We Are Making a New World British Masters


We Are Making a New World

James Fox looks at British art in the early 20th century, when a radical generation of painters pioneered a style that made sense of the modern experience.


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It was 1914, the First World War had just begun.

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As Britain's boys enlisted to fight for "King and Country",

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one young man was enjoying the attractions of his local fairground.

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His name was Mark Gertler,

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an impoverished, but precocious, painter.

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Now, he'd come to the fair for some light relief, to escape the hardships of his everyday life

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and all the incessant talk of the war, but on this visit he wouldn't find any relief.

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He would actually be confronted with a dark and brutal vision of the future.

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As Gertler stood watching the fairground's carousel,

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he had a premonition... of Britain trapped in the insanity

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of a never-ending war.

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A war that would consume both soldiers and their families...

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..that would transform their hope into horror,

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and would then spin desperately out of control.

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But the painting he made was much more than a vision of the Great War.

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It was a prophecy of the entire 20th century.

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The ride we couldn't get off.

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And Mark Gertler was just one of a new breed of British artist

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who would help us make sense of the catastrophic century that lay ahead.

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In the early years, when new challenges, new technologies,

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and new conflicts shattered all our certainties

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they taught us how to survive in the modern world.

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As our Empire collapsed and the nation itself was under threat

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they created an image of Britain in which we could believe and for which we could fight.

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And in the new nuclear age,

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they renewed our faith in the human spirit

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and gave us hope again for the future.

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As the rest of the world was out exploring abstraction,

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expressionism and all these other new "isms", our painters

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were doing something far more interesting.

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They took the best bits of modern art and infused them

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with our own great painting traditions.

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The result was a uniquely British take on modern art.

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A glorious take on modern art

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and I think it was one of the finest artistic movements in all of Western culture.

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One's life really was

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up in the morning and then for a ride in the park.

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After that, tea somewhere,

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scrumptious little iced cakes and strawberry ices.

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For the privileged few, the Edwardian era was one long and lavish tea party.

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The table always had a beautiful white tablecloth on it

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and lovely silver and flowers.

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The largest empire in history brought them luxuries from all corners of the globe

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and high society frolicked in wealth, splendour and decadence.

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Soup in silver plates, a fish of some beautiful sort, with a lovely sauce.

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It was apt to get a little cold, by the time it came round.

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Theirs was a fantasy life.

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A fantasy that our painters were only too happy to endorse.

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This is a typical example

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of Edwardian art.

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It was painted by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema

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and he became immensely rich pedalling lurid fantasies like this.

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Now, you can see why it was so popular,

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It's well painted, it's elegant,

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it's vaguely intellectual, but not too intellectual, and, of course,

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it's filled with naked women.

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But don't be fooled by its charms,

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because the truth is, this is really, really, really bad art.

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It's reactionary, it's elitist, it's sexist, it's motivated by money

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alone and, what's more, it was completely out of touch

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with the realities of modern Britain.

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The realities were not so pretty

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and in a grubby corner of North London

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British art would finally start to confront them.

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And all because of a murder.

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It was the morning of September 12th, 1907.

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A railway man had finished his late shift

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and was making his way through the back streets of Camden Town.

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He arrived home to greet his wife...

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..but on this morning

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he was greeted with a shock.

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This brutal killing became known

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as the Camden Town Murder.

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The killer was never found

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but that night in September, 1907

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was a seminal moment in the history of British art

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and that's because one painter dared to shock the whole country and paint it.

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That painter was Walter Sickert, a man dedicated to taking art

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out of the Edwardian drawing room and into the real world.

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For years, he'd been painting the insalubrious lives of Britain's underclass.

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A drunkard heads off to the pub.

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A singer plies her trade in a grubby music hall.

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LAUGHTER

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And the rowdy crowd heckle from the cheap seats.

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But inspired by the Camden Town Murder

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he would make his most audacious statement yet.

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This isn't really a painting.

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It's a crime scene.

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Indeed, at first, it looks like a rather touching portrait

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of a wife or a girlfriend dozing away in bed one morning,

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but when you look closer

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you begin to notice that Sickert has planted all these little clues throughout the painting

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that gradually, and together, reveal something horrific.

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Why, for instance,

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is the woman wearing lipstick when she's asleep?

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Why is she wearing jewellery

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when she's asleep?

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Why is she sleeping naked and why have the bed sheets been pulled down

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And then you get revelation number one.

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She's not a wife,

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she's not a girlfriend,

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she can only be a prostitute.

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And then you begin to notice more things, strange things.

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Her cold, yellow-green flesh,

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the twisted neck.

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And that's when you get revelation number two.

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Maybe she's not sleeping at all,

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maybe she's dead.

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And then you've only got one question left,

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who could have done this?

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And that's when you discover

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the final clue - this...

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A man's overcoat is on the chair next to her bed

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and that means only one thing,

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the killer is still in the room.

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And that's when the most awful and devastating revelation of them all strikes you -

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you are the person in the room.

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You are the client.

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You are the killer.

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And this painting is your viewpoint of a crime you've just committed.

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You arrive at this painting innocent and you leave it guilty.

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For Sickert, the entire Edwardian elite stood guilty,

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guilty of neglecting the poverty and violence that simmered in Britain's streets.

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But Sickert had one young devotee who wanted to go even further.

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He didn't just want to accuse Edwardian society,

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he planned to overthrow it.

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It was a diabolical plot dreamed up by one of the most poisonous minds of the 20th century.

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This is the brain of Percy Wyndham Lewis

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and it only survives because of a very rare tumour

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he developed in his pituitary gland that sent him blind and eventually caused his death.

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But it's a suitably gruesome relic to a very gruesome man.

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Wyndham Lewis was a misogynist, fascist and anti-Semite,

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who had the dubious honour of writing the very first biography of Hitler,

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and was described by Ernest Hemmingway, no less,

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as having "the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist."

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He was not a nice man,

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but bad men can be great artists

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and Wyndham Lewis' twisted mind was the secret of his genius.

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Wyndham Lewis was born 1882,

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on a yacht somewhere off the coast of Nova Scotia.

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His mother was English, his father a bigamist,

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and a veteran of the American Civil War.

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As a young man, Wyndham Lewis lived an itinerant life

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but in 1908, he made London his home.

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He was entranced by the vitality of the city,

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its dazzling, electric light...

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...its roaring motorcars,

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..and its towering buildings.

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Together, they offered the possibility of a mechanical paradise

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and Wyndham Lewis began to fantasise about how a new society,

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governed by machines, could overthrow the stuffy world of the Edwardian elite.

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In every way conceivable, he was the enemy, really,

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of the existing status quo of the time.

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He's attacking everything he thinks is complacent,

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cant, hypocrisy, people who are idle and lazy in their thought

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and were frightened of the modern world, frightened of modern ideas.

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He considered himself to be extremely revolutionary, I suppose.

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And in Wyndham Lewis' revolution the secret weapon would be art.

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In 1912, he embarked on a blistering series of breakthrough works

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that first announced his vision of the future.

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At the heart of them all was the human figure,

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but as never seen before.

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Violent, robotic humanoids are trapped in an angular wilderness.

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They look like nightmares,

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but they were Wyndham Lewis' dream of a mechanical world order.

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But Wyndham Lewis knew he couldn't realise that dream alone.

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To succeed in revolutionising Britain, he needed to create a movement.

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In July 1914, he published a manifesto.

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It was a call to arms, a work of art in its own right,

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and its name was Blast.

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"Blast quack English drug for stupidity and sleepiness.

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"Impossibility for Englishmen to be grave and keep his end up psychologically.

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"Impossible... Blast... The years 1837 to 1900.

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"An abysmal and inexcusable luxury sport... The famous English...

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It was less a manifesto, more a vitriolic, incoherent rant.

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"Incapable of anything.

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"Bless the hairdresser, he attacks Mother Nature for a small fee.

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"Bless England - industrial, island machine.

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"Pyramidal workshop,

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"its apex at Shetland."

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It stinks of his personality.

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The aggression, the violence, the megalomania,

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all of that squeezes through every single page,

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every single word is Wyndham Lewis taking up assault against Britain.

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"Point one, we hear all sorts of disagreeable things about England.

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"The unmusical, anti-artistic unphilosophic country. We quite agree."

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Wyndham Lewis is not pulling his punches here,

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he's really going for the jugular,

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he's really attacking England.

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And I think for me this is the most revealing image of them all.

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It's a wrecking ball and that's precisely what

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Blast was, the big, giant, angry, violent wrecking ball,

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that was let loose on Britain and its cultural conventions.

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A small group of artists rallied to Wyndham Lewis's cause

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and they called themselves The Vorticists.

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Edward Wadsworth imagined industrial Britain as seen from the air.

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Cuthbert Hamilton saw steel girders rise up from a building site.

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And Lawrence Atkinson plotted a cathedral for the machine age.

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They remain some of the most radical artworks ever made.

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The extraordinary thing about Vorticism is that

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it's still looks revolutionary, avant-garde today.

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Whereas most so-called avant-garde today is as stale as old mutton.

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And the greatest Vorticist painting of them all

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was made by the mastermind himself.

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It is a bold and terrifying vision

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of the mechanical metropolis of his dreams.

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This is a very special picture because it's one of Wyndham Lewis's

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only Vorticist paintings to have survived.

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Most of them were burnt in fires or destroyed in explosions

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or ruined in floods. Some just disappeared and were never seen again.

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You've got this vast prison-like city of skyscrapers and streets.

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But the most alarming thing, I think, of all

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is his treatment of the figures,

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because they're all dehumanised.

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They're all turned into little soulless robots

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and they're fighting each other.

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They're waving flags and they're shouting on to their comrades.

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You know, this painting now is almost 100 years old,

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but I just can't believe how truly prophetic it is.

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It really does prefigure a whole disastrous century

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of wars and revolutions,

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of fascism, of ideology, of class struggle.

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It prefigures a whole century of ever-expanding cities

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and unsustainable development.

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And it prefigures a whole century

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where individuals were isolated,

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dehumanised and alienated.

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And you know something?

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If you think this painting doesn't have anything to do with you,

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just look through the window

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and you can see these little people working away at their desks.

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Wyndham Lewis failed to turn Britain into his own mechanical dystopia,

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it became one without him.

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But a very different dream would come from a most unlikely place.

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A hundred years ago the East End of London wasn't

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just a different neighbourhood,

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it was a different world,

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London's very own badlands.

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To get here you actually had to cross a river of blood

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that surged down the road from the local slaughterhouses

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and when you crossed that grizzly threshold you suddenly immerged

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into a dangerous and exotic world of criminals and prostitutes

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and Orthodox Jews and Eastern Europeans asylum seekers.

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Now you might think that this kind of place was no kind of place for art

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but as it turned out these slums produced one of the finest painters of the 20th Century.

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His name was David Bomberg

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and he was as tough as they come.

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His family were Jewish refugees who fled brutal persecution in Tsarist Russia.

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His father was a leatherworker and a gambler prone to violence.

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Bomberg's early life was pretty much a daily fight for survival,

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his brothers were actually street fighters and boxers

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and by all accounts David could throw a mean punch himself.

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But he had an even more powerful weapon up his sleeve.

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Bomberg could draw and draw well

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and he became convinced that art was his only way out of the ghetto.

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His world was different from everybody else's

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so domestic life went on around him but his focus was always on

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to my experience always on his art.

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Everybody else was going into some kind of trade and, and he wanted to be a painter for god's sake!

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What use is a painter?

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Bomberg was determined to break into the exclusive London art world in anyway he could.

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And in 1911,

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he finally won a place at art school.

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But not as an artist,

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as a model.

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Bomberg found the job tremendously boring

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and frustrating too.

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He wanted to be an artist and not a model

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so one day he brought some drawings in with him to the class

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and when it was over he showed them to the teacher.

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The teacher was staggered because his drawings were better than anything ever done by the students.

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Bomberg was promptly offered a scholarship at the Slade,

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London's most prestigious art school.

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And here he is posturing proudly in his class photograph.

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The Slade was a blessed relief from the hardships of the East End

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and with new confidence Bomberg began to experiment.

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But the Slade didn't like experiments

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and soon he found himself in trouble.

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On one occasion he actually smashed his professor with a pallet when he dared criticise his work.

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So you'll not be surprised to hear that he was branded a troublemaker and eventually kicked out.

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It seemed that Bomberg had thrown away his one chance to make something of himself.

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Already he had that determination and I think that's probably a very Jewish thing.

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That actually if you're a minority community you know,

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especially then, you get to be tough. You have to be tough.

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And Bomberg's fortunes were to change

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during a visit to the local Jewish baths.

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It was a spiritual place where the East End Jews

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cleansed themselves before Synagogue.

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And here during a moment of quite contemplation

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Bomberg had an epiphany.

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As Bomberg cleansed himself of a weeks worth of filth,

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he realised he could do exactly the same thing with his art.

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He could cleanse it of the past.

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He could cleanse it of all those stultifying techniques that he'd been taught at the Slade

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and he could cleanse it of all the boring old traditions that had held back so many British artists before.

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And by doing so he believed he could make paintings

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that were purer, cleaner, fresher and bolder than any ever made before.

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Like Wyndham Lewis, Bomberg broke with centuries of tradition

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producing fragmented paintings of psychedelic originality.

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But his image was one of optimism.

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Dockers unloading a cargo ship are transformed into

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a colourful Kaleidoscope of energy.

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And in Jujitsu he celebrates the dynamism of martial arts combat.

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But for his greatest work he would turn to his beloved bathhouse.

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This is Bomberg's first great masterpiece and he knew it too.

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He was so proud of this picture that when he first exhibited it, in Chelsea

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He hung it outside the gallery on the street and then proceeded to decorate the whole thing with flags.

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And apparently it caused such a stir that it sent traffic jams all the way down the King's Road.

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And that doesn't surprise me - it doesn't surprise me at all because when he made this in 1914,

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this was as bold and radical as any painting in the world.

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Now it's based on his own memories of the East End baths

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and you may not be able to notice it immediately

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but it is a picture of bathing.

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This bright red rectangle that's the bathing pool

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and these blue and white figures around these are the bathers.

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These are the East End neighbours of Bomberg

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and you can just about make them out doing their thing.

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So for instance here's a form of someone diving into the pool,

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you've got lot's of other figures climbing out of the pool over here

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swimming around inside and over here with the bent legs

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you can just make out these bent legs, here's a figure that

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just climbed out of the pool drying himself off.

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So this painting is all about the process of becoming clean

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but this isn't just about modern Londoners cleansing themselves of dirt.

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Bomberg saw this painting as a great manifesto for the modern world

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and I think he's telling us that the modern world can cleanse and empower us all.

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It can even transform the impoverished Jews of the East End

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into these great muscular heroes of modernity.

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It can render everyone pure,

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it can make everyone equal

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and it can set everyone free.

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David Bomberg had found liberty in modern Britain

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where Wyndham Lewis had seen only cruelty.

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But together their pioneering paintings had completely transformed British art.

0:29:280:29:32

There was just one problem no-one understood them at all.

0:29:370:29:42

The British people didn't understand and certainly didn't like this new modern art

0:29:420:29:47

but something was about to change all that,

0:29:470:29:50

something that would force our artists to abandon modernism and return to tradition.

0:29:500:29:56

And that something was the First World War.

0:29:560:29:59

The declaration of war in 1914 was greeted with hysteria.

0:30:100:30:16

Many were convinced that it would finally unite Edwardian Britain.

0:30:190:30:23

That it would transform ordinary young men into heroes

0:30:250:30:30

and then it would finally confirm Britain's unrivalled supremacy over the world.

0:30:300:30:36

And one young artist was certain it would make him a star.

0:30:360:30:40

Like Bomberg and Wyndham Lewis, Richard Nevinson had trained at the Slade,

0:30:440:30:50

but unlike them he had little natural talent knocking out

0:30:500:30:55

second-rate paintings that aped the avant-garde.

0:30:550:30:58

Here he is posing proudly in front of a painting he called,

0:31:000:31:04

Tum Tiddly Um Tum Pom Pom.

0:31:040:31:07

The title says it all.

0:31:070:31:10

But Nevinson's mediocre prospects would change one evening

0:31:140:31:17

when he was lured to the theatre,

0:31:170:31:20

to witness an unorthodox performance by London's most infamous celebrity.

0:31:200:31:24

A maverick Italian by the name of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

0:31:240:31:32

Marinetti was a poser, an adrenaline junkie and a veritable

0:31:340:31:38

grand master of the silly idea.

0:31:380:31:41

He had proposed burning down all the world's museums

0:31:410:31:45

sinking the whole city of Venice

0:31:450:31:47

and he thought that nothing was more fun than a good old fashioned car crash.

0:31:470:31:51

But in this performance Marinetti reached a new low.

0:31:550:32:00

HE IMITATES GUNFIRE & EXPLOSIONS

0:32:060:32:13

Marinetti loved war

0:32:130:32:16

and he declared his love in an experimental sound poem

0:32:160:32:20

that was supposed to give the public an authentic taste of the battlefield.

0:32:200:32:25

The public's reaction was divided -

0:32:330:32:37

divided between disgust, horror,

0:32:370:32:40

hatred, terror and outrage.

0:32:400:32:44

But Nevinson was entranced.

0:32:440:32:48

He too dreamed of battle, of glory, of heroism

0:32:480:32:52

and on a wave of patriotism Nevinson enlisted.

0:32:520:32:57

But he would be sorely disappointed.

0:33:020:33:05

In 1914, he arrived in France

0:33:070:33:10

but was immediately deemed too weak to fight.

0:33:100:33:15

So he spent his days as a medical orderly

0:33:160:33:20

pottering about on the lonely lanes of Flanders

0:33:200:33:26

far away from the frontline.

0:33:260:33:29

Though you wouldn't have thought it from his tales of daring do.

0:33:290:33:35

Nevinson told one story that in the middle of a Zeppelin raid

0:33:350:33:38

he got the wheels of his ambulance caught in a railway track as a train hurtled towards him

0:33:380:33:44

and flames bellowed around him and he only escaped at the very last second.

0:33:440:33:49

And on another occasion the Germans apparently fired a shell

0:33:490:33:52

directly at him but it miraculously passed through a little hole in his ambulance and he immerged unhurt.

0:33:520:33:59

And on another occasion he was for some reason up in

0:33:590:34:03

a hot air balloon and an enemy aeroplane shot the air balloon down.

0:34:030:34:07

The balloon was plummeted towards the ground but once again Nevinson escaped.

0:34:070:34:14

Now I don't know about you

0:34:140:34:17

but I don't believe a word of it.

0:34:170:34:19

After just ten uneventful weeks

0:34:250:34:28

Nevinson made his way quietly home.

0:34:280:34:31

But back in Britain he was greeted as a real war hero so he

0:34:350:34:38

busied himself making pictures that showed a hero's view of modern war.

0:34:380:34:46

Pictures that would guarantee him public acclaim.

0:34:460:34:49

And in the heart of the West End

0:34:520:34:55

Nevinson bagged his very own one-man show.

0:34:550:35:00

Nevinson's exhibition was a sensation.

0:35:000:35:05

Everyone who was anyone was there.

0:35:050:35:07

Royalty, aristocracy, army generals, famous painters, famous writers

0:35:070:35:12

and no less than four past, present and future prime ministers.

0:35:120:35:17

And when they were all assembled together inside the gallery

0:35:170:35:20

Nevinson made his entrance with a limp a walking stick and in full army uniform.

0:35:200:35:26

Nevinson revelled in his newfound glory

0:35:290:35:32

but the adulation was deserved

0:35:320:35:34

though he'd never seen a moment of combat

0:35:340:35:38

he had managed to capture the essence of modern war.

0:35:380:35:42

He'd discovered a formula.

0:35:440:35:47

Art that was geometrical and modern yet easy to understand.

0:35:470:35:52

Art that could be appreciated by the connoisseur and layman alike.

0:35:520:35:58

Here a battalion march in unison up to the frontline.

0:36:020:36:07

Troops rest after the rigours of battle.

0:36:100:36:14

And an aeroplane swoops down from the clouds.

0:36:190:36:23

But the public's favourite painting was called La Mitrailleuse.

0:36:260:36:33

Most viewers thought this was not just Nevinson's best work to date

0:36:360:36:41

it was the greatest painting of the whole conflict.

0:36:410:36:45

Walter Sickert even called it,

0:36:450:36:47

"The most authoritative utterance on war in the history of painting."

0:36:470:36:51

Now clearly it's a powerful and uncompromising image of war

0:36:510:36:56

and not just any war - this is modern war.

0:36:560:37:00

You can see a group of French machine gunners here their in a dugout,

0:37:000:37:04

they're surrounded by barbed wire.

0:37:040:37:06

One of them has been killed already.

0:37:060:37:09

This one's panicking over the dead body

0:37:090:37:12

and these two are firing blindly into the distance.

0:37:120:37:15

Now this isn't a war of cavalry charges and heroism and flying flags

0:37:150:37:20

this is a war in which scared men fight clumsily for their lives

0:37:200:37:26

and for no apparent reason.

0:37:260:37:29

And that's what people admired about this picture,

0:37:290:37:33

they admired it for telling them an inconvenient, an unpleasant truth

0:37:330:37:38

about what was happening across the Channel.

0:37:380:37:40

And they trusted it too because Nevinson was a soldier,

0:37:400:37:45

Nevinson had been there

0:37:450:37:47

and Nevinson had seen this first hand in the trenches.

0:37:470:37:53

But we know that wasn't true,

0:37:530:37:55

Nevinson had never stepped foot inside a trench

0:37:550:38:00

and Nevinson actually painted this on his honeymoon.

0:38:000:38:04

But the real truth about the war would come from a most unlikely place.

0:38:110:38:17

This Buckingham countryside was once home to a lonely young artist called Paul Nash.

0:38:200:38:27

A man whose intense emotional bond with nature

0:38:270:38:31

would make him the greatest war painter of the 20th Century.

0:38:310:38:35

On his long solitary walks, Paul developed the fanciful idea

0:38:420:38:47

that trees were like people with personalities all of their own.

0:38:470:38:52

And he painted them obsessively.

0:38:520:38:56

But not even a sensitive young man like Nash could avoid the war

0:39:070:39:12

and eventually he signed up.

0:39:120:39:14

It was February 1917,

0:39:280:39:30

when he disembarked at the port town of Le Havre.

0:39:300:39:34

He wondered what all the fuss was about.

0:39:360:39:41

This was a subdued time in the war as armies regrouped

0:39:470:39:51

and the Generals argued over strategy.

0:39:510:39:54

But after a few relaxed weeks Nash finally received orders to move up to the frontline.

0:39:580:40:03

But during the lull, nature had reclaimed the battlefields...

0:40:050:40:11

and the trenches were in bloom.

0:40:110:40:14

Where his comrades saw death and destruction,

0:40:170:40:21

Nash thought this place was actually quite nice.

0:40:210:40:24

What wasn't there to like?

0:40:240:40:26

There were trees, leaves, birds, sunrises.

0:40:260:40:31

Even the trenches were quite pretty.

0:40:310:40:33

In fact, the whole place reminded him of Sussex.

0:40:330:40:37

And he couldn't resist the temptation to paint it.

0:40:370:40:41

Two swallows swoop low past an orchard...

0:40:440:40:47

..and shrubs thrive amid the trenches.

0:40:520:40:54

But this pastoral idyll wasn't to last.

0:40:590:41:02

That spring, the British Army began preparing

0:41:060:41:08

for a massive new offensive...

0:41:080:41:10

..and it was then that an accident would

0:41:120:41:15

profoundly alter Nash's future.

0:41:150:41:17

One day, Nash, actually climbed out of the trench to make a sketch of

0:41:220:41:26

some rather delightful lights he saw shining away in the distance.

0:41:260:41:31

Anyway, as he stepped to the side to get a better look at them,

0:41:310:41:35

he lost his balance, tumbled back into the trench and broke a rib.

0:41:350:41:39

Now, he was immediately sent back to England to recover from the injury,

0:41:390:41:43

but it was probably the luckiest thing

0:41:430:41:45

that ever happened to him in his life,

0:41:450:41:47

because only a few days later, his whole company was slaughtered

0:41:470:41:51

in a disastrous offensive.

0:41:510:41:53

Passchendaele, the most brutal and inhumane battle of the whole war.

0:42:020:42:07

Hundreds of thousands of men disappeared into no man's land,

0:42:100:42:13

and many of them never returned.

0:42:130:42:18

After his recovery, Paul Nash returned to Passchendaele,

0:43:190:43:24

but the place that he had once found so beautiful

0:43:240:43:26

was now a desolate wasteland.

0:43:260:43:29

Nash was utterly horrified by what he saw here,

0:43:350:43:39

and to understand how he felt, you really have to hear what he wrote

0:43:390:43:42

in a letter to his wife after he saw it.

0:43:420:43:45

Because I think it is one of the most powerful things ever written

0:43:450:43:49

about the First World War, perhaps about any war.

0:43:490:43:52

And this, this is what he wrote.

0:43:520:43:55

"Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous. They are mockeries to man.

0:43:570:44:04

"It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless.

0:44:040:44:08

"I am no longer an artist, interested and curious.

0:44:100:44:14

"I'm a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting.

0:44:140:44:18

"To those who want the war to go on forever,

0:44:180:44:22

"feeble, inarticulate will be my message,

0:44:220:44:26

"but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls."

0:44:260:44:31

And it was that horror, that outrage,

0:44:310:44:35

that desire to tell the truth about the war that caused Nash to make

0:44:350:44:39

the greatest masterpieces of his career.

0:44:390:44:42

But Nash's greatest work is the bleakest of them all.

0:45:090:45:13

It's the morning after the battle.

0:45:170:45:20

The sun is rising.

0:45:210:45:22

And now, the sunrise is typically a symbol

0:45:240:45:26

of hope and rebirth and renewal, but not this sunrise,

0:45:260:45:31

because this sunrise doesn't reveal a twinkling new morning -

0:45:310:45:34

it reveals a truly appalling scene.

0:45:340:45:36

You can see here a sky that's blood red,

0:45:380:45:40

filled with all the blood that has been shed the night before.

0:45:400:45:44

You can see a forest all the way here of burnt and broken trees,

0:45:450:45:49

and underneath, this crazy, writhing ocean of mud.

0:45:490:45:52

And out of that mud, these trees become metaphors

0:45:560:45:59

for the dead buried beneath them.

0:45:590:46:01

With their sagging limbs, like the arms, these become like the bodies

0:46:030:46:06

who have fallen on the field of battle.

0:46:060:46:08

Parts of this tree here look like a hand, imploring the heavens,

0:46:110:46:15

but the heavens remain indifferent.

0:46:150:46:17

I think this is a truly brutal and incredibly powerful attack on war

0:46:190:46:24

and its consequences from Nash.

0:46:240:46:26

And I think it's more powerful than any book or any poem or any film,

0:46:260:46:31

precisely because it's so silent and so empty and so wordless.

0:46:310:46:39

But as war turned to peace, it wasn't horror that people wanted.

0:47:000:47:05

They wanted hope...

0:47:050:47:07

..and one artist was determined to provide it.

0:47:080:47:11

Stanley Spencer had given four years of his life to the war,

0:47:140:47:18

first as a medical orderly, and then as a frontline soldier in Macedonia.

0:47:180:47:25

And it was in a quiet corner of Hampshire that he set about

0:47:260:47:30

creating a masterpiece that would finally consign the war to history.

0:47:300:47:36

This is the Sandham Memorial Chapel.

0:47:400:47:43

Few come here today, but I believe this modest brick building

0:47:470:47:52

contains one of our most neglected treasures...

0:47:520:47:55

..and an artwork that completes

0:47:560:47:58

the great reawakening of British painting.

0:47:580:48:01

There are mornings when I open up, I say, "Good morning, chapel,"

0:48:060:48:10

and how well it's looking.

0:48:100:48:12

As custodian, you do everything,

0:48:160:48:18

so the gardens and the chapel and the buildings and the day-to-day cleaning

0:48:180:48:22

and maintenance, things like that.

0:48:220:48:24

You stand in the middle of the chapel and you look around,

0:48:370:48:42

and that's the closest you'll ever get to being inside Spencer's mind.

0:48:420:48:45

Just having all these images around you.

0:48:450:48:48

In his chapel, Spencer created an artwork

0:48:570:49:01

on a scale of the great fresco cycles of the Italian Renaissance.

0:49:010:49:06

But he did it in his own inimitable way.

0:49:060:49:09

This is Spencer's war...

0:49:170:49:19

..and Spencer's war began as an orderly in a Bristol hospital.

0:49:210:49:25

This is the first thing you see as you come in here,

0:49:300:49:33

and it shows the wounded returning from the Western Front

0:49:330:49:37

and arriving at the War Hospital in Bristol,

0:49:370:49:40

and the big iron gates are being opened for them.

0:49:400:49:43

Now you would think this scene would be a scene of horror and pain and suffering, but not for Stanley.

0:49:440:49:50

You see the soldiers, although they've got their slings and their bandages and their casts,

0:49:500:49:55

they almost seem to be having a good time

0:49:550:49:57

at the top of this open-topped bus

0:49:570:49:59

and there are these beautiful rhododendron flowers around them.

0:49:590:50:02

So the whole scene seems like some kind of bank-holiday outing

0:50:020:50:05

rather than some terrible traumatic scene of the First World War.

0:50:050:50:09

This is the case of all of these pictures in here.

0:50:090:50:12

This is probably my favourite

0:50:250:50:27

and it shows the beds being made in the hospital.

0:50:270:50:31

Now, the best thing about it is this figure on the left

0:50:310:50:34

because he's so cold as his bed's being made

0:50:340:50:37

that he's wrapped himself completely in his blanket

0:50:370:50:39

and he's keeping his feet warm by standing on a hot water bottle.

0:50:390:50:43

Now, I remember doing that as a child when it was particularly cold in the morning

0:50:430:50:47

and it's just amazing that a scene like this

0:50:470:50:49

could ever make its way into a war painting,

0:50:490:50:52

but that's the great thing about Spencer -

0:50:520:50:54

he's not painting the horror of war,

0:50:540:50:56

he's not painting the brutality of war,

0:50:560:50:58

he's painting, if anything, the banality of war.

0:50:580:51:02

And you can see the banality in this picture.

0:51:020:51:04

This shows tea in the ward

0:51:040:51:07

and you can see these enormous piles like Jenga of bread and butter,

0:51:070:51:11

and Spencer's favourite meal in the world was bread and butter.

0:51:110:51:16

This is called Ablutions,

0:51:180:51:21

and it shows the early morning washing up and cleaning,

0:51:210:51:25

so you can see one guy polishing the taps like he's sort of doing a rock and roll dance with the taps.

0:51:250:51:31

You can see another person having their back scrubbed

0:51:320:51:35

and this person in the foreground is washing their hair in a sink.

0:51:350:51:39

Now Spencer actually had an enormous amount of difficulty painting the soapsuds on the hair

0:51:390:51:44

so he did it himself and sketched himself in the mirror as he washed his hair.

0:51:440:51:48

Everywhere you find these domestic moments.

0:51:480:51:51

But his most memorable images

0:51:570:51:59

were drawn from his experiences of the frontline, in Macedonia.

0:51:590:52:03

The culmination of the whole project is this painting. 21 feet high,

0:52:070:52:13

it took Spencer almost a year to paint

0:52:130:52:16

and it shows a battlefield, an enormous battlefield in Macedonia

0:52:160:52:21

that's filled with all the soldiers that have died during the war,

0:52:210:52:27

Spencer's friends, Spencer's comrades.

0:52:270:52:30

But here they're all being resurrected,

0:52:300:52:33

they're all climbing out of the earth rubbing their eyes,

0:52:330:52:36

looking around and saying hello to their old friends,

0:52:360:52:41

the friends they thought they'd never see again.

0:52:410:52:44

Towards the end of his life Spencer returned to revisit this work

0:52:580:53:03

that meant so much to him.

0:53:030:53:05

'When I did this resurrection altarpiece,

0:53:190:53:23

'I wanted it to be in a particular place that I remembered

0:53:230:53:28

'and, um, I felt that all that I hoped for

0:53:280:53:33

'of all the coming back home and everything,

0:53:330:53:37

'could be celebrated there.'

0:53:370:53:40

These places the men were rising from,

0:53:420:53:46

as you see down below, just by the altar,

0:53:460:53:49

are their rising in a place which they would like to rise in.

0:53:490:53:54

It's a happy place and that I was very keen about,

0:53:540:53:57

that one makes this battlefield a happy place without altering anything.

0:53:570:54:03

I tried to get this feeling of the consciousness of the cross

0:54:070:54:11

getting more and more tense as it gets up

0:54:110:54:13

and when it gets to the man above those mules

0:54:130:54:15

who's reclining over a crucifix, and I get a feeling he's there forever.

0:54:150:54:19

I don't think anything, any bomb or anything dropping behind his head,

0:54:190:54:23

will make him take the least notice.

0:54:230:54:25

Immediately above him you see Christ as just a man among the men,

0:54:250:54:32

receiving the crosses and quietly talking to them.

0:54:320:54:37

Well, I feel in that way that all these things which were previously war scenes

0:54:390:54:44

are now having to behave as the bringers of the happy message of the resurrection.

0:54:440:54:51

Every single wound of war is being healed in this picture, in this whole chapel.

0:54:570:55:03

You can see here they're shaking hands.

0:55:070:55:11

I've got to say that I think that's one of the greatest passages

0:55:140:55:18

of 20th-century painting, that handshake,

0:55:180:55:20

because, you know, a handshake is something we do every day,

0:55:200:55:24

but Spencer found something epic in it, something momentous in it,

0:55:240:55:29

and you realise that that handshake

0:55:290:55:31

isn't just a handshake between old friends who thought they'd never see each other again.

0:55:310:55:37

It's a handshake between the past and the future.

0:55:370:55:43

With the Sandham Memorial Chapel, Stanley Spencer had reinvented tradition

0:55:550:56:01

to create a timeless sanctuary amid the chaos of the modern world.

0:56:010:56:06

MUSIC PLAYS

0:56:110:56:14

But Spencer had not been alone in responding to the challenges of his age.

0:56:140:56:19

The ten years or so between 1910 and 1919 must surely rank

0:56:210:56:25

as the most remarkable in the whole history of British art,

0:56:250:56:29

because in those years British artists turned themselves

0:56:290:56:32

into nothing less than the conscience of the entire nation.

0:56:320:56:36

They showed us the problems and possibilities of the modern world.

0:56:360:56:40

They told us the truth about the First World War

0:56:400:56:42

when hardly anyone else would and with a nation in trauma,

0:56:420:56:45

they gave us hope and strength for the future.

0:56:450:56:49

In the next episode

0:57:150:57:18

British painters lead the country through a period of national crisis.

0:57:180:57:23

Some find refuge in nostalgia,

0:57:250:57:28

some in fantasy,

0:57:280:57:31

while others search for the timeless spirit of the English countryside.

0:57:310:57:37

But in the darkest hour they come together

0:57:370:57:42

to create an image of Britain in which we can believe...

0:57:420:57:46

..and for which we can fight.

0:57:470:57:51

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:58:030:58:06

E-mail [email protected]

0:58:060:58:09

In a major re-calibration of 20th-century British paintings, art historian James Fox argues that British painting from 1910 to 1975 was an extraordinary flowering of genius. He predicts that art historians of the future will rank the period alongside the Golden Ages of Renaissance Italy and Impressionist France.

Drawing upon the work of Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, Stanley Spencer and David Hockney, among others, Fox explores why, during the 20th century, British painters were often dismissed for being old-fashioned. He reveals how these artists carefully reconciled tradition and modernity, providing a unique creative tension that now makes the period seem so exciting.

Over the course of the three-part series, Fox presents his theory that this period of artistic excellence was closely linked to a dramatic shift in Britain's fortunes. He suggests that the demise of the British Empire, as much as the two world wars, defines Britain's unique take on modern art: a determination to rediscover and cling on to 'Britishness' while the country's territorial assets and global influence fell away.

In the years immediately before and during the First World War, a radical generation of painters determined to eject Victorian sentimentality and nostalgia from their art pioneered a new style of painting that would capture and make sense of the modern experience. Walter Sickert shocked the public by making the low-lives of Camden Town and a brutal murder the subject of his gaze. Wyndham Lewis and David Bomberg broke with centuries of realist tradition, reducing humanity to cold geometric forms. But as the country descended into war, three painters - Christopher Nevinson, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer - reconciled what was best of the avant-garde with Britain's rich painterly tradition to create powerful images of war that would speak to us all.


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