Michael Gove left in no man's land by first world war's artistic artillery

The education secretary can dig his trench as deep as he likes – the great war's artists were adamant the conflict marked the birth of a terrible, twisted modernity, not some national miracle

The centenary of the outbreak of the first world war has kicked off with a fight. Self-styled patriots and provocative military historians claim that our image of the war that killed eight million men between 1914 and 1918, and left 22 million wounded, has been distorted by poets and TV comedy writers. Wilfred Owen and Blackadder have apparently conned us into thinking the great war was futile, when in reality it was a "just" war provoked by German aggression.

The pettiness of this rightwing revisionists' saloon-bar view of modern history is so tragicomic it is tempting to just go and watch Blackadder to calm down. But clearly it needs refuting. How about logic?

If the first world war was a comforting patriotic exemplar, we would not be marking it on the scale we are going to a century on. In 1905, there was no deep need to fuss over the centenary of the battle of Trafalgar. It was a fight that had happened a hundred years before in a colourful age, a heroic episode but not a matter for contemporary heartsearching. Yet the first world war is different. We mark it, we wear poppies, because it has been seen, ever since the armies got trapped in that nightmare of trench warfare, as the birth of something new and terrible: the start of a uniquely murderous age. Amid such darkness, nationalism should hang its head.

As the historian John Keegan – no lefty – pointed out, the first world war matters because it led directly to the rise of Hitler, the second world war and the Holocaust. By pushing tsarist Russia over the revolutionary edge, it also led to Stalin and the gulag. In 1914, the optimism of the modern world was twisted into a monstrous machinery of death.

Even without that foreknowledge, the people who defined the war as inhuman and beyond any meaningful justification were not Blackadder and Baldrick – they were the soldiers and civilians who endured it. If the eloquence of the war poets is now to be discounted as sentimental, will art be accepted as evidence?

Michael Gove needs to get to Tate Britain quick and censor its pictures. What if children were to take their view of the first world war from William Orpen's painting Zonnebeke? They might think that its despairing image of muddy, meaningless battlefield devastation is somehow the truth of the war. Instead, kids should be looking at propaganda posters I suppose.

Orpen painted this dismal view of war's landscape in 1918. Two years later, Charles Sargeant Jagger cast a bronze image of soldiers suffering in No Man's Land. They hang on the wire as if crucified. Jagger was no pacifist. His memorial, on view at Tate Britain, reflects how everyone involved, left and right, saw this war – as an inexplicable tragedy.

Even the metaphor of the war as a mad seaside show goes back to the war itself – it was not invented by the later satire Oh! What a Lovely War, attacked by Gove, but can be seen in the monstrous military and mannequins riding their futile horses in Mark Gertler's 1916 painting Merry-Go-Round. The same eerie futility creeps up on the entertainers in WR Sickert's 1915 work Brighton Pierrots.

In CRW Nevinson's painting La Mitrailleuse, men are becoming machines as they fight numbly, mechanically in the trenches. What this chilling image suggests is that Blackadder sentimentalised the war: after all, its characters have space and time to joke. The reality that the art of the time unveils is far more brutal.

"We are making a new world," as the artist Paul Nash called a painting of the war's unrecognisable landscape. The first world war was experienced by its participants and witnesses as the birth of some terrible disfigured era. It took joy out of the world and ended Europe's golden age.

Oh, but I suppose these artists are all liars. What a horrible piece of sophistry, to deny the truth so visible to people who suffered that black time.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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