One of the many commemorations of the start of the Great War is the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition ‘The Great War in Portraits’. I am reluctant to comment too much as I found that to wander around the rooms and look at the paintings on display was a slightly surreal experience (and consequently I didn’t take as many notes as usual!) but the exhibition shows us what is literally the changing face of war. From individuals involved in the start of the war – military and political figures, as well as a press portrait of the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – to images intended as propaganda, displaying military might and dignity, the stages of the war are reflected in the work of the artists. Most moving, perhaps, are the faces of the soldiers affected by the conflict, especially those damaged by shells, which were drawn for hospital records. There is also a wall of portraits which has surprising diversity, and not all of those featured there are known, but the growing anonymity of the soldier as part of a war machine is reflected in this.
The exhibition takes us, then, from political to military history, and from pomp to heroism to suffering. The complex ways in which artists on both sides of the conflict react to war is also explored, and if you haven’t yet experienced any of the commemorations going on, this would be a good place to start.