Truth and Memory at the Imperial War Museum

2014-2018 marks the centenary of World War I. The Imperial War Museum, which recently reopened after a 6-month refurbishment, is commemorating the war with their exhibition Truth and Memory, the first major retrospective of British World War I art.

The exhibition is divided into two sections. Truth intends to be a survey of works by artists who experienced life in the battlefield, while Memory explores the artists who sought to commemorate the war and the challenges they faced in doing so.  

The retrospective is particularly interesting as, historically, war art was used to inspire, excite and inform national identity. However, many of these paintings were by soldiers commissioned as artists, and so the works were based on their violent experiences rather than patriotism. These artists renounced the idea of presenting the war as a glorious event, and rather depicted the crude terror, death and everyday conflict. The exhibition conveys the shift in British people’s response to the war. 

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Gilbert Rogers, Gassed: In Arduis Fidelis, 1919.

The works of CRW Nevinson were definitely a highlight of the show. His experience as a medical orderly and ambulance driver gave him content for his paintings, and Futurist techniques allowed him to depict a war that he characterized as unheroic, overwhelming and alien. Other artists, such as Paul Nash and William Opren, also explored new artistic techniques to convey this sense of suffering.

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The British War Memorials Committee commissioned many of the artists whose work is presented in Memory. Works by Eric Kennington and George Clausen show the varied commemorations to the war. While Kennington depicts a democratic tribute to his comrades, Clausen emphasizes the grief and emptiness of death left by the war.

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Eric Kennington, The Kensingtons at Laventie, 1915. Imperial War Museum, London. Image source.

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George Clausen, Youth Mourning, 1916. Imperial War Museum, London. Image source

Truth and Memory is a thought-provoking exhibition that gives us a profound insight into the role of art in shaping our understanding and perception of war.