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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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3.1 War art – Example 1

The first example is C. R. W. Nevinson’s painting ‘Paths of Glory’.

Students’ skills development: ‘Paths of Glory’

Described image
Figure 5 C.R.W. Nevinson, ‘Paths of Glory’ (1917)

From the Imperial War Museum’s Collection (Height: 457 mm; Width: 609 mm).

Analysis

Who?

Answer

Christopher Richard Wynn Nevinson was an established artist by the time of the First World War. He served with the Friends Ambulance Unit in 1914, helping to treat wounded soldiers. He continued to produce art during the war and was appointed as an official war artist by the Department of Information (which oversaw the production of propaganda) in 1917. This role required Nevinson to travel to the Western Front in order to depict scenes from the battlefields.

When?

Answer

Nevinson painted ‘Paths of Glory’ in 1917, whilst employed as an official war artist. This was after costly campaigns, such as the Battle of Third Ypres (Passchendaele). Nevinson had observed the devastating impact of these events whilst visiting the Western Front.

Why?

Answer

As an official war artist, Nevinson was appointed specifically to document the war, and this partly explains why he painted ‘Paths of Glory’. But Nevinson also had his own motivations for choosing to paint this particular scene, which provided a grim but realistic representation of the human cost of warfare. The title of the painting is also sarcastic, because the image clearly counters the notion that the war was in any way glorious.

Exhibited?

Answer

The Department of Information disapproved of the painting because of its depiction of dead men and refused to allow it to be displayed in an exhibition of Nevinson’s work in London in 1918. Despite this, Nevinson chose to exhibit the painting anyway, but covered the image with a strip of brown paper bearing the word ‘censored’. The exhibition courted considerable controversy, and many newspapers and critics expressed offence. But other newspapers, and even some soldiers, defended Nevinson’s work.

What does this painting depict?

Answer

By depicting two dead men face down in a muddy battlefield, surrounded by barbed wire, the painting depicts a realistic scene from the battlefield. But the painting is perhaps more useful for what it tells us about public attitudes to the war and the nature of propaganda during this period. The fact that the image was censored shows us that grim images of the war, which focused on death and destruction, were suppressed in favour of more uplifting representations of the British war effort.

The controversy that Nevinson’s work provoked also illustrates that many people disapproved of morbid depictions of the war. Young men were still fighting, and morale on the home front needed to be maintained, despite a war-weary population.

Limitations

Answer

Despite its realism, this painting is an imaginative response to the war and not necessarily an exact reproduction of a battlefield scene. For a more complete understanding of the what the battlefields of the Western Front looked like, we would need to examine paintings like this alongside other sources, such as photographs and eyewitness accounts. We also need to be aware that Nevinson may have intentionally intended to shock his audience and may have embellished the painting for this purpose.

To gain a greater understanding of Department of Information and the role of official war artists, we would also need to look at other examples of official war art. Because it was censored, it is fair to assume that ‘Paths of Glory’ was not representative of the art that the Department of Information promoted.