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Artwork inspired by battle

An exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London includes letters, paintings and other memorabilia -- from soldiers and others -- of war and its fallout.

February 14, 2003|Alan G. Artner | Chicago Tribune

LONDON — In 1916, George Clausen, the most popular professor at the Royal Academy of Arts since the late 18th century, painted a picture that brought together his interests in landscape and the female nude in a particularly distressing fashion.

The nude might have come out of any 19th century Symbolist painting, except that she crouches at the foot of a cross in a desolate landscape very much of the moment. Called "Youth Mourning," the painting was inspired by the grief of Clausen's daughter at the death of her fiance. He was one of the 20 million who perished in the Great War, the war to end all wars, World War I.

"Youth Mourning" is the final work in "Anthem for Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War," the moving interdisciplinary exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. It's a kind of show that American museums almost never do, and perhaps if they did we'd come away remembering more of history because of how it gains immediacy through letters, manuscripts, memorabilia, art, music and literature.

The stagecraft of a concurrent exhibition on trench life -- a full-scale environment complete with sound effects and battlefield film footage -- is absent from "Anthem," which presents biographical histories of the best-known dozen of more than 400 soldier-poets who came from England during World War I.

No conflict before or since gave rise to so many who wrote about what they witnessed. It was a phenomenon unique to the time. They literally came from all walks of life, giving perspectives of both the officer and foot soldier. All but one of the dozen, the Irishman Francis Ledwidge, are familiar in England. But even Americans who majored in English literature are likely to recognize only three: Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen.

No matter. The museum provides 37 books plus a program of spoken-word recordings in a study room preceding the exhibition and a specially priced catalog to take home.

So everything one needs for background is available, beautifully establishing a context for such objects as the blood-soaked map of Belgium taken off the body of Julian Grenfell and the pocket watch stopped at 7:36 a.m. by a shell that also stopped the heart of Edward Thomas.

In the study room, actress Cathleen Nesbitt tells of her meeting with Rupert Brooke, and soon we come upon not only the photographic portraits that brought him as much fame as his poetry -- Brooke was the Cary Grant of his day -- but also the cap he wore at Rugby School, a love letter, his copy of Shakespeare's sonnets, locks of his hair, manuscripts of his poems, his obituary by Winston Churchill and a branch from the olive tree beside his grave.

Such personal objects share space with artworks that either focus on an aspect of the region in which the soldier-poets fought or show links with contemporaries, including others in the exhibition. Sassoon, for example, met and edited poems by Owen, and that manuscript is in the show, as are recordings of the music of Ivor Gurney (with the actual piano at which he composed), along with a score he inspired.

In this way, each poet is given life by objects relating not only to his death. That is some achievement, considering that seven did not survive the war. Brooke was the first to go to war, in 1915, and his poems have the euphoria of early days. "Come and die," he wrote in a letter. "It'll be great fun."

But just six months after Brooke's death, a sonnet found in the kit of the dead soldier-poet Charles Sorley dispels any idea of war being a lark as it envisions "millions of the mouthless dead."

The movement in the show is, then, from ideas of glory fed by earlier literature to grim unmediated experience. And this is true for visual art, as well as poetry: The romanticism of John Hassell's oil, "Vision of St. George Over the Battlefield," gradually yields to Henry Tonks' studies of facial wounds and C.R.W. Nevinson's "Paths of Glory," a canvas the artist was forbidden to show in 1918 because it depicted the still unspeakable, dead British soldiers.

Nevinson, who's the subject of a new biography published by Yale University Press, is a fascinating artist well represented in the museum's permanent collection. However, two of the soldier-poets -- Isaac Rosenberg and David Jones -- were also highly gifted artists.

Rosenberg gave himself increasingly to poetry at the expense of painting, and his best works were self-portraits and landscapes done before 1915. Jones was different. He sketched throughout the war, recording day-to-day experiences with telling economy. They and his paintings are arguably as important as his difficult first literary work about the war, "In Parenthesis," which T.S. Eliot helped publish in 1937.

Thanks in part to Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," Owen's poetry has the widest currency of any of the soldier-poets, and its antiwar sentiment was movingly conveyed through Britten's masterpiece and a later film -- with Laurence Olivier in his final role -- by Derek Jarman. That Owen's parents were notified of his death as armistice bells were ringing is, in one sense, a maudlin coincidence, though it does serve to make his childhood objects on view in the exhibition that much more poignant.

Owen wrote, "All a poet can do today is warn," which is what the exhibition does. It warns us at a time of new swagger that every war, even the contemporary efficient kind, still is terrible.


Alan G. Artner is art critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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