Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson or C. R. W. Nevinson (1889 – 1946) was a challenging character. As a child he was lonely, and at school unhappy. He could be in turns bullish and defensive. Many of his friendships were soured by moments of antagonism and a harboured resentment including those with his contemporary British artists at the Slade School of Art. The class of 1908 was a stellar cast that included David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, William Roberts, Stanley Spencer and Edward Wadsworth, but by the time he had completed his studies, Nevinson was once more a relative outsider, having feuded in love, made mockery of his fellow students and fallen out with his tutor.
In Paris after his studies, he soaked in impressionism, modernism and futurism, although his own account of his relationships with artists such as Picasso seem largely over-egged.
Back in London he associated with Wyndham Lewis and Edward Wadsworth and became a founding member of the London Group, of which Walter Sickert was the original Chair. He published a manifesto for English Futurism called Vital English Art with Marinetti, managing to fall out with Lewis in the process. Once more, he was without a group to associate with.
Nevinson was made famous at a young age for the WWI art that he created during his time as a medical orderly for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and the Red Cross as an ambulance driver in France. His solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1916 was highly acclaimed and a sell-out.
As an official war artist in WWII and during his later career his work did not achieve the same highs of critical and popular acclaim. Faced with the horrors of war, he found that the stylistic techniques and machine-like depictions that had made him so well known earlier in his career were not adequate for expressing the experiences. He turned to a more realistic style of painting and the vulnerability of these did not suit either the war office or his critics, although his reviews continued to be reasonable.
Nevinson had a turbulent relationship with the press, but knew how to use it to his advantage. He constructed an interpretation of himself through press articles, advertisements for his exhibitions, and later memoirs. In a similar way that he embellished his recollections of his time in Paris, he also overstated his own role in the war, and his ‘Rebel Artist’ credentials. Never quite recovering from his early stardom as a young painter of War. He was bitter in his accusations of others and became a largely establishment figure and celebrity during the 1920’s and 30’s. He was left behind the stars of British Modernism, and was highly critical of most of his contemporaries. Without his ‘subject’ Nevinson never quite captured a lasting style, something that he was uncharacteristically respectful of Stanley Spencer for achieving. Despite this, Nevinson was a talented painter and print maker.
Think of C. R. W. Nevinson and it is likely you will conjure up one of his images from WWI – Soldiers on the battle fields, marching or in trenches – mechanized units in the machine of war. As a teenager growing up in Bristol, it is his painting Dog Tired which I remember from visiting Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Richard here at Art on Paper discovered the work of Nevinson at Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield, where he was familiar with this scene.
From 1914 – 1918 Nevinson produced his most well-known and shocking war art. His later work floundered without this focus. Despite this, he was a talented print maker and painter – capturing the energy of the post war modern world. His etchings form part of a tradition of depicting modern industry, bearing witness to a rapidly evolving modern era. His depictions of New York are high-rise, sharp edged and thrusting. He was fascinated by post war modern city life, just as the impressionists had been a generation before in fin de siècle Paris.