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12 Days

3 January 2014

For each of the 12 days of Christmas we have asked Apollo staff and contributors to select the artistic highlights that they are most eagerly anticipating in 2014. The Muse Room will return with its regular daily blogs on 7 January 2014. From all of us at Apollo, happy new year!

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War falls in 2014, something I am anticipating with increasing dread. Already there are the beginnings of a torrent of reheated clichés about the conflict, of mindless and sentimental patriotic self-congratulation and a distressingly partial view of what was, after all, a World War. The centenary is not something to celebrate, but it is something to commemorate – but only if the war is understood as a tragedy, as the product of a blinkered stupidity that we would do well to heed, and, above all, as a European civil war. After a century, there seems less point in pointing a finger of blame; after all, some of the blame was ours.

But there are events connected with the First World War to look forward to. In the summer of 2014 the Imperial War Museum – founded in 1917 – will open its revamped London galleries and stage a big exhibition: ‘Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War’. Whatever else, the conflict produced some great art. In Britain, it was the work of official war artists who were very good: painters indeed, such as Paul Nash, C.R.W. Nevinson and William Orpen, who certainly did not exhibit a sentimental and partial view of the suffering and destruction.

The IWM in fact owns one of the finest and most powerful collections of 20th-century art in the country. As a schoolboy, decades ago, visiting Lambeth to see aeroplanes and tanks, I first encountered John Singer Sargent’s vast and astonishing canvas, Gassed, hanging at the top of a staircase which has since disappeared. It seems a pity that it requires a centenary exhibition to bring out these many great paintings resulting from the catastrophe of the First World War, which really ought to be on permanent display.

The Imperial War Museum leads the First World War Centenary Partnership, a global network of cultural and educational organisations.

‘Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War’ is at the Imperial War Museum, London, from summer 2014–March 2015.

Richard Cork discusses the unrealised Hall of Remembrance, which was intended to house Gassed and a number of other paintings now in the Imperial War Museum collection, in the January issue of Apollo.