Sale, Phillips London, 23rd November 1993, lot 23, where acquired by David Bowie
Venice, British Council, XIX Esposizione Biennale d'Arte, 1934, cat. no.70 (as Conflitto).
H. W. Nevinson, Rough Islanders; Or, The Native of England, London, Routledge, 1930, illustrated.
We are grateful to Christopher Martin for his kind assistance with the cataloguing of the present work.
C. R. W. Nevinson is perhaps best remembered for his formidable and staggering depictions of the First World War. Working as an ambulance driver attending to wounded French soldiers, Nevinson was witness to the true machinations of war, to the havoc wreaked by modern weaponry on the human body - an experience that remained with him throughout his life and confirmed for him the folly of Futurist’s idealised war machine. Bringing together Cubist and Vorticist pictorial elements, Nevinson’s war paintings immediately solidified his place as one of the most important artists of the day, and thrust him into the upper echelons of artistic society. As a critic later reflected: ‘Nevinson the war artist he was called and…while there were many war artists, during Armageddon the First…Nevinson was the earliest and, on the whole, the most memorable of them all…He was modern warfare expressed as never before…it is likely that he will be remembered as the painter of the First Great War’ (Douglas Bliss, The Scotsman, 8th October 1946, Tate Gallery Archives, 7311.14-61).
The success of Nevinson’s war pictures was for him both a blessing and a curse. It secured for him the fame and notoriety that he sought so doggedly, but he was increasingly frustrated by what he felt was a lack of acknowledgement for his paintings which followed. In the 1920s he turned his focus to a range of subjects, from the vibrant energy of the modern city in Jazz Age New York, to the commotion of life in post-war London, to works which incorporate references to ancient Greek gods, such as Bacchus of 1927. Painted in the same year as Bacchus and in a very similar stylistic vein, Conflict, in its depiction of monumental wrestling male nudes, also alludes to the Greco-Roman. It is an image of enormous power: the centre of the composition dominated by an immense clenched fist, around which a machinelike mass of bodies spin with muscles torqued and flexed, the sky above broken into Cubist facets. The painting displays warring masculine impulses - faces hidden and shadowed, the men are representative of an animalistic rage, a universal clash, and it is perhaps prescient that the work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1934, when world tensions were running high. Hitler in fact visited the British Pavilion at the Biennale that year, and Nevinson was, like many of his contemporaries, worried by the advance of the Fascist movements throughout Europe. In his exhibition of Conflict, Nevinson alludes to his intimate awareness of the destructive power of man, and perhaps his fears of what is yet to come.
Original canvas. The canvas is slightly loose on the stretcher and there is a very small push in the lower right corner. Some of the impasto elements are very slightly flattened. There are some fine lines of craquelure in the lower corners of the canvas. There is a very small area of loss in the extreme upper left corner, possibly due to frame abrasion, in particular to the right vertical edge. There are few very light scuffs and rubs scattered throughout the canvas, with one or two tiny resultant flecks of loss. There are some scattered spots of surface dirt and studio matter, most noticeable in the lower right quadrant. Subject to the above the work is in good overall condition.
Inspection under ultraviolet light reveals a layer of milky varnish, making reading of the painted surface difficult.
The work is held within a gilt edged wood box frame with a white painted rebate.
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