Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918, National Army Museum, November 2018

It is always a treat to get to a press preview, a select few people, time to enjoy the gallery without the crowds, free, a curator on hand and coffee on tap. I never forget what a privilege it is. Last week with a day of volunteering planned I wasn’t sure I could get to the National Army Museum for their new exhibition, Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918. They very kindly allowed me to come in early which meant I had the gallery to myself and a 1-2-1 curator tour from the very knowledgeable curator Emma Mawdsley. It was bliss.

Even if the gallery had been packed and I had paid the very reasonable £6 entry I would have loved this exhibition. For the first time in 100 years a collection of 41 paintings by Alfred Munnings, commissioned by the Canadian War Memorial Fund have been brought together. Painted on the Western Front in 1918, they were intended to raise awareness of the Canadian war contribution.

Embedded with the Canadian Expeditionary Force as an official war artist, Munnings sought to capture the fighting front and the crucial logistical work behind the lines. I did not know much about Munnings, and I found the paintings stunning and not really what I expected at all. There is only one painting showing a battle, the rest show countryside scenes, some with the scars of war, the desolation a haunting reminder of the destructive power of the First World War. Other scenes simply show the everyday reality of large groups of men travelling, living, eating and working together. Moments of boredom, of camaraderie, sitting and waiting.

In June 1918 Munnings was embedded with the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and later the Canadian Forestry Corps. There are stunning paintings of horses, captured so beautifully. Munnings was a miller’s son and grew up around horses, you can easily see a lifetime of understanding and appreciation. In some painting he renders the horses with such quiet beauty and dignity and in others there are moments of power and movement.

There is a touching communion between man and horse. One painting in particular I stare at for an age. The light in the soldiers eyes is mesmerising. You can’t help but think of this soldier’s thoughts. What he has seen and felt, what he fears for tomorrow.

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Mill and Part of a Camp, Alfred Munnings, oil on canvas 1918.
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Saw, Canadian Army issue manual chain saw, 1916. The saw folds up and is stored in a leather case.

There is a great hidden story in his work too, most of the 22,000 soldiers serving in the Canadian Forestry Corps worked as lumberjacks before the war. One forestry company in Jura cut a record breaking 156,000 feet of board in 10 hours. Their work included clearing land for airfields, preparing lumber for use in the trenches and railways and building hospitals and barracks. Munnings captures the saw mills and horses at work pulling logs. The paintings make me think about much more than trench warfare so synonymous with WW1 and they are still telling the story of the Canadian war contribution 100 years later.

There is something so absurd about Munnings painting Major General Jack Seely only a short distance from the front line. I wonder what the men thought of Munnings, by all accounts he was quite a character.

When questioned by a Commander as to what he was doing on the front line Munnings replied, “When they sent me out here they told me I was a genius”.

Munnings was a bon vivant: a teller of tales, a reciter of poetry and a singer of songs. Brigadier-General Jack Seely later wrote that all the Canadians under his command ‘loved the man’.

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The men sit and wait, the horses are fed.

I think what stays with me most is the light he captures. In some paintings it is like a search light, harshly showing up the brutality of war, in others the light speaks of the end of the day, it gently wraps soldiers in an embrace, a celebration of lasting through another day of war.

There is so much here to enjoy. Munnings telling hidden stories of WWI, Munnings as a painter of horses and Munnings simply as an artist. A remarkable man who tried to enlist in the army and was turned down because he was blind in one eye. How this man with sight in only one eye captures so much is beyond me. It is rare to find such beauty, dignity and hope all rolled into one exhibition even in the depths of such destruction and death. For only £6 I think it is an absolute bargain.

“I have memories of that Spring day in the Forest of Dreux. My last picture painted there was of an enormous oak tree, the king of the forest it was called, and was the largest that had been felled. It was a perfect April day, under the most divine sunlight, that I painted a French sentry in his blue uniform and bayonet, seated on the giant trunk. I put the soldier there to give the scale of its vast proportions. In the background, were saplings left standing, piles of timber and a German prisoner or two at work.” – Alfred Munnings explains the painting above.

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Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918 is on at the National Army Museum and runs from 30 November 2018- 3 March 2019 for ticket prices and opening times please see the website – https://www.nam.ac.uk/

You can also visit the Munnings Museum, Dedham, Essex where the exhibition will be from March – November 2019. https://www.munningsmuseum.org.uk/

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