War in the Sunshine: The British in Italy 1917-18 review – a brush with the enemy
Source:Theguardian Author:Laura Cumming Date: 2017-03-03 Size:
The painter is flying above the Alps in a Bristol Fighter. It is the autumn of 1918……

‘Made on the wing’: British Scouts leaving their Aerodrome on Patrol, over the Asiago Plateau, Italy, 1918 by Sydney Carline.Photograph: Courtesy Imperial War Museum

The painter is flying above the Alps in a Bristol Fighter. It is the autumn of 1918. He is sitting in the rear observer’s seat, trying to get the dogfights down in rapid watercolour but the water in the paint keeps freezing at this altitude, no matter how hard he tries to warm it with his breath. The paper is nearly ripped from the drawing board by the sheer force of the slipstream.

War artists have worked in many horrendous conditions, but Sydney Carline’s experiences were particularly unusual. For Carline was not just a painter, he was also a pilot in the world’s first airborne conflict. He often had to perform both roles at once, at enormous risk to his life. Some of the images in this startling exhibition were actually made while manning Vickers machine guns and even while flying a Sopwith Camel with his knees.

Carline (1888-1929) was much admired in his short lifetime by more famous peers such as Paul Nash and CRW Nevinson, but his work has been stinted ever since. He was a successful cartoonist and sculptor, as well as a painter, and master of drawing at the Ruskin School of Art in his 30s. He painted aeroplanes attacking the Sea of Galilee, the fated bridge at Mostar and the Iraqi desert in 1919, based on flights made during and after the first world war. The focus at the newly reopened Estorick Collection, however, is very specific: British forces in Italy 1917-18.

Austrian Prisoners being driven towards the Italian Lines, 1918 by Sydney Carline. Photograph: Courtesy Imperial War Museum

This is such a forgotten aspect of our history that many people, the curators surmise, don’t know that British troops fought – and died – in their thousands alongside Italian forces during the Great War. Carline shows English officers riding through a village near Vicenza to the fascination of local children, exhausted soldiers resting high up in the mountains, bombed renaissance villages and the citizens of Padua evacuated between Austro-Hungarian bombardments.

But perhaps the most surprising images here are those made while darting through the sunlight on the way up to some terrifying encounter with a Red Baron, or hanging in the bright air 20,000 feet above the snow-capped Alps below. Delicate watercolours, made on the wing, show rapturous Italian sunsets dotted with distant biplanes like flitting dragonflies. Oil paintings of Sopwith Camels, dark against the Asiago plateau, emphasise the eerie similarity between trailing smoke and cloud.

The canvas is rough as sacking, the oil paint laid flat and emphatic as the stark truths Carline is clearly determined to record. But one senses a tension between his artist’s mind and his role as pilot in the turbulence of history. He is fascinated by the thrilling light of an Alpine dawn; the beauty of the target markings on British aircraft; the shape of biplane wings and propellers.

Carline’s charcoal drawing of his injured flying partner, Captain Moody, being helped from his aircraft, October 1918. Photograph: Courtesy Imperial War Museum

On the ground, he produces quickfire drawings of pilots clambering from their aircraft or being stretchered across the field. During the decisive Vittorio Veneto campaign in 1918, launched along a line between Venice and Bormio, Carline flew with a certain Captain Moody, firing off two whole drums of ammunition at the Austro-Hungarian planes both above and below. Moody was badly hit, but kept flying and returned the aircraft safely to base. A poignant charcoal drawing shows him shouldered by two colleagues from the plane, just before he fainted from blood loss.

Two Gunners in the Royal Field Artillery in a Donkey Cart, Asiago Front c. June 1918, photographed by Ernest Brooks Photograph: Courtesy Imperial War Museum

There are two parts to this show. The Estorick is also displaying the work of Ernest Brooks and William Joseph Brunell, official war photographers on the Italian frontline. Brooks had been a soldier himself in the Boer war – he was held in great respect by other official artists, including Frank Hurley and Robert Capa – and his images zero in on the experiences of the British Tommy, bartering for fruit, marshalling messenger dogs, marching into Venice.

But it is Brunell’s work that captures the strangeness of this unexpected alliance, which some Italians resented because they believed it was prolonging the conflict, and others cherished for the British support. Brunell shows the encounter between kilted Highlanders and Venetian carabinieri, between British infantrymen and Italian beauties, between the two nations: hesitant, occasionally suspicious, always intrigued. He shoots images from high above – often noticed by his subjects: the observer observed – and from a perfectly calculated distance. His photograph of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry crossing a river on horseback is like a 19th-century history painting worked in grisaille.

Most affecting of all is a portrait of an Austro-Hungarian prisoner of war, isolated and almost in close-up, all his fearful bewilderment condensed in that moment. Like Carline’s painting of Austrian prisoners trudging by dusk towards an unknown fate, accompanied by a single Italian soldier, there is the sense of absolute alienation, of poor young men trapped in bloodshed, not even able to speak each other’s language.

William Joseph Brunell’s photographs of an Austro-Hungarian soldier taken prisoner by the British, early November 1918. Photograph: Courtesy Imperial War Museum

The Estorick Collection reopens this week with a new conservatory and entrance, with new light flooding through windows that are no longer shuttered and through ingenious glass walls. The four galleries of its permanent collection have been rehung so that all of its 28 Morandis, for instance, now hang in one marvellous room. Since its inauguration in 1998, the Estorick has become internationally famous as one of the world’s greatest collections of 20th-century Italian art. So this show is something of a departure. But it is perfectly chosen for this moment. For these rare depictions of Italy and the Italians a century ago, made by the British, united by war, are an elegiac celebration of the relationship between the two countries.

[Editor] 姜鑫