Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery delves into the war art made by soldier-artists serving on the front line during the First World War
Joel Parkinson grew up listening to his grandfather’s tales of serving in the American Expeditionary Forces in France during World War I. Fascinated, he would admire the painting by fellow officer Lieutenant John H. Geiszel which depicted his grandfather on horseback, leading a machine gun squad through barbed wire to the front.
So began a lifelong interest in the World Wars which eventually led to him establishing the World War History & Art Museum (WWHAM) in Alliance, Ohio, USA. Many of the museum’s artworks – created by front line soldiers between 1914 and 1918 – will be on temporary display at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum in an exhibition commemorating the centenary of World War I, titled ‘Brushes with War; Art from the Front Line’.
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“The idea came to me when I bought a painting by British Gunner F. J. Mears,” says Parkinson.
“It reminded me of the painting of my granddad. Looking at both I realised I had never seen other works by the actual troops who served. My quest to acquire original art by the soldiers of World War I began.”
The exhibition follows a chronological narrative, portraying the patriotic optimism of the war’s early days through to its rapid escalation into a global conflict and finally, the increasing bitterness and horror at the enormous loss of life.
After spending five months at the Somme, war correspondent William Beach Thomas famously wrote: “Everything visible or audible or tangible to the sense – to touch, smell and perception – is ugly beyond imagination.” But many would argue there is beauty to be found among these illustrations.
Life in the trenches was characterised by a near-constant tension: boredom interspersed with bouts of action. Much of the art depicts the monotony, dark humour and anxiety of the soldiers’ routine – capturing the essence of their daily experiences as well as the sporadic frenzy of combat. Most major battles of the war are depicted, seen through the eyes of a soldier who fought there.
In striking contrast to the established propaganda of the time, the soldiers’ artwork is stark and subdued, often portraying the hours of darkness. Indeed, the first two pieces acquired by Joel – the painting of his grandfather and ‘Walking the Plank’ by F.J Mears – show nighttime operations.
Another common feature of the artwork is size, with the obvious restrictions of the front line leading to many small, even postcard-sized pieces, uncluttered by detail. The result is a powerful, authentic simplicity.
Yet, where it was possible the soldier-artists have relished a larger canvas: watercolours, oils and gouaches sit alongside pencil sketches, all of them offering an equal snapshot into a pivotal moment in world history.
While a lot of the art portrays the Western Front, the exhibition also encompasses depictions of army hospitals, prisoner-of-war camps and the war at sea and in the air. Art by German, Austrian, French, Belgian, British, American, Canadian, Australian and Russian soldiers relay the shared experiences of troops from different countries and the universal desire to document it.
The loaned pieces are complemented by two sections containing works from Glasgow Museums’ collection, including art by Percy Smith and Glasgow’s war artist, Fred Farrell. The exhibition forms one of three displays at Kelvingrove Museum marking the centenary of the end of the First World War.
Parkinson says he’s honoured to share the art he has acquired with visitors to Kelvingrove Museum, “especially at such a poignant time as we approach the centenary of the Great
In all, more than 200 pieces from his private collection will be display, including the one that started it all, that of his grandfather, Lieutenant N.P Parkinson, which has been carefully taken down from its pride of place in Joel Parkinson’s office to make the journey.
Brushes with War; Art from the Front Line is at Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow from September 21 2018 until January 6 2019. Tickets cost £7 per adult/ £5 per concession, children under 16 free.
A full colour book accompanies the exhibition, available from Kelvingrove Museum gift shop.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
One of the finest civic collections in Europe is housed within this Glasgow landmark. Here you can explore collections that include everything from fine and decorative arts to archaeology and the natural world. The number of individual items in the natural history department alone is vast. You can admire Sir…