I hesitate to use the word ‘great’ when discussing art. Like other over-used superlatives - ‘iconic’ is another I make a point of avoiding – the very familiarity of the term, and the ease with which it trips off the tongue, deny the significance intended. The idea of a ‘great’ painting or sculpture raises many questions. What makes a particular image or object so distinctive and compelling as to transcend the merely excellent? How is greatness judged? And why, I ask, did I find myself using the dreaded adjective when recently being interviewed on television about a portrait that has just gone on display in our 20th century galleries?
The portrait in question is that of Winston Churchill painted by William Orpen in 1916. Placed on loan to the National Portrait Gallery by the executors of the late Winston S Churchill, the celebrated statesman’s grandson, this was a painting I simply could not wait to display on our walls. From the moment when I first saw it, I was completely drawn into the brooding, interior world inhabited by the sitter. For this is not Churchill as we imagine him. Rather than the defiant, inspirational force that led Britain through its darkest hour during the Second World War, we see instead a much younger individual, aged 42 - sunk, it seems, in a slough of despond. Hand on hip and clutching a top hat, there is an attempt at confident poise. But Churchill’s expression speaks volumes. Beyond sadness, he appears haunted. The body language is similarly revealing. The shoulders are bent forward, suggesting some invisible burden. It is as if the vitality of the man has drained away.
Hardly flattering, the image conveyed could not be further from the way most sitters would wish to be seen. As portrayed by Orpen, Churchill is revealed as a tortured soul, and to look at the portrait is to feel his torment. So why do I think this is a great work of art? Partly this is connected with the way it concentrates so much human experience. While sitting to Orpen, Churchill was enduring the ignominy of blame for the deaths of 46,000 men. As First Lord of the Admiralty, responsibility for the disastrous Battle of Gallipoli was levelled at him. Demoted, Churchill resigned and submitted to a commission of enquiry. Quite apart from the professional disgrace, the thought of so many lost lives must have been an insufferable mental weight. But mainly it is to do with the capacity of art to intimate truth, however unpalatable. Though harrowing, Orpen’s portrait of Churchill is stamped with an unmistakeable and deeply affecting veracity of feeling. And that, for me, is one of the hallmarks of great art.
Image Credits (from top to bottom)
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill by Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen , lent by the Churchill Chattels Trust. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Winston Churchill in 1912 (Ministry for Culture and Heritage)
The Dardanelles Campaign, Australian troops in Gallipoli, 1915-16, HU 50622, Imperial War Museum