In 2009, curator David Boyd Haycock produced the book A Crisis of Brilliance, which delved into the lives of five British artists around the time of the Great War – Paul Nash, Richard Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler and Dora Carrington. At Dulwich Picture Gallery, four years later, he has curated this thought-provoking exhibition of the same title, with the addition of a sixth artist, David Bomberg.
The title was inspired by the words of Henry Tonks, a tutor at the Slade, who described these artists as the school's "last crisis of brilliance". The first "crisis" had been instigated by their predecessors, Augustus John, Ambrose McEvoy, William Orpen and Wyndham Lewis. Although the second group of artists were just as talented as the first, they faced new challenges from emerging continental art movements and the onset of the First World War. This exhibition documents their individual responses to these challenges.
Before attending the Slade these aspiring artists were already producing skilful and imaginative works, some of which can be seen in the first room. They were chosen for their promising talent over their educational background – Mark Gertler and David Bomberg had come from poor, East End Jewish families. Henry Tonks taught them to draw figures using his medical knowledge, as shown by his annotated sketches in the display unit of this first room. They learned quickly under Tonk's stern tuition and keen eye. As a result, their life drawing skills were some of the best the Slade had ever produced.
These gifted students also won Slade prizes for their works on canvas. Their tutors encouraged them to study the early Renaissance masters, an inspiration that is clear in these first three rooms. They were also dissuaded from going to groundbreaking exhibitions, such as those hosted by Roger Fry, with the fear that new art movements would poison their minds. It was a time when Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism were all arriving in Britain – influences that were hard to resist. Despite their attempts to remain independent, many of these young artists started to experiment with new styles. David Bomberg produced the most radical experimentations, such as In the Hold (1913–14), situated to capture attention at the entrance to this exhibition. Bomberg's chaotic compositions, with human forms reduced to simple, geometric shapes, provoked outrage and he left the Slade after being singled-out as a bad influence.
The second half of this exhibition hinges around the impact of the First World War. Richard Nevinson was eager to experience and depict the Futurist ideal of modern war. His blend of Futurist and Cubist styles is clearly demonstrated with a focus on the infrastructure of bridges, buildings, boats and trains. By contrast, the early war paintings belonging to Paul Nash are relatively tame and preoccupied with trees, proving that Nash was still fascinated by nature, even whilst serving at the front. However, as the war progressed, with increasing numbers of casualties, the attitudes of both artists changed. Nash wanted to return to the Front to be able to portray the full horror of the war – something the British Press had failed to do. Nevinson became more interested in the human sacrifice, rather than Futurist glorification of war, which can be seen in his later paintings as an official war artist.
In the same room as these paintings are the pacifist works of Mark Gertler and Dora Carrington. They provide a vivid contrast with their bright colours and alternative subject matter. Nevertheless, both artists were emotionally affected by the war, exacerbated by their troublesome relationship with one another.
The final room focuses on the wartime legacy left by these young artists. A study for Bomberg's war commission dominates the room – a symbol of the demoralising quality of the war. This version was rejected, and Bomberg was forced to compromise his style to produce another version. The styles of the other artists had also changed. Nevinson's A Studio in Montparnasse shows a complete shift to a sombre realism. The coping mechanism for these artists appears to have been to retreat to the countryside, the coast or a foreign shore. With the exception of Stanley Spencer, they struggled for artistic recognition after the war, never fully completing their ambitions.
The mood of Haycock's exhibition is successfully enhanced by the colours of the walls, which are white at the start, moving to pale blue, then dark blue for the gloomy war years. To those unaccustomed with this period in art, there is a lot of information to digest, but the overarching struggles and challenges shared by these artists are easy to follow. In the end, this exhibition fulfils an emotional goal; acting as a well-deserved tribute to six gifted individuals.