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National Portrait Gallery joins a season of shows marking the centenary of the Great War

Our pick of the exhibitions commemorating the First World War

London

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Self-portrait as a Soldier, 1915, is in high demand this year. Currently on display at the Kunsthalle in Bonn as part of the exhibition “1914: the Avant-gardes at War” (until 23 February), it will travel to London immediately afterwards to be shown in “The Great War in Portraits” at the National Portrait Gallery, London (from 27 February). Art journals around the world—including The Art Newspaper—will reproduce it more than once in the coming year.

It is not surprising that the German Expressionist work, which has been lent by the Allen Memorial Art Museum of Oberlin College in the US, is proving popular. It is an easily readable painting of the ­anxiety of war and of the existential threat it constituted to a Modern artist’s identity. With his right hand chopped off, Kirchner’s traumatised artist-soldier can no longer paint the nude model in the background: the military ­experience threatened his physical and sexual well-being as well as his artistic creativity.

Modernist masters

Securing this picture for the National Portrait Gallery show was “a real coup”, says Paul Moorhouse, the gallery’s curator of 20th-century art, who organised the show. “This is one of the greatest works of German Expressionism.”

But striking as Kirchner’s painting may be, it is unrepresentative of the range of works that will be on display in the show. Only the first and last sections of the show deal with the stuff of conventional Modern art exhibitions. The first, entitled “The Rock Drill”, shows Jacob Epstein’s ­extraordinary sculpture Torso in Metal from the Rock Drill, 1916, the final version of a work first created in 1913. Like Kirchner’s painting, it easily slots into contemporary expectations of artistic representations of the Great War: a mechanised creature, dismembered and devoid of humanity, conjures up images of mechanised warfare, artillery fire and disfigured amputees returning from the front. The final section of the exhibition also features well-known Modernist artists: as well as Kirchner, it includes works by Max Beckmann and Lovis Corinth.

Travel ban

Moorhouse had also been keen to show Otto Dix’s Self-portrait as a Soldier, painted shortly after he had volunteered in August 1914, but the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, has the work on its “red list”, which means it cannot travel at all. Dix is central to Moorhouse’s argument in this section, that the war brought about a divergence in the development of artistic Modernism in Britain and in Germany. In the case of the former, a traumatised nation allegedly required the security offered by the familiar past and saw the widespread return to earlier aesthetic conventions, whereas in Germany a ­revulsion against the old order apparently required something “truer to the visceral suffering that so many had endured”, as Moorhouse writes in the catalogue. These are rather sweeping statements made on the basis of limited visual evidence.

Reducing the Great War to a conflict between Britain and Germany does little justice to this global conflagration, but luckily the exhibition as a whole will not try to re-enact the cultural confrontation of the time by way of a highly selective display of a few avant-garde works of art. Instead, the focus of the exhibition is on people, and the manifold representations of war through the lens of portraiture. As Moorhouse rightly points out, the Great War was depicted in a degree of visual detail that was unprecedented. European societies, saturated by print mass media, required images of the conflict, and a flood of pictures reached the home fronts. Military censorship and patriotic propaganda affected almost all of these images.

Contemporary debates around the truthfulness of representations of ­mortality and patriotic sacrifice will be highlighted in the exhibition’s section “Fact and Fiction” by way of two propaganda films from the period: “The Battle of the Somme”, 1916, and the German reply, “Bei unseren Helden an der Somme” (with our heroes at the Somme), 1917. The British film was a success with contemporary audiences, not least because of its vivid and apparently truthful depiction of the “thrill of the battle”, as The Spectator observed in 1916. Yet the propaganda spin is unmistakable. Dead British soldiers, Moorhouse notes, are nowhere to be seen in this film: only German ones are.

The main section of the exhibition is dedicated to what Moorhouse chooses to call “The Valiant and the Damned”. At its core is an installation of photographs of faces that fill an entire wall. “I want to ask questions,” Moorhouse says. “Visitors will be looking at ­unidentified people who were participants in the war. The message here is that of common humanity. But can you really look into these faces and decipher ­anything about their destinies, their stories?” It is here that the tension between image and experience becomes most apparent. Most portraits give no hint of what the individuals on display suffered, and viewers need to turn into readers of the accompanying texts to find out more.

Only in the case of the portraits of soldiers with facial wounds who underwent reconstructive surgery does the Great War’s violence stare viewers in the face. It is no surprise that radical pacifists used such images for propaganda purposes after the war: they have lost nothing of their shock value. These portraits, and indeed the rest of the exhibition, make for an unusual setting for Kirchner’s Self-portrait, one that makes for highly stimulating visual conversations. This exhibition promises to be an excellent beginning to a season of exhibitions marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

• The Great War in Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, 27 February-15 June

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Our pick of First World War-themed shows:

• 1914: the Avant-gardes at War

Kunsthalle, Bonn

until 23 February

• For King and Country?

Jewish Museum, London

19 March-10 august

• Art, Nevertheless!

Austria: 1914-18

Leopold Museum, Vienna

9 May-15 September

• The Disasters of War: 1800-2014

Louvre Lens

28 May-6 October

• 1914-18: the First World War

Deutsches Historisches

Museum, Berlin

5 June-7 December

• The Great War: the Persuasive Power of Photography

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

6 June-1 September

• War and Madness

Militärhistorisches

Museum, Dresden

6 June–7 September

• Cries in the Night: German Expressionism around World War I

Cincinnati Art Museum

21 June-17 August

• Switzerland and the Great War

Historisches Museum Basel

23 August-5 February 2015

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Pictures of war'