Miruna Cuzman, “William Orpen’s Trench Landscapes (1917-1918)”

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At the time of the workshop, Miruna Cuzman was a PhD student in History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. She has completed her thesis since then.

The great mine at La Boiselle was a wonderful sight. One morning I was wondering about the old battlefield, and I came across a wide wilderness of chalk – not a tuft of grass, not a flower, nothing but blazing chalk… I walked it up and suddenly found myself on the lip of the crater. I felt myself in another world.[1]

This is what William Orpen wrote in his war journal not long after reaching France in April 1917, nine months after the Battle of the Somme had ended.  Orpen was an acclaimed society portraitist in pre-war London and an Associate of the Royal Academy of Arts. He reached the Front like many other artists working for the British Propaganda Department, established in 1914. The Department was set on using the arts as an effective means of boosting up the morale of the British civilian population on the home front, and of immortalizing the British effort during the First World War.

Before the employment of painters, war photography had accustomed civilians with the standard image of mud-filled plains, perpetual rain and shell-battered tree stumps. Later, paintings by visionary landscapist Paul Nash also focused on the mud-filled plains and destroyed terrain of Northern France and bordering Flanders. In this context, William Orpen’s work came as a disconcerting deviation from the accepted iconographic norm.

This appears most strikingly through Orpen’s use of an intense colour palette of white, blue, green and mauve.  By adding a deceptively buoyant note to the employment of colour effects, Orpen created war paintings which spoke of visual irony and the bizarre embedded in deceptively candid landscapes. A telling example is The Great Mine, La Boisselle, the site Orpen refers to in his journal entry. The view Orpen painted, most likely the Lochnagar Crater, is the one palpable thing remaining after the Battle of the Somme. The commune of La Boisselle was at the heart of the fighting and was thus razed to the ground. The tranquility of the setting creates a patently melancholic effect by the awareness that what had once been turmoil and massacre is now so peaceful and inert. When speaking of The Great Mine, an anonymous critic focused on ‘the landscape of the chalky Somme district, so like the English downs’[2], trying to find parallels between the eerie white crater Orpen painted and elements appealing to British visual sensibilities. There is, however, a factual reason for Orpen’s choice of white. The soil around the Somme department contained a deep chalk stratum, brought to the surface during bombardments, creating the vistas Orpen spoke of – a sea of white, lying beneath the sun.

Throughout 1917 and 1918 Orpen pursued the theme of white trenches inexorably. He created numerous variations upon the same theme – the white crater and the blanched hill fixed under perpetual sunshine. No mud and no rain visited Orpen’s variant of the Western Front. His obsession remains a mystery to this day. Orpen’s use of white was as much a question of vision and reflexion, as it was one of observation. Late twentieth-century scholarship suggested that scenes depicted in this manner were especially intended to inspire ‘awe’.[3] Orpen repeatedly remarked that the places seen were ‘wonderful’. Possibly ‘wonderful’ was to be understood in its archaic form as awe-inspiring.

Orpen’s white trench landscapes were in turn set in white frames. There might be an explanation for Orpen’s choice of white frames made of wood – their resemblance with the white wooden crosses which covered the fields of Northern France and Belgium during the war. Scholars argued that the wooden crosses were strongly connotative of commemoration and reverence for the dead, and that they ‘had a powerful hold on popular imagination.’[4] In addition, these crosses represented the only tie between the bereaved relatives on the Home Front and what was left of their loved ones in Continental Europe. Orpen might have wished to repeat via the white frames the commemorative intent of the crosses, and to mirror this purpose in his canvases, which can be read as monuments in paint, marking loss and bereavement.

Notes and Sources

[1] Orpen 1923, 58.

[2] Anonymous in The Burlington Magazine 1918, 35.

[3] Upstone 2008, 20.

[4] Ibid., 59.