Counter blast

As the First World War broke out in Europe, some critics believed it would be impossible to record t

By 1912, the London art scene was in uproar, awash with competing "isms". To Mark Gertler, then one of the most promising of the Slade School's crop of outstanding young graduates, it was almost enough to drive a man mad. Eyeing a room filled with gossiping artists and writers - probably the fashionable bohemians of the Café Royal on Regent Street - he despaired: "I looked at them talking art, ancient art, modern art, impressionism, post-impressionism, neo-impressionism, cubists, spottists, futurists, cave-dwelling, Wyndham Lewis, Duncan Grant, [Frederick] Etchells, Roger Fry! I looked on and laughed to myself . . . and I walked home disgusted with them all."

If a young British artist was to choose from this almost burdensome list, he (or, indeed, she) could do worse than latch on to futurism. This bold new movement, brainchild of the Italian writer Filippo Marinetti, had been launched in 1909 - an event now being marked by "Futurism", a large centenary exhibition at Tate Modern in London. As the suffrage campaigner Margaret Nevinson explained to readers of the Vote (the journal of the Women's Freedom League), the futurists were "young men in revolt at the worship of the past . . . determined to destroy it, and erect upon its ashes the Temple of the future. War seems to be the chief tenet in the gospel of futurism: war upon the classical in art, literature and music." Mari­netti would surely have been pleased to have the work of his followers displayed together in a former power station on Bankside.

In 1912, Marinetti and his colleagues were in London - the vibrant, modern metropolis that, with its Underground trains, motor cars, music halls and electric lighting, these artists considered "the futurist city par excellence" (even if they found its inhabitants stultifying, and its artistic legacy worthy of nothing more than a large bonfire in Trafalgar Square). They delivered lectures expounding the outlandish ideals of futurism and put on performances of futurist music. The only English true convert to their cause, however, was Gertler's old Slade colleague, and Margaret Nevinson's only son, Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson.

Nevinson's anguished life and career tell us a good deal about, among other things, what it is to be the son of pushy, prominent and successful parents. As well as being a leading figure in the movement to win the vote for women, Margaret Nevinson was a writer and social reformer. Christopher Nevinson's father, Henry, was one of the best-known liberal journalists in England, covering wars all around the world for news­papers such as the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Chronicle. Nevinson later recalled that, at their Highgate home, he "heard little but a lucidly expressed contempt for the grossness of Edwardian days and [their] worship of all things which were established".

The depressive and insecure Nevinson duly rebelled - against the expectations of his parents and those of English society. Along with Wyndham Lewis, Edward Wadsworth and Ezra Pound, he helped establish the Rebel Art Centre. But espousing the futurist cause - and appending the names of his "Rebel" colleagues to that cause - cost him their friendship. By the time the RAC had transformed itself into the vorticist movement and set about blasting conservative England, Nevinson was persona non grata.

He was now out on a limb, socially and artistically, but the events of August 1914 came to his rescue. The futurists had praised war and "beautiful ideas that kill" as the only way of escaping a stultifying past. Now came the "war to end all wars". The first fully mechanised mass conflict in history, it consumed men in their millions, arraying them as if on a vast assembly line and tearing them to pieces. As a volunteer with the Friends' Ambulance Unit for a few weeks in late 1914, Nevinson witnessed it at first hand.

Although horrified at the thought that futurism had glorified such destruction, he nonetheless maintained that its fractured painting techniques and emphasis on speed, spectacle and conflict made it "the only possible medium to express the crudeness, violence and brutality of the emotions seen and felt on the present battlefields of Europe". Some critics believed it would be impossible to record this new kind of war in paint. With a series of outstanding pictures, Nevinson proved them wrong.

In paintings such as Bursting Shell (pictured opposite) and La Mitrailleuse, Nevinson portrayed the dehumanising cost of the First World War. His French machine-gunners are cold-blooded automata, dealing out indiscriminate, mechanical slaughter. One critic writing in the London Evening News declared: "When war is no more this picture will stand, to the astonishment and shame of our descendants, as an example of what civilised man did to civilised man in the first quarter of the 20th century." On seeing it exhibited in 1916, the artist Walter Sickert agreed: "Mr Nevinson's Mitrailleuse . . . . will probably remain the most authoritative and concentrated utterance on the war in the history of painting."

These paintings would be the peak of Nevinson's career. Although he became an official war artist, and is represented in major galleries and museums in the UK, he is largely unknown today compared to friends and contemporaries from the Slade such as Gertler, Stanley Spencer and David Bomberg. This is unfortunate. As the paintings on display at the Tate demonstrate, he could hold his own with some of the big names of early 20th-century European art. Certainly, not all of his later work compares favourably with his output early in the war, and Nevinson was mistaken in his belief that he could use style (be it futurist, realist, post-impressionist, or whatever) to overcome substance. But as a product and reflection of the intense pressures during the first decades of the past century, both on British society in general, and on artists in particular, his very best work is almost second to none.

David Boyd Haycock's "A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War" is published in October by Old Street (£20)
“Futurism" is at Tate Modern, London SE1, until 20 September. For more information, visit: www.tate.org.uk