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Kelvingrove Museum hosts European debut of Brushes with War; Art from the Front Line 14-18

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Kelvingrove Museum hosts European debut of Brushes with War; Art from the Front Line 14-18

To commemorate the centenary of World War I, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum will host a major new temporary exhibition featuring 219 original paintings and drawings by serving soldiers who fought in the Great War between 1914 and 1918.

Brushes with War; Art from the Front Line 14-18 portrays most major battles and all aspects of the First World War. Depicted in oils, watercolours and drawings the artworks were created by frontline soldiers from numerous countries from 1914 to 1918. 

Most of the art presented in the exhibition is from the private collection of Joel Parkinson, owner and director of the World War History & Art Museum (WWHAM) in Alliance, Ohio, USA, with a further 16 works from Glasgow Museums’ collection.

Lender Joel Parkinson was at Kelvingrove Museum to add the finishing touches to the exhibition. He was joined by a member of Scots in the Great War dressed in uniform of the period.

Joel Parkinson said:

I’ve had a lifelong interest in World War I and World War II. Both of my grandfathers served in the American Expeditionary Forces in France during the war. Lieutenant John H. Geiszel, a fellow officer in my granddad’s company, painted him riding a horse and leading a machine gun squad through barbed wire to the front at night. I grew up listening to my granddad’s war stories and admiring that painting. I eventually inherited it and now proudly display it in my office, when it is not on loan.

The idea for Brushes with War came to me when I bought a second painting by British Gunner F. J. Mears, of several soldiers silhouetted at night as they walked across duckboards in a muddy, shell-ploughed No Man’s Land. It reminded me of the painting of my granddad. Looking at both I realised I had never seen other works by the actual troops who served. My quest to acquire original art by the soldiers of World War I began. Today I’m honoured to share my collection with the visitors to Kelvingrove Museum, especially at such a poignant time as we approach the centenary of the Great War.

The artworks illustrate the first-hand experiences and struggles through the eyes of the men who actually fought in combat, were wounded in action, taken prisoner and survived aerial dogfights. Independent of official censorship and free from the embellishment of popular propaganda the works share something of the soldiers’ personal brushes with war, capturing insights, moods and motifs often missed by official photographers and observers of the war.

Councillor David McDonald, the Chair of Glasgow Life and Depute Leader of Glasgow City Council, said: 

We are delighted to bring this incredibly poignant exhibition to Kelvingrove to commemorate the centenary of World War I. Brushes with War is a unique collection of work, every piece of art is one-of-a-kind. The concept of gathering art created specifically by the troops of World War I, distinct from official publicity and work commissioned by war artists, presents a completely different offering from other museum exhibits.

It is incredibly important we mark the anniversary of such a significant occasion with something very special and I am certain visitors to Kelvingrove Museum will be moved by the scope and quality of the serving soldier-artists work on show.

Glasgow’s Lord Provost Eva Bolander added:

We look forward to welcoming the people of Glasgow, together with visitors from across the UK and further afield, to join us in honouring the centenary of World War I. Brushes with War is a fascinating window into the past. This striking exhibition offers clear glimpses into World War I through the eyes of the people who actually fought, were wounded and even taken prisoner. The collection as a whole is exceptional and offers a remarkable insight into the lives of those who gave so much to ensure our freedom.

It is a fitting culmination to a four year programme of events across Glasgow, which has included projects such as Fred A. Farrell Glasgow’s War Artist at the People’s Palace, hosting the PoppyScotland France 1914 statue, currently on display at Riverside and the forthcoming Christine Borland commission, opening in October.

Brushes with War; Art from the Front Line 14-18 charts the war from 1914 to 1918 with four sub-themes that depict the patriotic optimism in the early stages of war and the rapid escalation to a global conflict. It then shifts to the hardship, monotony and dark humour of daily life in the trenches and the shared experiences of soldiers from different countries, as well as the increasing bitterness and horror at the enormous loss of life.  The final sections consider the USA entering the war in 1917 and the events that culminated in Armistice Day on 11 November 1918. It is comprised of international works by German, Austrian, French, Belgian, British, American, Canadian, Australian and Russian artists. In addition to its global perspective, the exhibition encompasses themes such as hospitals, prisoner-of-war camps and the war at sea and in the air. These are complemented by two sections containing works from Glasgow Museums’ collection, including works by Percy Smith and Glasgow’s war artist, Fred Farrell.  

While the focus of the artwork changes quite dramatically as the war – and exhibition – progresses the common thread is delicate, detailed, emotive work that conveys how the individual felt about the ongoing war.  In general the solider-artist work displays four qualities that distinguish it from the official art of the time.

Firstly the paintings and drawings tend to be small; the troops made use of the tools they had access to, which was often a simple pencil and postcard.  Almost all official art portrayed daylight, while much of the veteran art is stark, even dark. The art displayed in the exhibition is often simple and subdued, capturing the essence of the soldiers’ experiences, uncluttered by detail. The result is often a powerful simplicity that accentuated reality rather than blandly reproducing it. In truth daily life on the frontline was not composed of non-stop, fast-paced action, but was an endless grind interrupted only sporadically by anything resembling a frenzy.  This is evident in many of the pieces that portray tension over action. Visitors will quickly appreciate that while the soldier-artists may have lacked some of the proficiency of their official counterparts, they reveal an intense degree of authenticity that is unique. 

Much of this is explored in an extensive public programme of events, talks and workshops Glasgow Museums’ have organised to accompany the exhibition. It will include an education programme for primary schools, and an e-twinning project with secondary schools Bellahouston Academy and Holyrood Secondary, together with schools from one of Glasgow’s twin cities Nuremburg, which will culminate in an exchange programme with pupils visiting each other’s’ cities. There will be a day of commemorative performances on Remembrance Sunday with poetry, music and singing to mark the 100 year anniversary of the end of The Great War.

Brushes with War; Art from the Front Line 14-18 is one of three displays at Kelvingrove Museum in 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of the ending of WW1 in November 2018. Frank Brangwyn in World War I: Art in Aid of Blind Soldiers and Sailors, currently on show in the Fragile Art gallery presents a series of five lithographic prints illustrating the experience of a soldier in World War I who went to war, was blinded on the battlefield, hospitalised and then supported to learn a new trade. I Say Nothing will be unveiled on the south balcony on 11 October 2018. The artwork, commissioned by 14-18 NOW and Glasgow Museums, supported by the Art Fund, has enabled Scottish artist Christine Borland to produce a bold and thought-provoking contemporary art commission, created in response to World War I related objects in Glasgow Museums’ collection.

Brushes with War; Art from the Front Line 14-18 opens at Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow on Friday 21 September and runs until Sunday 6 January 2019.  Tickets cost £7 per adult/ £5 per concession, children under 16 free.  For more information visit www.glasgowmuseums.com. A full colour book accompanies the exhibition, Joel R. Parkinson, Brushes With War: Paintings and Drawings by the Troops of World War I, Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2014. It is available from Kelvingrove Museum’s gift shop, priced at £60.