This exhibition documents the mercurial development and diverse talents of six exceptional artists who studied at the Slade Drawing School – C.R.W. Nevinson, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler and David Bomberg.
It is a fascinating account of a time in British painting when abstraction was ridiculed and then gradually accepted, and the horrors of the First World War made the mechanised forms and distorted representations of Cubism, Vorticism and Futurism a visual and psychological reality.
Henry Tonks, their drawing tutor at the Slade, warned his students against the influence of the European art movements as they thundered towards England – advice which was ignored as Modernism profoundly impacted their work.
C.R.W. Nevinson began to produce angular paintings that focused on melding pattern and landscape, and would later become the country’s most famous war artist. The bleak abstraction of his style revealed the terrible suffering of wounded and dying soldiers, in paintings such as La Patrie.
David Bomberg’s work developed along similar lines yet was even less tied to representation. He deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Wyndham Lewis and even Duchamp, for while he did not attain their success; he used similar strategies in an effort to depict ‘pure form’, using strict mathematical formulae in his work.
Paul Nash’s drawings have a distinctly poetic, twilight quality, but unlike Nevinson his paintings of the war are usually void of people, showing empty devastated landscapes, with humps of land swollen and torn, like in a soldier’s fever dream. His work has a mythic undertow which it shares with Stanley Spencer, unarguably the best-known artist of this group. Spencer’s eccentric work blossomed in its explorations of Christian mythology and a sensibility seemingly derived from English folklore, exemplified by his lush and faery-like painting The Apple-Gatherers.
The exhibition’s title derives from the name Tonks gave the group – he declared them the Slade’s
second, and last, crisis of brilliance
This phrase accrues a haunting resonance given the traumatic after-effects of the war and thorny personal lives of some of the artists, which resulted in the suicides of Carrington and Gertler. The ultimate crisis for these artists seems to have been the catastrophe of meaning created by the war – atrocities beyond representation were witnessed, from which the psyche of an entire generation never quite recovered.
David Bomberg, In the Hold, 1913-14, courtesy Tate
Dora Carrington, Lytton Strachey, 1916, courtesy National Portrait Gallery
Christopher Nevinson, Le Vieux Port, 1913, courtesy Government Art Collection of the UK, London
Stanley Spencer, Apple Gatherers, 1912-13, courtesy Tate
Paul Nash, The Void, 1918, courtesy National Gallery of Canada