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A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War.

A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War. 2009. David Boyd Haycock. London: Old Street Publishing, 2010 rpt., $20.00, paper, 386 pp.

Nash, Nevinson, Spencer, Gertler, Carrington, Bomberg: A Crisis of Brilliance, 1908-1923. David Boyd Haycock with Frances Spalding, et. al. London: Scala Arts Publishers, 2013, paper, 176 pp. Catalogue published to accompany the special exhibition held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, June 12-September 22, 2013, London: about/press-media/press-releases/dulwich-picture-gallery-presents-nash,-nevinson,-spencer,- gertler,-carrington,-bomberg-a-crisis-of-brilliance/.

David Boyd Haycock's 2009 study of "five young British artists" whose lives and work were affected by the First World War was not much publicized in this country upon its appearance and still does not seem to have been much discussed by war historians or modernist art scholars. Those interested in war and the arts or in the cultural productions of the First World War will want to know of it and of the more recent exhibition of these artists' work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery which has gathered some notice in this country, though slight. The five artists under discussion in the study are Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, C. R. W. Nevinson and Paul Nash. The 2013 exhibition and its accompanying catalogue add a sixth artist, David Bomberg, whose enormous abstract painting In the Hold introduced viewers to the special exhibition space devoted to the "crisis of brilliance."

This title phrase was used by Henry Tonks, well-known and severe professor of drawing at the Slade School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture in London where these artists spent their young adult years. There they trained, discussed and argued, fell into a variety of relationships with one another, formed bonds with their teachers and mixed in the milieu of the pre-war London art world, eventually discovering the modernist, avant-garde trends just then arriving on British shores. (Readers of this journal will be interested to note that Isaac Rosenberg was also a contemporary student at the Slade, one who makes an interesting case study in how the school could foster artistic growth, but also had to be transcended or left behind by the student. Rosenberg found his own artistic path, of course, gaining more fame as a poet than as a visual artist.) Haycock's strongest suit is biography, and one gains a good sense of each artist as an individual, and also of the family influences that seem remarkably important in many instances and which follow the artists well into adulthood, often influencing the artworks that each produced. The group dynamics and interactions are complex, sometimes intense and generally bohemian; readers with a sense of Bloomsburyian habits and mores will be familiar with the conduct of personal lives and the nature of the social scene. Fictionalized versions of these artists are the focus of two novels by Pat Barker: Life Class (2007) and Toby's Room (2012).

There is less pure art history in the volume than one might anticipate; there are few extended discussions of aesthetics per se and little technical analysis of individual paintings. Indeed, the reader is pretty well asked to accept the "brilliance" that is asserted in the title, for the author is not at pains to justify its use. Talent, precocity, technical skill, artistic temperament, aesthetic will--all are evident in the works, which are indeed worthy of extended attention and due admiration, but the word brilliance seems close to implying genius, or at the least would seem to be a word applicable to artists of the first rank, those whose works have had profound influence on subsequent artists and which are apt to stand for a long time. Is this the case in regards to all those under discussion in this volume? If so, why? To some, but not to others? I think there is a case to be made for Spencer and Nash as influential and first-rate artists, but it appears to be outside the author's scope of interest to make their case despite his choice of book title. Interestingly, Haycock shows Spencer, in his view (and mine) the most durable and consistently interesting and talented of the group, to have been the figure kept most by the others on the outside, even to the extent to being the object of their jokes and tricks.

Aside from whether the judgment put forth in the title receives enough attention, the reader does nonetheless gain a reasonably good feel for the currents of modernism that ran, eddied and occasionally swept through pre-war London. Mostly this is accomplished through narrative rather than analysis: the author's quotation of the artists' responses to the works of their contemporaries and especially to their reactions to their continental modernist precursors shed the most light. The artists all attended the Slade School between 1908 and 1912, and even a cursory glance at their body of early work reveals little or no influence from the various post-impressionist and modernist schools styles and schools. 1910 and 1912 both saw important exhibitions of groundbreaking continental art staged in England. While "the new" ceased to shock some good while past, and while the modernists' version of the new is of course now quite old, Haycock does well to describe the relative slowness of modernist developments to penetrate the English speaking world. In his discussion of the 1910 show Manet and the Post-Impressionists, Haycock reminds the reader that "although some of these paintings were already twenty or even thirty years old--and four of the five major artists represented were dead--they were new to most Londoners. The show was going to be an eye-opener for an insular audience that had been brought up on the realism of the classical tradition" (84). Even cognoscenti such as Roger Fry and Clive Bell came to such works with a fresh eye. For the Anglo world, the avant-garde was avant la guerre, but just, and the artists under discussion here were made to realize that the Slade was far from the cutting edge of the art world.

A Crisis of Brilliance's subtitle promises an analysis of the war's influence on these five artists and not quite half of the color plates included are of war paintings. The general public may be little acquainted with any of the figures at any stage of their development in regards to any dimension of their oeuvre, and will be well served by the inclusion of these illustrations, nicely provided in a reasonably priced paperback volume put out by a smaller press. Readers already interested in war art are most apt to recognize the work of Nash and Nevinson as artists of the Great War; indeed both were appointed Official War Artists by the British War Propaganda Bureau, against whom Nash famously made bitter criticisms. Haycock observes that "Nash's [artistic vision] would be angrily, vigorously emboldened" by his direct acquaintance with the front (276). The works of these two men have been prominently displayed in the Imperial War Museum in London, as has Spencer's Travoys [sic.] Arriving with the Wounded. (Readers are referred to the IWM web page devoted to the First World War: Nash and Nevinson's sardonically titled, large-scale deathscape paintings are probably as well-known as any First World War art emanating from the Anglo countries. So unsparing was it, that The War Office forbad the exhibition of Neville's Paths of Glory, and Nash's The Menin Road uses geometric stylizations to become something even grimmer than the now-familiar landscape photographs of the war's landscape. While the war doesn't seem to have produced a single iconic painting--not, say, in the sense that Picasso's Guernica has become the painting of the Spanish Civil War--Nevinson's skillful and futurist-influenced La Matrailleuse, here included, has seen its share of reprints and appropriations. Neville was the one artist who went to Paris before the war to meet Picasso and Marinetti, and one sees modernist influences here quite directly. Nash used his anger productively in the end. As early as 1918 he mounted a successful exhibition devoted exclusively to his paintings and drawings of the war.

Chapters seventeen and eighteen, which deal with the war and the armistice respectively, will be of particular interest to readers of this journal, and they are among the best chapters of this clearly written, well-researched book. Once again, the author's strength shows itself in the narration of significant biographical events, the choice of incidents to report and quotations to insert. The analysis of the works of war art themselves is not as extensive as one might expect. Thus the reader learns of the ways in which the war affected lives, and it is obvious that for Nash, Nevinson, and, to a lesser degree, Spencer the war became a subject of their art. While there is some analysis of the war's effects on style, method and technique, the reader is often left to infer that the pre-war avant-garde found its matter in the war pictures. The exact relationship between manner and matter is not explored at length. What Haycock does make clear is his belief that none of the artists could sustain their early brilliance as their youth and the war years receded. Here Nevinson would seem to be epitomize the thesis, for, as he moved into middle age, his unsettled pursuits and shifting styles never seemed to coalesce into a full-fledged oeuvre despite his evident talent.

In Carrington's case it is difficult to see that the war had any effect on her art works. She moved to the country, eventually married Lytton Strachey and committed suicide not long after he died. Gertler, who did not want to serve and who was exempted from service on account of poor health, was known for his caustic remarks on the stupidity of the war. In response he produced The Merry-Go-Round (included here as a plate), which married figurative abstraction with what has been widely regarded as an anti-military, anti-war stance. He too committed suicide. Both Spencer and Nevinson served in ambulance corps, and Nevinson later in the Royal Army Medical Corps before being named an Official War Artist. Nash initially served with the Artists Rifles, remaining in London for relatively easy duties, but he eventually saw active duty as a second lieutenant in the trenches of the Western Front. One notes the paucity of Nash's large paintings in the exhibition and will have to seek them out in other venues.

A Crisis of Brilliance is a nicely paced, lucidly presented and informative book well-researched by its author, who has written in a fashion that will engage the general reader but will also inform the scholar. He adroitly handles the memoirs and letters from which he draws his material. While the actual events of the First World War do not figure prominently in its pages, and while readers looking for a greater focus on aesthetics may be somewhat disappointed, the study nonetheless provides a fine introduction to the pre-war and wartime lives and work of Britain's most famous artists of the Great War.

Reviewed by Matthew Stewart, Boston University.
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Author:Stewart, Matthew
Publication:War, Literature & The Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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