The National Portrait Gallery is commemorating the centenary of the First World War with a four-year programme of exhibitions, displays, public events and learning projects. The two major activities in 2014 are The Great War in Portraits, a free exhibition of images of individuals involved in the conflict, and National Memory – Local Stories, a creative project that uses significant objects in local museums to engage young people from around the country with the centenary.

The Great War in Portraits

The events of 1914-18 are defined by incredible losses and unimaginable destruction. The First World War initially embroiled the major European powers and finally became a global conflict. By the time it ended, the imperial, political and military structure in place at the beginning of the twentieth century had been changed completely.

Claiming millions of casualties, the war was fundamentally about people. Cutting across different responsibilities, roles, backgrounds and experiences, it plunged humanity into a common predicament of shared suffering. This exhibition explores the way the War was represented through portraits – some harrowing – of those involved.

Listen to curator Paul Moorhouse’s audio tour of the exhibition here

Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill'
by Sir Jacob Epstein, 1913 – 14. Tate.

Prologue - The Rock Drill

In 1913, the year preceding the outbreak of war, the pioneering Modernist sculptor Jacob Epstein created an extraordinary sculpture titled the Rock Drill. This comprised an inhuman-looking figure – described by the sculptor as ‘a machine-like robot’ – astride a real pneumatic drill. Devoid of compassion, the creature appeared as a disturbing automaton. As such, the sculpture reflected Epstein’s affinity with the Vorticist movement that celebrated modern man’s fascination with machines, power, speed and energy. For many, the war would be a testing ground for this mechanised power.

The sculpture shown here is the much altered, later version of the original. The radical changes that Epstein made suggest his response to the mounting horror of the conflict. In 1916, he removed the drill and truncated the figure, severing the legs and the entire right arm. Two years into the conflict, it seems that Epstein saw his creation in a different light. With appalling casualties on all sides, the war posed a different view of man’s nature and condition. The amputations inflicted upon the sculpture convey a sense of mutilation. Thus transformed, it evokes the way the experience of war shattered initial expectations, aggression giving way to loss.

King George V by Sir Luke Fildes (after), 1912-1935 © Crown copyright:  UK Government Art Collection

King George V
by Sir Luke Fildes (after), 1912-1935 © Crown copyright: UK Government Art Collection

Royalty and the Assassin

On 28 June 1914, a nineteen-year-old Serb, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne. This act incited the Hapsburg Empire to declare war on its neighbour, Serbia. That step triggered a series of events that dragged the major European powers – joined and divided as they were by a complex pattern of alliances and suspicion – into what eventually became a global war.

Formal portraits depicting the heads of state of the participating nations evoke those values and attitudes that, in part, were ingredients in creating the conditions for war. State portraits representing the imperial powers – Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia – transmit pride and grandeur but also hubris. Although less elitist, official photographs of the President of the French Republic are also emblematic of prestige. These impressive images contrast markedly with the understated press photograph of a dejected-looking Princip that was circulated after his arrest and trial. Representing different worlds in collision, they set the scene on the eve of war – ultimate power threatened by abject insignificance.

Royal Irish Fusiliers: 'Just come from the Chemical Works, Roeux: 21st May 1917' by Sir William Orpen, 1917 © IWM ART 3013

Royal Irish Fusiliers: 'Just come from the Chemical Works, Roeux: 21st May 1917' by Sir William Orpen, 1917 © IWM ART 3013

Leaders and Followers

From 28 July 1914 onwards, one nation after another declared war on its perceived enemies. Immediately, power devolved from the heads of state – who, in theory, were commanders-in-chief – to their respective military leaders. Assuming strategic control, these senior officers commenced the programmes of mobilisation that drew soldiers of all nations into the different theatres of war.

A hierarchical order of seniority, influence and role was clear in the various images of the participants that were created. Irrespective of nationality, formal portraits of commanding officers are essentially traditional images that emphasise the personal profile of the depicted individual. This is manifest in their attitude of authority and, often, an impressive array of medals signifying previous gallantry. These power portraits were copied and widely reproduced, notably as collectable postcards.

The depiction of ordinary servicemen is markedly different. Represented in paintings, drawings and personal photographs that circulated as postcards, these images present a more down-to-earth view. Whether depicted formally or captured in off-guard moments, the servicemen shown are either anonymous or generic ‘types’. The impression conveyed is one of depersonalised, shared experience, in which duty is a central assumption.

Wilfred Owen by John Gunston, 1916 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Wilfred Owen
by John Gunston, 1916 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The Valiant and the Damned

As the war dragged on, initial patriotic euphoria was replaced by disillusionment. By 1916, there was a growing tension between those officials who were determined to sustain the war effort by presenting it in a positive light, and others – artists and medical staff – who were unwilling or unable to ignore its dreadful consequences. As was painfully apparent, the war was a lottery. Sucked into a vortex of violence, a common humanity was at the mercy of circumstance. Some achieved distinction as heroes and medal-winners. Others were shattered by their experiences, returning home mutilated by their wounds or, worse, were annihilated on the field of battle.

Portraits of the war’s protagonists – paintings, drawings, photographs and medical records – convey something of these divergent individual paths. Painted portraits of highly decorated heroes were intended as inspirational documents of achievement. In contrast, Henry Tonks’s pastels of servicemen with severe facial injuries were not intended for public display, but were responses to the plight of the disfigured, made within a hospital setting. The numerous photographs taken during the war, including formal portraits, press images and personal mementos, provide a further, vital account of the experiences of those who served.

For an interactive digital version of the ‘Valiant and the Damned’ wall display please click here

Scene from The Battle of the Somme by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, 1916, Film still courtesy Imperial War Museums © IWM Q 79501

Scene from The Battle of the Somme
by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, 1916, Film still courtesy Imperial War Museums © IWM Q 79501

Fact and Fiction: The Battle of the Somme in film

At the end of 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British casualties numbered 57,470, including 19,240 dead. When the battle ended in November that year, British and Commonwealth casualties had reached over 400,000. It is a deep irony that The Battle of the Somme, a film made of the conflict, became a huge, popular success. Made by the cinematographers Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, it was premiered in London and distributed internationally. In the capital alone, it was seen by an estimated audience of 20 million. A contemporary press view reported ‘the thrill of battle’ that the film conveyed.

The footage made on location had an unprecedented immediacy, and images of wounded and dead soldiers were a revelation. They presented modern warfare in a truthful light – but only up to a point. The film was created as propaganda, and the actual extent of the carnage remained hidden. In January 1917, the German counterpart to the British propaganda bureau released a film presenting their official version of the same events. Partly flawed by scenes that were obviously enacted or depicted earlier events, the German film was less successful. In both cases, fact and fiction coloured the portrayal of war.

Self-portrait by Isaac Rosenberg, 1915 © National Portrait Gallery

by Isaac Rosenberg, 1915 © National Portrait Gallery

Tradition and the Avant-garde

The First World War unleashed death and suffering on a previously unimaginable scale, but this was not all. The methods of destruction and killing plumbed new depths of barbarism. Modern warfare employed gas, barbed wire, flame-throwers, 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?

In Britain, the incipient Modernist movement was dealt a heavy blow by the implication that new developments had destroyed traditional values. Rebuilding the psyche of a traumatised nation seemed to require the steadying hand of the familiar past, and in the visual arts there was a widespread ‘return to order’. This view was not shared abroad. In Germany, defeat and social revolution produced a revulsion against the old order. Expressionism, which had taken root in the pre-war period, now seemed truer to the visceral suffering that so many had endured. The contrast the portraits produced by these two nations express an unhealed division that would endure long after the guns had ceased.