Personal diaries and love letters offer insight into experiences of both British and German artists at Newcastle University's Hatton Gallery
The horrors of the First World War as seen by some of the finest creative minds of the generation are laid bare in an exhibition of poignant art, personal diaries and hand-written letters at Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery.
Personal views of famed war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are revealed in the Screaming Steel exhibition, alongside those of artists from the German trenches, similarly traumatised by the mud and blood of trench warfare.
Screaming Steel: Art, War and Trauma 1914-18 explores “their response to the killing fields of Europe which resulted in some our most important 20th Century art and literature”, say organisers.
But it is the individual detail that most leaves its mark: the portrait photograph of the famously “beautiful” Rupert Brooke which looks like it could have been taken yesterday and the display of five olive leaves taken by a member of the funeral party from the site of his grave in Greece.
There are letters from Sassoon, who was nick-named Mad Jack for his brave actions in battle but, disturbed by the bloodbath of the Somme, threw his Military Cross into the Mersey and spoke out against the war.
To protect him from the backlash, friend and fellow poet Robert Graves helped convince people he was suffering from shellshock and Sassoon was sent off to convalesce in Craiglockhart war hospital in Edinburgh, where, in a 1917 letter, he recalled: “the people in Liverpool insisted on treating me as an amiable idiot, which was a little annoying” and where he met Owen, the man said to be the greatest English poet of the First World War.
Both later returned to the Front, and Owen also received a Military Cross before his death at the very end of the war.
Their famous poems are written out on the gallery walls, while the first draft of Owen’s Anthem for Dead Youth (later changed to Doomed Youth), written at Craiglockhart in 1917, can be seen with friend and advisor Sassoon’s hand-written annotations.
There are bold oil paintings of gnarled, shelled landscapes, tenches and tanks - early technology in 1917. Among them Irishman William Orpen, an established portrait artist before the war, turns his attention to A Grave in the Trenches.
Others made use of whatever was to hand, such as Isaac Rosenberg in his self-portrait made in black chalk on a piece of brown wrapping paper.
A print called Die Granate (The Grenade) by a volunteer medical orderly called Max Beckmann is a jumble of faces and guns following an explosion, while fellow German George Grosz expressed his despair and post-war contempt for mankind in graphic paintings of drunkards, prostitutes and suicides.
There are conscience-pricking recruitment posters too, featuring children shown asking their father: “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?”
The olive leaves are on show alongside a 1915 letter from Brooke to his love interest, an actress called Cathleen Nesbitt.
Written March 18, while “off Gallipoli”, he seemed to sense his impending death, writing “thank God I met you” and “Goodbye”.
He died on St George’s Day at the Greek island of Skyros, where he is buried, and an accompanying letter, dated April 26, is written to Nesbitt by Brooke’s friend W Denis Browne. Browne enclosed olive leaves, saying: “An olive tree is over his head, of which I send you a spray”.
The exhibition, which includes loans from major London collections including the British Museum, British Library, National Portrait Gallery and Tate, will run until December 13 with a linked programme of workshops, poetry readings and tours.