Intimate view of war-torn Britain

Persistent Forms attempts to pull themes from a tumultuous half-century with 15 pieces of art

The style of “Standing Soldier Leaning on a Rifle” raises questions about the emotional scars of war.
The style of “Standing Soldier Leaning on a Rifle” raises questions about the emotional scars of war.

Fine Art Review: Persistent Forms @ The Agnes Etherington Auditorium, March 11

Sometimes two plus two equals three–or rather, nine plus four plus one plus one equals 11. It doesn’t make logical sense, but in this world, sometimes the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.

This is the case with Persistent Forms, an exhibition of early 20th-century British art, in which the pieces are so diverse that a sense of cohesion is just not possible. Part of the problem is the time span. An exhibition that covers 50 years–in a period of war punctuated by both economic boom and depression–just can’t be effectively represented with 15 pieces of art. Nevertheless, the pieces selected for the exhibition still speak to the psychology of this era.

Images by Augustus John, Gerard Leslie Brockhurst, Stanley Spencer and New York-born expatriot Jacob Epstein that represent war, shifting gender roles, experimentation, and the distress of a lost generation are each powerful in their own right.

The exhibition would have been more successful had more images been included to more accurately represent the diversity of such a time span. Only one picture by both Brockhurst and Epstein are included, despite the fact that Brockhurst was a follower of John and had such a superb technique that his portraits look almost photographic. Similarly, Epstein was a famed Vorticist, a group of avant-garde sculptors in London around 1915 who briefly experimented in abstraction.

Spencer is more appropriately represented with three graphite sketch portraits of women and a scrap drawing, “Woman Walking Dogs,” showcasing the artist’s preoccupation with figure drawings.

His images are anonymous portraits, but, completed in the 1930s, they have little connection to the large body of John’s exhibited work. While these artists’ drawings and etchings are undoubtedly intriguing and well executed, the images by John dominate in both quantity and psychological impact.

His works are the highlight of the exhibition. Particularly interesting for their representation of Canadian soldiers in the First World War, the seven drawings on display are among dozens of drawings made for a mural commissioned for the Canadian War Memorials project by Canadian tycoon Sir

Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook. Although Aitken’s vision for a war memorial gallery in Ottawa was never fulfilled and the mural never started, John’s drawings produced in France during 1917-18 depict the banality of the soldier’s experience.

“Standing Soldier Leaning on a Rifle” is a pen and ink sketch full of tension. In the absence of lines on the forehead, John is able to express the soldier’s anxiety through the modeling of the eyebrows. The juxtaposition of a man in uniform with the seeming refinement of the same man smoking a pipe is unsettling. One might expect to see a cigarette, and the pipe seems out of place.

Another of John’s exhibited works, “Walking Soldier with a Pack,” a chalk drawing on bluegreen paper, has an ethereal quality, as if the white chalk highlights shimmer across the paper. Although the paper may very well have been blue-green at one time, it has since faded to an olive colour resembling period army fatigues.

“Canadian Soldiers,” a pen and ink image of two young Canadian men, focuses on the upper bodies of the men, with their faces demanding the viewer’s attention. Although they are certainly representative of all Canadian soldiers, the expression in their eyes highlights their individuality.

Indeed, one wonders who these men were, where they fought, if they made it home. Is one of them my great-grandfather? Perhaps that is why John’s body of work drew much of my attention. The exhibition doesn’t seem to make a unified statement, but the images in Persistent Forms represent an intimate view of personal experience in a tumultuous period of history. The images show real people, and though only two are identified by name, the anonymity of the others highlights the persistence of their form.

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