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Truth and Memory at The Imperial War Museum

Paul Nash, 'We Are Making a New World' (1918)

The walk from Waterloo station to The Imperial War Museum is one of London’s dreariest, second only to any perambulation taking in Lower Thames Street.  The sour smell of Lambeth’s bins is punctuated by blasts of hot beery air as the pubs throw open their doors on a muggy July morning.  I am here to see a collection of World War I paintings gathered under the heading ‘Truth and Memory’ as well as the re-vamped atrium.

The atrium proves to be a sombre affair, the fixtures and fittings are cold, gunmetal grey.  The exhibits are also grey and forbidding with a grim looking Harrier suspended above you and no sign of a bi-plane anywhere.  The vibe is subdued and solemn whereas I recall as a boy getting goose bumps at the sight of all the weaponry. Perhaps this is a result of growing up, but I suspect it is more that our attitude to conflict has shifted dramatically away from the way it was depicted in Commando or Battle comics. Realism is king here and also rears its head in the temporary exhibition of British First World War art.

Filippo Marinetti, founder of the Futurist movement, once declared that he and his cohorts would ‘glorify war – the world’s only hygiene’.  He certainly wouldn’t like the new atrium and I would question whether dabblers in futurism, Christopher Nevinson or Paul Nash, had any intention of celebrating the war.  Their work is represented by several striking pictures, Nash’s The Ypres Salient at Night with its jagged trench illuminated by strobes from a flare has a frosty brilliance.  Both men served in the war and both drifted towards realism, perhaps the only way they could express horrific scenes they had witnessed.

Nevinson’s Paths of Glory shows two dead Tommies, face down in the mud of no-man’s land.  One is left in no doubt that this miserable little scene is a squalid consequence of war and is deeply sobering. The descriptions that accompany each painting are particularly well written and informative. I learned that Paths of Glory was unsurprisingly censored, but Nevinson exhibited it anyway, partially obscured by brown paper across the bodies reading ‘censored’. The title later became a book before Stanley Kubrick filmed it; a withering satire on the folly of war.

The show does include the ludicrous Defeat of The Prussian Guard, Ypres, 1914 by W. B. Wollen. This is the Brits sticking it to the Hun in an heroic charge. Plucky us against the stiff militarists in spiky helmets. I actually quite like it as it could have nestled happily in the pages of Commando. Walter Sickert makes a surprise appearance, taking time off from painting prostitutes in Camden.  Again, I learned he skulked off to live in Devon, evidently not impressed by the Zeppelin air-raids.

Chief windbag of the Vorticists, Wyndam Lewis, is here with A Battery Shelled as well as the artist he spent some time mocking, William Orpen. Orpen was too much of a realist for Lewis although his portraits of fighter pilots looking moody and heroic would certainly have been morale boosting stuff.

World War I coincided with some radical artistic techniques and manifestos. Take someone along who isn’t interested in ‘war’ and watch as they are ensnared by this fascinating collection of paintings. The museum was horribly busy when I visited but the show is fairly quiet.  I negotiated the miserable walk to the station with a head full of startling images and barely noticed the smell, despite the fried chicken joints firing up their fryers.


By Richard Warburton

‘Truth and Memory’ is on until March next year.  The museum is open 10 am – 6 pm.


The Soane Museum

William Hogarth, 'The Rake's Progress,' Plate 8 (1735)

London is full of nice places spoilt by too many people. Covent Garden, Richmond and Tate Modern would be delightful if you could halve the number of visitors. It was with some relief therefore, that I turned off the grim artery that is the Kingsway, and entered Lincoln’s Inn Fields to see the usual modest queue in front of The Soane Museum. Thankfully this gem of a house is still some way off the tourist trail, the lucky few waiting outside dutifully switch off their mobiles and wait to be ushered in at irregular intervals to maintain the atmosphere inside.

Sir John Soane is chiefly remembered for designing The Bank of England, however his more resonant legacy is his house, half of which he converted into a museum during his lifetime. Visitors were welcome by appointment but not in ‘wet or dirty weather.’ His aim was to inspire and educate fledgling artists and architects. What remains today is a fascinating cornucopia housed in a technical marvel of a building.

The living quarters are cosy and comfortable but the place really comes alive in the rooms designed for his collection. The Picture Room is a small box that contains over a hundred paintings, all on display thanks to an ingenious hinged wall system that allows you to see Hogarth’s sequence of morality pictures, The Rake’s Progress, in its entirety. Three Venetian scenes by Canaletto and a Turner are also among the collection.

The Colonnade is packed with antiquities, such as classical busts and statues, urns and fragments of architecture. The glass dome floods the space with light yet mysterious objects still manage to hide in shadow, encouraging you to pause and peep into recesses. You can even look down into the crypt below where the sarcophagus of King Seti I awaits your inspection.

Adjoining the crypt is the Monk’s Parlour, Soane’s send-up of the contemporary passion for all things gothic. The low ceiling and constricted space coupled with casts of grotesque faces provoke an uneasy feel to the room. Whenever I am here, I imagine reading an M. R. James ghost story by candle light to a small group of nervous friends.

Three stops east on the Central Line is the Bank of England itself.  Before I worked in the city, I had mistaken the Royal Exchange for our national bank. The actual edifice was demolished in the early twentieth century. What replaced it is fairly uninspiring, although the loss of Soane’s original interior being perhaps the greatest crime. In Bartholomew Lane you can visit the Bank of England Museum where, if you are an economics dunderhead like me, you can get to grips with inflation and quantitative easing. There is also the opportunity to feel the weight of a genuine gold bar, (very heavy), and examine one of your banknotes under ultraviolet light to see the anti-forgery techniques used.


By Richard Warburton

The Soane Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am with last entry at 4.30pm and it is free.

The Bank of England Museum, Bartholomew Lane is open Monday to Friday from 10am with last entry at 4.45pm and it is also free.

The Human Factor v Matisse by Richard Warburton

Henri Matisse, Icarus 1946, Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Droits réservés © Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2013

The Southbank Centre is currently hosting the emetic Festival of Love under whose banner falls a twenty five year retrospective, The Human Factor. On a hot and sunny morning I squirmed out of the grasp of the flower power aesthetic and entered the concrete box of brutalism that is The Hayward Gallery. The artists on show range from Koons to Wallinger and, while the subject is the human body, the themes are more death and alienation than love and peace.

Creepy mannequins abound, some disfigured such as in Hirschhorn’s Four Women. Four fashion mannequins, whose varying state of disfigurement is juxtaposed by horrific pictures of mutilated dead bodies. Paul McCarthy’s That Girl feels more mischievous with its three very lifelike naked women, lying back with their legs apart. There is something of the naughty schoolboy about the mind behind this work and I was convinced that the intent was more to incite discomfort than admiration.

For more mischief, head for Maurizio Cattelan’s Him which has its own room. Inside you see a small boy, dressed in tweeds, kneeling, his back toward you. You feel faintly embarrassed as you approach, as if you are intruding on someone’s private moment of prayer. Then you discover the penitent boy is a shrunken Adolf Hitler and the joke is on you. Nevertheless, the piece ramps up the sense of the uncanny so that by the time I visited the roof to see Pierre Huyghye’s concrete, reclining nude with a massive buzzing beehive for a head, I was thoroughly inured to the surreal and the disjointed.

Shrugging off the Hayward’s cool cloak of air conditioning I refuelled at Gabriel’s Wharf and headed west to Matisse at the Tate Modern. I must take my hat off here and salute this successful attempt to recreate the atmosphere of Heathrow’s Terminal 2. Mobile phones blare along with toddlers and babies in prams. Harassed parents demand their offspring appreciate Matisse’s nuanced scissor-work, while staff dart about, admonishing tourists for using the flash on their cameras. You might imagine that a former power station would boast a robust cooling mechanism, but sadly you can almost feel the master’s glue beginning to soften and unpeel in this suffocating environment.

The brilliance of the cut-outs on display have been highlighted elsewhere but I would like to risk reiterating the beauty of the four Blue Nudes and the sheer scale of some of the pieces. So often seen in reproduction, The Snail was, to my surprise, a nine foot monster of a mollusc.

Perhaps art critics should join the rest of the great unwashed and experience a blockbuster art show on a sultry Monday afternoon. I am blessed with enough height to peer over the most craning of necks, however it would be interesting to read a report cobbled together amongst nudging rucksacks and jabbing pushchairs.

Festival of Love, Southbank Centre, 28 June 2014 – 31 August 2014

Matisse, Tate Modern, 17 April 2014- 7 September 2014

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