tell the truth during a centenary when we desperately need it.  Towards the end we see some film of trench warfare: men falling and dying, always hard to stomach - interesting to look at the real faces of the gallery goers– grave – shocked – with images of death and suffering flickering across their features. 

At this point there is some strong text on the wall, suggesting some disconnect between the writers and curators.

‘The methods of destruction and killing plumbed new depths of barbarism. Modern warfare employed gas, barbed wire, flamethrowers, machine guns, tanks and devastating artillery. The appalling consequences of these weapons suggested that human nature itself had changed, compassion snuffed out by unbridled cruelty and hatred. Such altered perceptions raised profound questions for artists; what meaning could be found amidst the debris of ruined lives and how should it be represented.’

Finally we get to the comparisons of portraiture at the end of the war, the lyrical figurative paintings of Seigfreid Sassoon and William Orpen and the German expressionists Max Beckman and Kirchner carrying a much more visceral punch.

I came out of the show feeling how ‘top heavy’ this exhibition was, and sorry that a national institution specialising in the face can pass up the opportunity to show us how faces are truly transformed by war.

Where were the glazed faces of the shell-shocked? Why not show us how many men could never make eye contact again because of what they had seen.  In psychological terms the face is everything – and this exhibition showed us comparatively little. 

Where also were the faces of the African soldier, the terrified Australian Aborigine sent to Gallipoli, the Indian shipped via the Suez canal – the Bedouin boy, the Armenian peasant – the young Russian? All caught up in a world gone mad, and none of it in their interests.  But then maybe the NPG’s funding would be cut.

Source: No Glory in War