Nevinson war art shows fascinating creations of a rebel which enraged censors

If, like me, you’ve stayed clear of most things to do with commemorating the start of the First World War, you might like to change your mind where a current exhibition is concerned.

There’s only three more weeks left to see Rebel Visions, The War Art of CRW Nevinson at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham.  Complementing it though very different is German Expressionist Prints from the Barber Collection, another fine set of works which were exhibited and held up to derision by the Nazis in the 1930s, frightened of their brutal honesty and power.

The Nevinson exhibition tells his story, from being alienated as pretty much the only British Futurist on the outbreak of war, to not being able to fight on health grounds to subsequently serving as a driver and caring for injured soldiers, experiences which soon put him off the futurists’ glorification of war. He returned to France to create art officially though as this exhibition explains, some of his works did not meet with full approval; an oil painting entitled A Group of Soldiers was not thought to be heroic enough, and other works were censored.

Another work was partly inspired by his work in France, finding a barn full of injured soldiers who had not been treated for three weeks; The Doctor shows an injured man being treated next to one already dead beside him.

The works combine futurist and cubist techniques; there are sharp angles and limbs, pointed weapons and a geometric neatness to images of loss, horror and futility. A couple of gentle landscapes appear too, a contrast to The Road From Arras to Bapaume, showing the road disappearing into the distance through empty fields, a few walkers and vehicles on it.

Those who profiteered from war were a target for Nevinson, and he painted a man sitting contemplatively in his living room, the photo of a soldier behind him; it’s called He Gained a Fortune But He Gave A Son. In another, War Profiteers, artificial lights turn the faces of women made rich by war a deathly pale colour. Women are also pictured working for the war effort at home.

The painting The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice is the stand-out work for me, combining images of war with religious iconography, planes and modern war technology, painted in the early 1930s and depicting his fear that another war was coming which would destroy Europe.

It’s a powerful exhibition of works from an artist who was clearly an interesting and complex person.

In another gallery, a small display of German expressionist prints from the Barber’s collection includes works by Max Beckmann, George Grosz and Egon Schiele. Depicting war, emotion, loss and Jesus they were all considered un-German in the 1930s and exhibited in a bid to create nationalist fervour against them.

Happily for us they survived as a sobering reminder of what should never be allowed to happen again.

*The CWR Nevinson exhibition is on until January 25.

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