'All artists should go to the front to strengthen their art by a worship of physical and moral courage and a fearless desire of adventure, risk and daring and free themselves from the canker of professors, archaeologists, cicerones, antiquaries and beauty worshippers.’
(C.R.W. Nevinson, The Daily Express, February 1915.)
A Dawn, 1914 is one of the finest images of the First World War that Nevinson ever painted, equal in power and impact to his famous masterpiece, La Mitrailleuse now in the collection of the Tate, London (see fig.1). As the art critic of The Observer, P.G. Konody, remarked of this painting at the time, its driving immediacy and its 'snapshot from hell’ quality, made it an unforgettable image of the Great War.
The downtrodden French soldiers - the poilus - depicted in A Dawn, 1914, with their simplified gaunt angular faces, are painted in a shorthand Cubistic fashion, rather than the more studied Cubist manner that characterised the machine gunners of La Mitrailleuse. Laden with packs, ready for a life in the trenches, they flood the narrow street marching under the darkened windows, which offer no supporters or onlookers to cheer them on. The jagged lines of the bayonets rise above the densely packed stream of soldiers and the jagged, abstract shapes that dart through the crowd are similar to those used in other works by Nevinson painted at that time, such as the sky of On The Road To Ypres.
Nevinson had met Gino Severini and Filipino Marinetti in Paris in 1912 and became a leading British exponent of the Italian Futurist movement in the years prior to the outbreak of war, publishing with Marinetti the controversial Futurist manifesto Vital English Art in 1914. His vision of war, depicting the impelling movement of the mass of troops brandishing their mass-produced weaponry, rivalled anything by his Italian counterparts in its violence, energy and mechanised version of the Modern. Nevinson argued: 'Our Futurist technique is the only possible medium to express the crudeness, violence and brutality of the emotions seen and felt on the present battlefields of Europe' (C.R.W. Nevinson, Daily Express, 1915).
In A Dawn, 1914 such is the speed of Nevinson’s geometric rendering of the crush of bodies the work almost dissolves into pure abstraction - to the point that the effect is more akin to that other great painting of the First World War, David Bomberg's almost entirely abstract masterpiece, In the Hold (1912-13, Tate, London). Although there is characterisation in the determined faces of the soldiers as they pass by us, their grim faces soon fade away to simple angular shapes losing their individuality, even their humanity, as they become a single unit on the move: a marching machine with a rush of speed and power felt from the front to back of the composition. This melding of the individual into the military whole was not a new strand of imagery for War Artists; however, Nevinson's ability to render it without any extraneous glamour, but without losing a sense of common nobility in his subject is notable. Though the work gives the impression of the French soldiers constituting an unstoppable tide of martial humanity, the artist was only too well aware from personal experience while on his ambulance runs in 1914 how shockingly vulnerable such columns of packed humanity were to one or two German high explosive shells.
In A Dawn, 1914 the viewer is carried abruptly into the unforgiving light of an autumnal morning in Flanders – derived in large part from sights burned into Nevinson’s memory as a motor ambulance driver for the Quaker-organised Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) during the second half of November 1914 on the perilous run from the FAU’s main hospital at Malo-les-Bains in the suburbs of Dunkirk to the shell-plastered Belgian city of Ypres (already known to British soldiers as ‘Wipers’). The dreadful sights he witnessed there, of the evidence of what havoc modern weapons could inflict on the human body, stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Nevinson lasted just under a fortnight as an ambulance driver before his Mors Ambulance was demolished by a passing heavy calibre German shell as it stood parked behind the FAU’s forward dressing station to the north-west of Ypres in a village called Woesten. Nevinson was then assigned to the FAU hospital at Malo-les-Bains as a ward orderly tending to two dozen wounded French and Belgian soldiers and civilians. Towards the end of January 1915 he was given leave to return to London where he had an overnight success with an exhibition early in March at the London Group with his exhilarating Futurist composition Returning To The Trenches (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, see fig.3) gaining critical acclaim.
In April 1915 Nevinson attempted to return to the FAU, but was rebuffed on the grounds that he had seriously overstayed his allotted leave. Stung by this turn of events, early in June 1915 Nevinson volunteered to serve as a Private in the Royal Army Medical Corps at the 3rd London General (Territorial Force) Hospital, Wandsworth. Early in November 1915 he married Kathleen Knowlman of Islington and during his three day honeymoon, he painted La Mitrailleuse. Shortly after returning to duty at Wandsworth, Nevinson fell seriously ill from rheumatic fever, which probably permanently damaged his heart. Towards the end of January 1916 he was given an honourable medical discharge from the Army.
A Dawn, 1914 was probably painted during his convalescence in February - March 1916 at the makeshift studio Nevinson had on the first floor of the family home at 4 Downside Crescent, Belsize Park. Though the title references 1914 the French infantrymen, or poilu (hairy ones), are not wearing the impractical and distinctive uniforms, with bright red trousers, that they wore when they went into action during the early months of the war (depicted in French Troops Resting, Imperial War Museum, London, see fig.3). Rather, they are painted in the drab and yet more practical horizon bleu which the French Army adopted during the spring of 1915.
A Dawn, 1914 was included in the solo exhibition with Ernest Brown of the prestigious Leicester Galleries offered to the 27-year-old Nevinson in 1916 - a show that is a now legendary way-marker in the history of 20th Century British art. The exhibition, which opened in late September, was a tremendous critical success (so much so it was extended by ten days) and established Nevinson as the voice of the Great War, with many influential onlookers convinced that Nevinson, above all, had depicted the terrible essence of modern mass warfare. Frank Rutter writing in The Sunday Times in 1916 declared him the first British Artist to present a 'profound and pictorial expression to the emotions aroused by the War' while Lawrence Binyon in The New Statesman, May 1917, notes Nevinson's vision 'of a world of men enslaved to a terrific machine of their own making which has absorbed into itself the youth of this country'.
The true influence of the exhibition is perhaps best measured by how many of the featured works are now in major museums, both in the UK and abroad. A Dawn, 1914 is one of the very few paintings that is still in private hands. Last year, a pastel from the Leicester Galleries show, Troops Resting, set the current world record auction price for a work by Nevinson of £473,000.
As the Leicester Galleries exhibition closed, Nevinson announced he was finished with war as a subject, but the war was by no means finished with him and within six months he had been recruited as an official War Artist by the new Department of Information. He would go on over the next 18 months to create a number of distinguished images of British troops on the Western Front but none really possessed the bite, the emotion and the resonance of the enduring, suffering, stoic French poilus he had created in 1916.
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