BBC Culture

World War I: Censored images and graphic portraits

  • Gavrilo Princip, Unknown photographer, 1914

    In a room at the National Portrait Gallery in London, a small black-and-white photograph of a teenager sits opposite grand paintings of emperors and kings. “There’s George V at the head of the British Empire, and Wilhelm II, the German Emperor; Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I; Tsar Nicholas II of Russia; and Archduke Franz Ferdinand – all in splendid gold frames, all looking remarkably impressive in their uniforms and their gold,” says Paul Moorhouse, curator of a new exhibition, The Great War in Portraits. On another wall hangs the press photograph of Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old postman’s son who assassinated Franz Ferdinand and his wife in June 1914. “He is – in a sense – responsible for the downfall of the others,” says Moorhouse. “By the end of World War I, three empires are in ruins – Austria, Russia and Germany – and Britain’s empire was severely weakened and never recovered. It’s extraordinary that one man can do that.” While emphasising that Princip was the catalyst for the conflict, not its cause, Moorhouse believes these contrasting images reveal much about the underlying tensions that erupted in 1914. “If you look at these portraits, you see some of the conditions that were created which allowed the war to break out. And central to those conditions was imperial pride, rivalry and hubris.” (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

  • Soldiers with Facial Wounds by Henry Tonks, 1916-18

    Contrasting with official portraits, images drawn in pastels by the surgeon Henry Tonks show the facial wounds of British soldiers – images that were kept from view. “Injuries to the body were well-known and highly visible in the streets, and people would actually go up to soldiers and ask: ‘How did you come by that? Where did you serve?’ Those injuries were a badge of service and duty,” says Moorhouse. “But the facial mutilation was something else; it was a culture of aversion – people wanted to hide it away. And it touched another nerve – if you lose your face, you lose your identity, in some way you lose your humanity, and people had a different response to it. So those images were not for public consumption.” (The Royal College of Surgeons of England)

  • Scene from Battle of the Somme by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, 1916

    The 1916 documentary film Battle of the Somme was shot on location and watched by 20 million Brits when it was released in cinemas. “The film is a product of the Ministry of Information,” says Moorhouse. “It was a high-risk project, because people there were very nervous about how images of the war would affect people’s attitude to it. Images of the wounded and the dead were highly controversial – what you see in the film is shocking images of the wounded, and you see corpses, but it’s significant that they’re not British corpses, they’re German soldiers. By looking at the censor’s comments, it’s clear that the depiction of dead Tommies [slang for common soldiers] was off-limits.” (Film still: Imperial War Museums)

  • La Mitrailleuse by CRW Nevinson, 1915

    The official war artist programme, set up in 1916, faced difficulties. “William Orpen was sent off to France with the instruction to paint formal portraits of the leaders, but he began to paint and draw soldiers that he encountered when he was wandering around the battlefields,” says Moorhouse. Although Orpen painted exhausted soldiers, he refrained from showing British corpses. “But official war artist Christopher Nevinson depicted dead Tommies in his painting Paths of Glory, and it was censored.” According to a letter he sent to the Imperial War Museum, Nevinson was not pleased. “He was incendiary about it and felt that it was a cover up. In fact, he did show the painting in an exhibition in London, but he plastered a sheet of brown paper across it and wrote ‘censored’ across it. He was furious that he was being controlled in this way.” (Tate)

  • The Dead Stretcher-Bearer by Gilbert Rogers, 1919

    This painting was made by Gilbert Rogers in 1919, after the war. “The depiction of dead Tommies only became permissible after the war had ended, because of sensitivities,” says Moorhouse. “They thought that showing dead British soldiers would simply be too deleterious to the war effort.” The Rogers image also reveals how British artists responded to the horrors of the war. “Modernism had been taking off in Britain prior to the war,” he says. “But by the end of the war it took a setback, a real body blow – modernism and more advanced modes of expression were identified with the enemy. So you see British artists reflecting a wider sense of the need to be reassured by the past, and as a result reaching back to traditional modes of expression.” (IWM ART 3688)

  • Torso in Metal from The Rock Drill by Sir Jacob Epstein, 1913-4

    That change of outlook is summed up in Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill. A kinetic sculpture created in 1913, it was seen as a modernist fusion of man and machine. “There was no doubt that at the beginning of the war, Epstein and others were swept up with this Vorticist celebration of mechanisation, and they thought the war would be an opportunity to see mechanisation unleashed,” says Moorhouse. But after seeing maimed soldiers returning from the front, and facing conscription himself, Epstein changed the sculpture in 1916. “He then said he wanted a sculpture that showed the Frankenstein monster that the war had turned us into,” he says. “He takes off the rock drill – cuts the arms off it – and he changes the whole nature of it.” (Tate)

  • Selbstbildnis als Soldat (Self-portrait as a Soldier) by Ludwig Kirchner, 1915

    The response of British artists to the war was not mirrored by the Germans. “By the end of the war, Germany is on the losing side – so they actually don’t want to go backwards, they want to make a break with the past,” says Moorhouse. German Expressionist painter Ludwig Kirchner created his Self-portrait as a Soldier in 1915, when he was in a sanatorium recovering from shellshock. “He was shattered by his experiences, he had a breakdown,” says Moorhouse. “It’s a terribly affecting image, because he’s completely ruined, on every level. He paints himself metaphorically with a severed hand – he didn’t really lose his hand, but it was a symbol of the injuries he’d undergone. He depicted himself with a prostitute – the severed hand is a symbol of his impotence, but it’s also artistic impotence – it’s the hand he uses to paint with, so he’s been destroyed in every respect: as an artist, and as a man.” (Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio)

  • Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig by William Orpen, 1917

    Even official portraits can offer an insight into the realities of conflict. Orpen’s painting of Field Marshall Douglas Haig – Britain’s commander during the battle of the Somme – is not straightforward propaganda. “If you look at it closely, Orpen is starting to engage with him psychologically as well,” says Moorhouse. While being painted, Haig asked Orpen: “Why waste your time painting me? Go and paint the men. They’re the fellows who are saving the world, and they’re getting killed every day.” Historians have questioned whether those in charge were the cruel upper classes often portrayed. “Was Haig doing the best he could in an impossible, unpredictable situation, or was he the completely insensitive monster who sent men over the top to serve in death?,” asks Moorhouse. “The portrait seems to occupy that ambiguous question. It’s formal, and yet there seems to be an element of concern and compassion about it as well.” (Imperial War Museums)