Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson A.R.A. (British, 1889-1946)
War in the Air signed 'C.R.W. NEVINSON' (lower right) oil on canvas 55.3 x 47 cm. (21 3/4 x 18 1/2 in.) Painted circa 1918
PROVENANCE: Mr. Valentine-Keenan, 1940s Thence by descent
EXHIBITED; London, Burlington House, Canadian War Memorials Exhibition, January-February 1919
This painting seems in part a visual echo of Nevinson's much larger canvas of a similar subject, War in the Air (1918) (Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, see Fig.1), created at the tail-end of his series of aerial combat images of the First World War, but focussing on one plane, rather than four. The cloud formations in both paintings are strikingly similar, creating a sense of exposed high flying and depth of space, if in a stylistically conventional manner, though the subject was contemporary. The Ottawa War in the Air depicts a dogfight between the ace Canadian fighter pilot 'Billy' Bishop V.C. and three German planes, high over the Somme country. Nevinson was suffering from nervous exhaustion, following prodigious war-related picture-making for almost as long as the war itself, and accepted the War in the Air commission for the Canadian War Memorials under Lord Beaverbrook (advised by art critic Paul Konody) with reluctance. In the middle of creating that enormous picture, he suffered a breakdown, but stuck it out, aided by flights over French battlefields and having aeroplane photos to hand.
By the end of the First World War, though still fascinated by machinery, and especially aircraft, Nevinson had moved away, almost completely, from the influence of Futurism. As far back as June 1914, and before war was declared, Nevinson showed his painted wooden sculpture Aerroplane[sic] (whereabouts unknown), in the Seventh Exhibition of the Allied Artists Association, which also featured work by Vorticists, and fellow 'rebel artists', Wyndham Lewis and Edward Wadsworth. Although Nevinson's work was never completely abstract, Futurism's effect on it was strongly marked in Pursuing a Taube (aka Taube Pursued by Commander Samson) (1915) (Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon) and, with it's broadly-faceted cloudscape behind a lone biplane, in Before the Storm (1915) (whereabouts unknown), but much less so in the subsequent Swooping Down on a Hostile Plane (1917) (Imperial War Museum). The prismatic sky and lines of force so pronounced in the Pursuing a Taube give way to a muted sunrise effect in Swooping Down on a Hostile Plane. These are virtually monochromatic works, the first in beguiling light shades of blue, and the later painting in a more sombre cast of the same colour, against which the definitively-realised form of a plane descends. Between these paintings, Nevinson achieved the apogee of his war-plane paintings with the large portrait format Spiral Descent (1916) (Peter Nahum, London) which evokes the beauty of powered flight as a plane twists its way down through the immensity of cloud-filled space.
We are grateful to Christopher Martin for compiling this catalogue entry.