The First Art Newspaper on the Net   Established in 1996 United States Saturday, August 17, 2019


The greatest work by Britain's leading war artist comes to auction
Unseen for decades, rediscovered in a private collection. Courtesy Sotheby’s.


LONDON.- One of the most powerful and arresting images of the First World War ever painted, A Dawn, 1914 hails from a landmark moment in the career of C.R.W. Nevinson, widely considered as the British artist of the First World War.

The work perfectly encapsulates the best of Nevinson’s Vorticist style of the period 1914-1916, depicting a seething mass of soldiers reduced to mechanical forms.

The painting was first exhibited at Nevinson’s acclaimed 1916 solo exhibition at the prestigious Leicester Galleries, attended by the likes of Sir Winston Churchill and G. Bernard Shaw, and is one of very few paintings from this landmark show still in private hands.

Appearing on the market for the first time since it was acquired in 1964, A Dawn, 1914 will be offered with an estimate of £700,000-1,000,000 as part of Sotheby’s Modern & Post-War British Art Sale on 21 November.

“It happened that I was the first artist to paint war pictures without pageantry, without glory, and without the over-coloured heroic that made up the tradition of all war paintings up to this time. I had done this unconsciously. No man saw pageantry in the trenches.” – Nevinson, 1938

Within a few weeks of the outbreak of war in 1914, Nevinson journeyed to the front and began a stint as an ambulance driver helping to tend hundreds of terribly wounded soldiers. The deeply disturbing sights he witnessed, evidence of what havoc modern weapons could inflict on the human body, stayed with him for the rest of his life.

This painting carries the viewer abruptly into the unforgiving light of an autumnal morning in Flanders, as overloaded soldiers march onwards to a life in the trenches with no supporters to cheer them on.

The soldiers in question are the poilus – downtrodden French soldiers who, unlike their British counterparts at the beginning of the War, were conscripts rather than volunteers and Nevinson’s portrayal of these suffering, stoic men possesses an unparalleled bite and resonance.

Last year, Sotheby’s sold a small 1916 pastel of French Troops Resting - a study for the finished painting that is now in the Imperial War Museum. This pastel set the current world record for any work by Nevinson, selling for £473,000.

“Our Futurist technique is the only possible medium to express the crudeness, violence and brutality of the emotions seen and felt on the present battlefields of Europe” – Nevinson, 1915

A leading British exponent of the Italian Futurist movement in the years prior to the outbreak of the war, Nevinson’s vision of war rivalled anything by his Italian counterparts in its violence, energy and mechanised version of the Modern. The geometric rendering of the crush of bodies melds the individual into the military whole – the driving immediacy and speed almost dissolving the composition into pure abstraction. Although there is characterisation in the determined soldiers as they pass by, their grim faces soon fade away to simple angular shapes losing their individuality, even their humanity, as they become a single unit on the move – a marching machine with a rush of speed and power felt from the front to back of the composition. Nevinson’s unique ability is apparent in rendering the notion of ‘man as machine’ without any extraneous glamour, but at the same time without losing a sense of common nobility in his subject.

Nevinson married in November 1915, and during his leave painted one of the most famous images of the war – also featuring French soldiers – La Mitrailleuse, which is now at the Tate. The considerable critical discussion and publicity that this sparked led to Nevinson being offered a solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in September-October 1916, a show which featured A Dawn, 1914.

Attended by the great and the good of London’s literary, social and political set, the exhibition was a tremendous critical success – with influential onlookers convinced that Nevinson, above all, had depicted the terrible essence of modern mass warfare. After the show closed, Nevinson announced that he was finished with the war as a subject, but within six months he had been recruited as an official war artist by the new Department of Information – although his work as an official war art was fundamentally changed in style.





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