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WWI display of Frank Brangwyn’s work at Kelvingrove Museum offers a moment to reflect

Home Museums

WWI display of Frank Brangwyn’s work at Kelvingrove Museum offers a moment to reflect

2018 marks 100 years since the end of World War I. Glasgow Museums is commemorating the centenary with a programme of exhibitions, events and talks. Frank Brangwyn in World War I: Art in Aid of Blind Soldiers and Sailors is the first of three displays to open at Kelvingrove Museum this year.

Frank Brangwyn in World War I: Art in Aid of Blind Soldiers and Sailors is an emotive display, which reflects on the impact of war and the life-changing injuries servicemen can sustain while engaged in conflict. Five striking lithographs vividly illustrate the experience of a soldier who went to fight for his country in World War I, was blinded on the battlefield, hospitalised and then supported to learn a new trade. 

Although too old to serve Frank Brangwyn was keen to contribute to Britain’s war effort. A fascinating artist, he used his art to increase public awareness about the atrocities of war, encourage recruitment and to raise money for war charities. Although he was never employed as a war artist, he created these poignant lithographs in 1916/1917 in order that they could be reproduced and sold to raise money for St Dunstan’s Hostel for Blind Soldiers and Sailors in London.

 In the first lithograph, The Farewell, the soldier says goodbye to his sweetheart at a railway station. In the next, The Transport, the soldier disembarks down the gangplank of a troop ship. On the quayside below, soldiers jostle and the claustrophobic composition conveys the sheer numbers of men arriving at the frontline. 

The third lithograph, The Shell, is the most dramatic. The soldier covers his eyes to shield himself from the blinding light of an aerial shell burst. The artist emphasises the significance of this life-changing event by placing the soldier at the very centre of the piece.

What is particularly interesting about this powerful series of prints, is that the artist changed his style part-way through, after showing the soldier being injured by an exploding shell. The location, as with the soldier’s future, changes dramatically.

The next lithograph in the series, The Hospital, is set in a ward full of soldiers with eye injuries. The lines become much softer and the compositions darker as if he was trying to convey something of the new shadowy world of this injured soldier, suggesting real empathy with and understanding of the plight of this young man, and in turn eliciting compassion in the viewer.

In the final lithograph, called The Basket Maker, our soldier, sits on a low chair in a workshop, absorbed in the task of weaving a basket. Although the workshop is dark, light falls on the baskets the soldiers make, offering hope for the future.

An exciting first for Glasgow Museums was the production of a 3D printed representation of The Shell, which allows visitors to feel the composition of the artwork. This came from an aspiration to include a tactile element in the display and was realised by The Glasgow School of Art’s School of Simulation and Visualisation. You can also explore the texture of a partially constructed willow basket, similar to that shown in the final print.  This is one element in a growing programme of exhibitions, events and activities that aim to make disability more visible in the city’s museums and ensure equal access for all.

You can see a little more on Frank Brangwyn in World War I: Art in Aid of Blind Soldiers and Sailors  

Glasgow Museums’ holds a wider collection of World War I prints and drawings by Frank Brangwyn, which are available online through Collections Navigator, click on http://collections.glasgowmuseums.com and search Frank Brangwyn. 

Although these lithographs are over 100 years old they remain as relevant now as the day they were created. Visitors who have already taken in the display have spoken of their empathy for the brave, young soldier whose life was changed forever while fighting for Britain’s freedom.  

Kelvingrove Museum has made great strides to allow everyone to interact with this new display. Keen to ensure it is accessible to the blind and visually impaired community, we teamed up with the charity Scottish War Blinded who offered advice on the colours used and with producing Braille translations of the interpretation panels. An iPad also provides audio descriptions of the objects on a continuous loop, with additional contextual images.

In September a second World War I exhibition, Brushes with War, will open. Debuting for the first time in Europe it will provide an insight into the realities of war through artwork created by those who actually participated in the Great War. Drawings and paintings by German, Austrian, French, Belgian, British, American, Canadian, Australian and Russian soldier/artists offer an authentic, uncensored account of the experience of ordinary soldiers engaged in battle during the First World War.

I Say Nothing, a large scale commission by Christine Borland, will be unveiled on the South Balcony of Kelvingrove Museum in early October. The culmination of a partnership with 14-18 Now and Art Fund this powerful new work will reveal hidden, dark histories behind a selection of WWI-related objects in Glasgow Museums’ collection that initially appear to be related to healing and saving lives.