The Art Of War: Analysis Of The Works Of Eric Kennington And Christopher Nevinson

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

In my essay I want to examine work of two great artists who lived and fought during the First World War – Eric Kennington and Christopher Nevinson. Many artists attempted to capture war through their art in different ways and styles, its brutality and soldiers’ experience. Some were official appointees, sent by their governments to create a record of what was happening and some of them took part in fight or helped people who got wounded. This tragic conflict changed them and experiencing war at first hand had a big impact in their work. Before World War I, warfare represented in art was in great measure heroic depiction of battles and military leaders in romanticized portrayals done long after the fact, far from the battlefield. The First World War marked a turning point in that artwork intended to capture the moment in a realistic way, by first-hand participants, began to appear.

My reason of choosing these 2 artists and their artwork is that they both portrayed World War One but without focusing on its brutality and without showing soldiers whilst in combat. I also want to try and explain why there is no violence in most of the depiction of World War One. Through these two images we can see that act of violence was clearly avoided, mostly because by the late 1916 the realities of war were all too clear to most people, and they did not want reminding of it anymore, no one wanted to see the moment when a loved one met his death.

As the Great War was the first mechanized conflict with new weapons and large scale of killed combatants, artists were under pressure to find new visual forms to show war has changed visuality in works of art. Paintings of Kennington and Nevinson portray soldiers resting rather than fighting which I think was a completely new way of depicting war. I chose this theme also because I wanted to look at how artists illustrated war’s brutality in their artwork and how their artworks make us remember how tragic this conflict was. Eric Kennington’s “The Kensingtons at Laventie” and Christopher Nevinson’s “French troops resting” paintings were classified as the most recognizable images of First World War. Eric Kennington was born in Chelsea in 1888 and was the son of a portrait painter. He attended public school in London and exhibited his work at the Royal Academy in 1908. He loved painting street traders in London before war. Kennington joined the army in 1914 and had fought in France, been injured and sent home to recover, he experienced war at first hand.

His painting shows him and his company reaching their base after being on a front line for couple of days. The soldiers in this painting were comrades from his unit, Platoon no. 7. His painting measures 140 x 152 cm and is described as one of the most iconic images of the First World War. The painting is a reverse painting on glass, with the exterior layers of paint applied first which gives the oils a particular clarity. The complexity of the composition and technique caused Kennington to claim he had ‘travelled some 500 miles while painting the picture on the back of the glass, dodging round to the front to see all was well’. He left detailed commentary of his painting: “He tells the tale behind the plundered German pickle-haube helmet strapped to the webbing of Private McCafferty, the figure with his back to us who is also shouldering two rifles, one his own and the other previously belonging to a ‘Private Perry’ who had been shot by a sniper alongside McCafferty in the trenches along la Rue Tilleloy. On the right, scanning the rather dishevelled group, stands Corporal Kealey, about to give the command ‘Fall in No 7 Platoon’. In the centre, Private ‘Tug’ Wilson remains alert, his fork and spoon tucked into the top of his puttee, his rifle-sight clad in a blue scarf to keep out the mud and freezing water. To his left, the diminutive figure of Private Guy, widely respected by his fellows as one who ‘never groused or slacked’, looks down, without judgment, at the prone figure of the underage Private Todd, ‘exhausted’ so Kennington tells us, ‘by continual service, hard work, lack of sleep, long hours of ‘standing to’ and observing.’ – Paul Gough (2010). “A Terrible Beauty: British Artists in the First World War”

The painting was widely admired for its technical virtuosity, iconic colour scheme, and its ‘stately presentation of human endurance, of the quiet heroism of the rank and file’. – Paul Gough (2010). “A Terrible Beauty: British Artists in the First World War” His choice to paint ordinary soldiers, resting rather than in combat, was a completely new style of portraying war. His painting focused on the bravest and best fighters of Kennington’s platoon regardless of rank. He shows a moment when his platoon, exhausted after four days and sleepless nights in the fire trench in twenty degrees of frost and almost continuous snow, have made their way through the deep mud of a communications trench to the ruined village at Laventie. There is a strange thing about their depiction – no two men look in the same direction, like they are lost, which maybe represents that they are unsure and scared about their future. Men look disorientated, confused, at complete lost and are awaiting their corporal to find out their next orders.

That reminds of 1000 yard stare, a combat stress in which traumatized soldiers stare, without seeing anything. This phrase was often used to describe the blank, unfocused gaze of soldiers who have become emotionally detached from the horrors around them. It is also sometimes used more generally to describe the look of dissociation among victims of other types of trauma.

The art critic and poet, Laurence Binyon wrote in the New Statesman: “…Mr Kennington has a genius for reality. He has not only the gift of exact and faithful record, but the power of giving expression to the latent vehemence, energy and passion that make up the controlled strength of a man. If a foreigner wished to see the British soldier, he could not do better than see him with Mr Kennington’s eyes…”

Kennington had an amazing ability to portray soldiers in a realistic and unemotional way. The painting was first exhibited at the Goupil Gallery in 1916 and caused a sensation. The exhibition was in aid of the Star and Garter Building Fund charity. Kennington did not finish the painting until December 1915 and by this time, ninety per cent of the once 700-strong battalion, which he had arrived with in France twelve months earlier, had died or had been severely wounded. After exhibiting his painting, he has been offered the chance to become an official war artist and returned to France in 1917.

Nevinson’s painting “French troops resting “from 1916 also portrays soldiers resting and waiting for their orders. It is an oil on canvas but painted in a different, futuristic style which was completely new form of war art. This bold and modern style had just begun to flourish in Britain in the beginning of First World War. Christopher Nevinson was born in 1889 in Hampstead and was an English painter. He joined Friend’s Ambulance Unit, he was also a volunteer for home service with the Royal Army Medical Corps and ambulance driver for a short period of time. In the years before the war many young artists had been inspired by the ideas of the Futurist movement that glorified machinery, noise and destruction. Futurist began its transformation in February 1909 with the publication of the “Futurist Manifesto “, authored by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The manifesto called for the glorification of progress, industry and mechanization and the removal of old ideas and institutions.

Futurist painting used elements of neo-impressionism and cubism to create compositions that expressed the idea of the dynamism, the energy and movement, of modern life. Nevinson’s style slowly evolved as the war went on, with the paintings and drawing he made early on reflecting most clearly the elements of Futurism. It demonstrates his extraordinary power and success in suggesting movement and, like many of his pictures, that war is not about men as individuals but as parts of a complicated and unstoppable machine.

He was closely associated with the Italian Futurists and the Vorticist movement and he believed that “our Futurist technique is the only possible medium to express the crudeness, violence and brutality of the emotions seen and felt on the present battlefields of Europe”. Some might think that there is no dynamism in his painting as soldiers are resting, they are not on the move but in my opinion, he probably used futuristic style in it mostly because he wanted to show that soldiers during World war one were like a big war machine. Futurist artists wanted to create works that captured movement, or dynamism, as a way of representing the chaotic motion of modern life. The Futurists were looking for a change and saw the war as a positive force for change as they thought it would sweep away the old and enable the new mechanical age of speed to arise.

Although the futurism was associated with movement and dynamism…and we cannot see that in Nevinson’s painting as the soldiers are sat, or standing, they are clearly not going anywhere, all the diagonal lines symbolize, in my opinion, give a feeling of dynamism and that there is some kind of future, something waiting for soldiers, either good or bad, and although they are not sure about what is it at this exact time, I think that was the reason of him using this particular style in his image. Despite their exhaustion the men in the painting, through their uniforms and geometric simplification, form a single mass bound into a war machine. In this image we can see a part of pavement/ pathway, but we can’t see where exactly it takes and where it ends. I think it is a symbol of unknown, Nevinson wanted to show that soldiers were unaware of their future and what will happen to them in the next day, month or even next hour.

Together with the sharp diagonal of highway and with their legs out stretched and hands pocketed – it is a cruel reminder of the compelling force of war. This more experimental style became thought of as very effective in rendering the extraordinary experiences of the conflict. Their artwork has got many things in common. It shows soldiers and innocent people fear and what happened to them. Experiencing war at first hand had a big impact in their work. They have seen people suffering and being injured but still, it didn’t stop them from trying to find something The First World War was largely viewed as catastrophic for modern art, but these two artists, by their artwork proved that there was hope to save it and by introducing new forms of portraying war, it will make us remember how world war has changed everything.


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