My earliest memory of art was a trip on a wet Saturday afternoon to the Imperial War Museum in London when I was no more than six or seven. One picture made a huge impact on me during that visit: John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, a huge canvas (231 cm x 611 cm) depicting a line of blinded soldiers, each with a hand on the shoulder of the man in front, being led towards a field hospital. I found the painting absolutely horrifying at the time and it fuelled nightmares for months afterwards. That I can still remember the visit over forty years later is a testament to the power of the image.
John Singer Sargent’s Gassed (1919) at the Imperial War Museum’s Truth and Memory exhibition, December 2014.
I went back to the Imperial War Museum a few days ago to visit their Truth and Memory exhibition of art from the Great War and there it was again. I do believe that John Singer Sargent, a society portrait painter before the war, manages to achieve with realism a more visceral effect than modernists such as Nevison and Nash attained, partly because of its scale and perspectival qualities. As in the case of Kiefer (see “The fine art of asking big questions”) Sargent invites you into the horrific world that his picture depicts.
Unfortunately, the painting is not displayed to the best effect in the current show at the Imperial War Museum: the gallery is cluttered with cabinets and busts and the viewer is unable to get an unimpeded view of the whole picture. But it is still a very moving image. Close up, there are some surprises: behind the row of soldiers a football match is going on (an allegory of the British “playing the game” whilst the dastardly Germans resort to poisonous gas, maybe?). Like a lot of the art on display, Gassed was produced after the hostilities, as the country started to come to terms with the horrors of the war free from the censorship that tried to present only positive images of the front whilst hostilities were ongoing.
Detail from John Singer Sargent’s Gassed (1919): a football match continues behind the injured soldiers.
I worry that fine art these days is too easily relegated to a branch of interior decoration; we buy pictures because they will look good on our walls rather than for any deep moral purpose. Gassed is not a picture that anyone would want on their wall. It is a picture to stand before and meditate, a picture that tells us a tale about human condition and one that offers up a moral lesson. That, in fact, was the primary purpose of what we now call “fine art” until about 400 years ago. Truth and Memory has few pictures that qualify as “beautiful” or “tasteful” and none that glorify war. There is nothing, indeed, that you would want to hang on your living room wall. That’s what makes it so worth visiting.