Review: David Boyd Haycock’s A Crisis of Brilliance 1908 -1922

Posted on July 27, 2013 at 6:11 pm

RUSI Analysis, 18 Sep 2013

An exhibition of six British Post-modernists depict the impact of the comprehensive War 1914-18 on our society and culture. It provides a super entry point for the visual dimension of the 2014 programme marking the centenary.

Crisis of Brilliance - Paul Nash The Void Photo courtesy of MBAC, Tate London Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. Exhibition ends 22 September 2013

Review by Dr John Mackinlay

2014 is already programmed for a succession of commemorative 1914-18 events. Battlefield experts, military museum curators, war poet aficionados and art historians becomes increasingly visible at the small screen because the year unfolds and to a point this process has already begun with David Boyd Haycock’s A Crisis of Brilliance on the Dulwich Gallery. Within the richter scale of extravagant exhibitions this can be a modest certainly one of about seventy drawings and canvasses, but for anyone focused on the comprehensive War and its explosive effects on British society it provides a must-see introduction to the 2014 calendar.

Six British artists Nash, Nevinson, Carrington, Spencer , Bomberg, and Gertler who, even in today’s multicultural Britain, represented an outstanding diversity of race, class, politics and sexual preferences, were thrown together as prewar students on the Slade, at the moment London’s leading art school. The significance of this exhibition is that it compellingly brings together several prewar narratives of transition and confrontation throughout the pictures in addition to the person life stories of the Slade class.

The 1900s were uncertain times, the Victorian world was being eroded by speedier travel and collapsing social hierarchies. In 1910, the UK’s key communicators had didn’t understand or respond effectively to a spearhead exhibition in London introducing the ecu post-modernist movement including Matisse and Picasso. Consequently the emerging class on the Slade were crushed between their reactionary tutors and the irresistible pressures of the recent movement.

The same class of successful young painters were also caught within the mobilisation for war. Gertler became a conscious objector, Nash, Nevinson, Bomberg and Spencer went to the trenches. By 1916 the govt arranged to commission recognised painters as officers and supply them with an area or a vantage point from which to record the surroundings of front lines. This had a seismic impact at the nature in their art. A more immediate narrative was the students’ relationships with one another, their bonding, rivalry and sexual affiliations intensified by the pressures of war.

Generically they were expressionists; for them a tree didn’t should have each leaf exactly drawn, it was more important to convey the personality of the tree, its strength, movement and significance to the encompassing land.

A Crisis of Brilliance can therefore be engaged at different levels, visibly there are the hung paintings and drawings, and beyond, on an additional plane are the looming narratives of pre war Britain, now reinforced by Pat Barker’s recent novel Toby’s Room, during which an identical Slade students and  professors featured inside the exhibition,  are delivered to life with glowing intensity.

The Dulwich show is organised in six sections, three are dedicated to the Slade period and 3 to the war. Even without the foreknowledge of the underlying narratives, it’s possible to follow the maturing technique of the Slade class which then explodes or collapses on contact with the war. Within the first room you will need to spend a while studying a tremendous photo of the scholars with a number of their professors in a rural picnic setting to peer what they gave the impression of in black and white reality before passing onto their intense depictions of one another and themselves. The emerging talents of Spencer and Gertler were already visible, whereas Nash, Bomberg and Nevison , having did not make much impact with their orthodox drawing tutor were by 1912 creating a stir beyond the faculty in London’s alternative art scene.

The crisis of brilliance suggested inside the exhibition title occurs within the sections dedicated to the war. Gertler was individually wrestling with powerful anxieties thrust on him by the mobilisation of his colleagues. His tranquil green landscapes provided a spot for private escape but his canvas The Mill unconsciously betrays his deeper unease – with its unsettled skies, spikey windmill sails and strangely painted dogs. For the mobilised artists, contact with front line had an electrifying effect, particularly on Nash and Nevinson, whose candid statements on scale of devastation became iconic images of the nice War and should without doubt re-emerge within the 2014 calendar. Bomberg , a person before his time, had his initial work rejected by the British war art commissioners,  but almost a century later national galleries was buying his pictures at sky-high prices.

For RUSI readers who’ve not already seen this exhibition, the modest purpose is to clarify this crucially important introductory exhibition inside the context of the year that is to follow. In time A Crisis of Brilliance becomes an incredible milestone within the critique of the good War artists. That is well conceived and gives a really perfect entry point for the visual dimension of the 2014 programme. The show closes soon at the 22 September so there isn’t any time to lose, switch off your computer and get at the train to Dulwich. 

* Painting – Paul Nash,  The Void. Photo courtesy of MBAC, Tate London.

Further Analysis: , , ,

Bookmark and Share

Posted in Security Systems