Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1886-1946) was part of a remarkable generation of artists who emerged from the Slade School to create a brief but distinctive moment of British modernism just before the First World War.
His contemporaries included David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, Stanley Spencer and the painterpoet Isaac Rosenberg. All produced work in response to the war, but none has been quite as closely defined by it, in retrospect, as Nevinson.
He has been represented in the Barber Institute collection since 2009, when a fine impression of one of his earliest war etchings, Returning to the Trenches, was bequeathed through the Art Fund.
Although this exhibition, Rebel Visions: The War Art of CRW Nevinson, is small it gives a remarkably broad overview of its subject, and I was surprised by how many of its 21 works were completely new to me.
These include two coloured pencil drawings of Vimy Ridge and the village of Peronne, dating from shortly after Nevinson returned to France in July 1917, which show him as a dispassionate observer, shorn for once of his usual stylistic mannerisms. This may be the first time they have been shown in public.
Before the war Nevinson was the only British artist to throw his weight behind the Italian Futurists, literally banging a drum for their leading polemicist, Marinetti, when he delivered a lecture in London.
The Futurists, declaring their preference for speeding motor cars over classical sculpture, wished to glorify war. The dynamic style Nevinson developed from them certainly seemed, at first, ideally suited to recording new forms of mechanised warfare and columns of indistinguishable individuals on the march.
He went to the Front initially as a driver with a Quaker ambulance unit. Another member was Laurence Cadbury, who bought two early war paintings by Nevinson which are now in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. One of them, La Patrie, is included in the exhibition.
The etching The Dressing Station, a companion piece to La Patrie and another work new to me, is a powerful image which calls to mind the prints of Goya and Otto Dix, albeit from a more restrained British perspective.
The early paintings and etchings, worked up from sketches made on the spot after Nevinson returned to England, showed the influence of Futurism. But the second phase of his war work, after he was adopted as an official war artist, found him turning to more naturalistic reportage.
This could still get him into trouble with the censor, as in the case of an apparently inoffensive if not particularly heroic painting of a group of soldiers shown here in the print version which was suppressed because its subject was deemed “not worthy of the British Army”.
Back in Britain, Nevinson recorded war work in factories and turned a jaundiced eye on those doing well out of the war, notably in War Profiteers, a grotesque double portrait of two expensively dressed women illuminated by a sickly blue street light. How exactly they have profited from the war remains ambiguous. Nevinson’s war paintings brought him great celebrity at the time. As the son of a journalist who had dabbled in journalism himself, he was a natural self publicist with a ready view on a whole range of subjects, a prototype for the all purpose celebrity of today.
But artistically Nevinson’s postwar career was an anticlimax, not withstanding an interesting body of work inspired by the cityscape of New York in the 1920s. Richenda Roberts, the curator of this exhibition , points out that while other British artists dropped war as a subject with the Armistice it
recurs in Nevinson’s work, notably in problematic allegorical subjects like The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice in the mid-1930s.
At this time he was warning of the looming European crisis, coauthoring a book which predicted the forthcoming bombing of London. His application to become an official war artist in the Second World War was rejected by Kenneth Clark, with whom he did not get on. But that might have been because he was already in poor health.
The exhibition runs until January 25 (Mon to Fri 10am-5pm, Sat, Sun 11am-5pm; admission free). For details of a series of related talks and other events, see www.barber.org.uk