A Crisis of Brilliance
Five Young British Artists and the Great War
David Boyd Haycock
London: Old Street, 2009 (reissue, 2010)
Paperback. xiv-386 pp. ISBN-9781906964320. £9.99
Reviewed by Claire Bowen
Université du Havre
This is a joyful biography of five central figures of the pre-Great War generation of Slade students. Haycock follows the artistic education and early careers of Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Richard Nevinson and Dora Carrington with energy, their personal relationships with each other and with London’s contemporary intellectual elite with gusto. Haycock’s documentation is irreproachable, the bibliography extensive and the iconography (monochrome illustrations in the text and two colour plate sections) satisfying. There is evidence of a vast background knowledge of events, exhibitions, individuals and dates and the book is written in flowing, easy and eminently readable English.
If there is a problem it lies in the failure of the book to meet the expectations of its title. This account of the emergence of five considerable talents, described by the Metro reviewer at the time of publication as a portrait of “artists behaving badly”, is a fine romp but Haycock is perhaps less successful in dealing with the promised Great War and its consequences. It takes well over half the book before the reader comes to 1914 and the war chapters are, like the rest of the text, essentially biographical rather than analytical. The author completely comes to grips with what might be the dominant British cultural fact of the Great War – the direct and deliberate intervention of the State in graphic art, sculpture, film and photography – in only one chapter and then specifically in terms of the work of Paul Nash. In fact, the Official War Artists scheme, launched in 1916, was an extraordinary driving force that provided the opportunity, the physical means, the funding and the distribution systems necessary for virtually every contemporary artist of any significance to observe, create from and make public a response to the theatres of war in which the British forces were involved. The scheme did not turn Nevinson into a Modernist any more than it made a landscape artist of Paul Nash but it did provide them with the creative freedom – Nevinson’s brief brush with military censorship excepted – and an economic environment in which to expand their own pre-war aesthetic choices and to ask and answer questions about the representation of modern, mechanical warfare.
A Crisis of Brilliance is a frustrating book. The promises of the first part of the title are well kept but the implications of the Official War Artists scheme and the consequences of the involvement of a whole generation of artists in the adventure, young former Slade students but also older people with different trainings, is treated too lightly. The energy and experiments of the pre-War period bred artists who went to paint and draw war in ways that would have been unrecognisable to their predecessors in military art. Their war-time work in turn gave direction to their future projects. More – much more – on the importance of the Official War Artists experience and its technical consequences would have been welcome and given a book that would have lived up to all its promises.
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