“The Great War in Portraits” at the National Portrait Gallery

At first glance, the idea of presenting a cataclysmic historical event such as the First World War in terms of pictures of people’s faces might seem quixotic. In practice it works beautifully. “The Great War in Portraits,” running at the National Portrait Gallery through June 15, manages to humanize the struggle between armies numbering millions, and simultaneously make a point about art.

At the center of this brilliantly-conceived little exhibition is a contrast between different kinds of image. On the one side are depictions of the powerful — generals, rulers, monarchs. Despite lethal political antagonisms, these are presented with stylistic uniformity: in a slick Edwardian idiom ultimately derived from Van Dyck and Titian. A few selected heroes — ace fighter pilots for example — also got this treatment.

William Orpen’s oil of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig from 1917 is a stylish example. The British commander-in-chief is seen as a John Buchan hero, a masterful but sensitive gleam in his eye, his moustaches elegantly curling, the trenches reduced to a little impressionistic smoke in the background. He does not seem unduly weighed down by the fact that the year before he had ordered an advance which resulted in 400,000 casualties on the British side alone (and had achieved almost nothing).

Almost all the leaders were recorded in this idiom, so they look as if they might be related. In the case of George V of Britain, the tsar, and the kaiser, they actually were. That is why, on signing the order mobilizing the German forces, the kaiser is said to have exclaimed, ‘To think George and Nicky [the tsar] should have played me false!” (He added that if their grandmother, Queen Victoria, had still been alive she would never have allowed it.)

In contrast, there are very different images of the mass of combatants. A wall of photographs memorializes a selection of these, famous and unknown, from all sides and many parts of the world. There, to take a random selection, is Lieutenant Walter Tull, the first person of Afro-Caribbean descent to become an officer in the British army; Elsie Knocker, an ambulance driver from Exeter; the Dutch dancer Mata Hari, who was shot as a spy; Baron von Richtofen, the German flying ace; and an unidentified member of the Maori contingent of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

This mass of faces is a poignant sight: most in their teens or 20s, many killed in action. The most shocking counterpoint to the portraits of the great, with their bravado brushwork, however, is the pictures of wounded soldiers whose faces have been smashed by bullets and high explosives. The photographs of these are so starkly horrific they are hard to look at, but the pastel drawings by Henry Tonks are something different. Conventional figurative painting can glamorize power, but Tonks shows it can also do a more mysterious job by rendering the terrible humanely and almost tenderly.

First published at Blouin Artinfo

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