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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:

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide