Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2018), News, Volume 26

A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland.

By Donal Maguire

In April 1917, Irish painter William Orpen (1878–1931) went to France as an official war artist, serving with the British Army during the First World War. Soon after his arrival Orpen visited the Somme, the site of one of the war’s most significant and terrible battles.
By then deserted, the battlefield was a lifeless wasteland, the result of a prolonged campaign of trench warfare, mining and heavy bombardment. In his memoir of the war, An onlooker in France (1921), Orpen expressed clearly the permanent impression the place left on him:
‘I shall never forget my first sight of the Somme battlefields […] there was this endless waste of mud, holes and water … horrible and terrible, but with a noble dignity of its own.’

Orpen spent a good deal of time exploring the Somme, and in a series of images painted between the spring and autumn of 1917 he depicted the world that was left in the aftermath of the battle. Focusing on the landscape, he captured the Somme’s transformation from a decimated terrain, populated by human remains, into a picturesque landscape marked by the scars of battle.

An onlooker in France is a major source for understanding Orpen’s work as a war artist. A notable feature of the book is his interest in the landscape of war. Whether recalling the network of roads and trenches that criss-crossed the countryside or contemplating the hills and valleys that defined the battle lines, Orpen described the landscape not simply as a backdrop to the war but as a central character.

At the Somme, however, Orpen witnessed the landscape as a victim of the war, a terrain ravaged by battle, left mutilated and unable to function even as a place of proper burial for the fallen—‘mud over the bodies as they lie […] Arms and feet showing in lots of cases’, he wrote. A recurring theme of Orpen’s book is the relationship between the landscape and human trauma. This relationship can also be seen in his paintings and is explored in the National Gallery of Ireland’s exhibition Aftermath: the War Landscapes of William Orpen.

Left: William Orpen’s Dead Germans in a Trench, 1917. (IWM)

Dead Germans in a Trench (1917) is a haunting picture depicting the skeletal remains of German soldiers. The bodies are half-encased in the trench wall, forming a literal and gruesome conjunction of human and earthly remains. Providing little information relating to the battle, Orpen’s picture focuses on the world it left behind, showing ‘vivid and realistic impressions of […] the devastation of war’, as was noted in 1917 by one critic for The Times.

Returning to the Somme in August, Orpen discovered that the landscape had changed in his absence, evolving in the summer months into terrain that was at once both shocking and wondrous to him:

‘In the summer […] no words could express the beauty of it. The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure—dazzling white […] Everything shimmered in the heat.’

One morning while out walking, Orpen recalled, ‘[I] suddenly found myself on the lip of the crater. I felt myself in another world.’ Standing at the edge of the Lochnagar mine crater, Orpen was overcome by its sublime qualities, describing it as a ‘romantic and inspiring place’. He struggled, however, to comprehend the terrible act of its creation, writing:

‘Imagine burrowing all that way down in the belly of the earth, with hell going on overhead … And here remained the result of their work, on the earth at least, if not on humanity.’

Orpen worked on site, producing a number of views of the crater that convey a sense of its awesome presence yet devastating effect on the landscape.

By the end of the summer the battlefield had been transformed utterly. Grass covered the hills and valleys, and trenches and craters were incorporated into the new topography. In View from the Old British Trenches Looking Towards La Boisselle (1917), it is only in the almost hidden interruptions to the natural topography that Orpen’s paintings suggest a sense of the total destruction the area had sustained, and the massive death-toll it had witnessed.

Orpen was not the only war artist to depict aftermath scenes during the First World War, but he achieved an unusual degree of detachment in his paintings that removed them from the politics of the war. His painting of the Butte de Warlencourt, for instance, pictured against a blue summer sky, epitomises an approach to war art that has less to do with showing the reality of warfare and more to do with thinking about how it is remembered. As Orpen himself suggested:

‘All these things made one think terribly of what human beings had been through, and were going through a bit further on, and would be going through for perhaps years more—who knew how many?’

The exhibition continues until 11 February 2018.

Donal Maguire is administrator of the ESB Centre for the Study of Irish Art, and curator of the exhibition.


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