The cultural legacy of the Great War
(from Artists and the First World War by Keith Jeffreys accompanied by examples of the artists works that I like)
The way in which the Great War was – and is – remembered and commemorated in Ireland and by Irish people exemplifies the often equivocal response, north and south, to the issues of patriotism, national sacrifice and personal loss which were raised during 1914-18 and in the following two decades. The comparatively limited cultural legacy, in terms of music, visual art and literature, clearly reflects the lack of Irish commitment for or against the war. In a sense, the war did not seem to matter to Ireland. Despite efforts to equate Ireland with Belgium, and John Redmond’s attempts to fire Irish patriotism in support of the Allied war effort, during the war itself and after there was a collective and increasing lack of engagement with the conflict.
Although a great number of Irishmen volunteered to fight, and very many died, Ireland as a whole – or at least nationalist Ireland – progressively became detached from the war, becoming, like Orpen and Lavery, and Yeats’s airman, in a sense ‘onlookers’.
Although Orpen never lived in Ireland after August 1915 (a one-day visit in 1918 was the only time he returned home before his death in 1931), it’s said he never lost his Irishness.
Despite his position as an official War Artist employed by the British Ministry of Information, he always seemed an outsider looking in. On the western front, he was ‘an onlooker in France’, the title he took for his illustrated war diary which was published in 1921.
There are two principal features about Orpen the Irishman and war artist.
First was his detachment from the actual conflict, stemming from both his status as an official observer of the war (in which capacity he was not permitted to go up to the front), and also as an Irishman, not wholly engaged in what we might call the Anglo-German conflict.
This detachment, however, was coupled with an intense sympathy for the common soldier. In the preface to An Onlooker in France, Orpen noted his ‘sincere thanks for the wonderful opportunity that was given me to look on and see the fighting man, and to learn to revere and worship him’.
The second notable Irish painter of 1914-18, also an official War Artist, was the Belfast-born John Lavery. Although, like Orpen, he was an immensely successful portrait painter, his war paintings contain little of the strong human emotion displayed by his Dublin-born compatriot. Most of his pictures depict the home front, principally in a conventional landscape mode. They are not pictures of much passion, and Lavery himself afterwards dismissed his war paintings as ‘dull as ditchwater’.
Images of the Great War were also being produced by William Conor in Belfast. Of the three artists he was certainly closest to ‘the people’. His vigorous and personable, if rather folksy, sketches of soldiers in the 36th (Ulster) Division were effectively uniformed versions of the ordinary workers. His pictures mostly dealt with the home front or soldiers training before they went overseas. They also record the role of women in the war effort.