Description: signed pastel
Dimensions: 41 by 24cm.; 16 by 9½in.
Provenance: Purchased by the present owner's grandfather from the Leicester Galleries, London, circa 1919.
Notes: As the leading British exponent of the Italian Futurist movement in the years prior to the outbreak of war, Nevinson had by implication subscribed to a doctrine that expounded the concept of warfare as a demonstration of virility and masculinity, the cleansing power of which was to herald the age of the machine. However the realities of the grinding trench war of the Western Front, which Nevinson himself amply witnessed, and the steady flow of telegrams home giving news of deaths and severe injury were never really going to create a receptive audience to the maintenance of such a position. Having enlisted in the Friends Ambulance Unit in late 1914, Nevinson had a sudden awakening to the realities of the conflict over the next two and a half months, and after being sent home in the early part of 1915, set about recording his impressions of the conflict. He returned to service with the R.A.M.C. later that year but was finally invalided out in January 1916. His first major showing of war paintings was the hugely successful exhibition Paintings and Drawings of War by C.R.W.Nevinson (late Private R.A.M.C.) at the Leicester Galleries in September 1916, and this, including such iconic images as La Mitrailleuse (Tate Collection) saw Nevinson's distinctive and powerful approach to the war on the Western Front hailed by critics. Although his subsequent war paintings did not achieve the same impact, partly as a result of the more factual approach resultant from his position as an official war artist, Nevinson continued to produce images that are instantly memorable and, like those of his contemporary Paul Nash, have become the visual signifier of the conflict to later generations. Amongst this later group are Nevinson's images of aeroplanes in flight. Along with the introduction of the tank, the use of aeroplanes for active combat was one of the factors that made WWI so different from any warfare that had ever gone before, and the contradiction between man's use of technology to defy gravity and take to the skies and his simultaneous use of that same technology to kill was not lost on Nevinson. The present work, which is closely related to the oil painting of the same title (Private Collection), shows a biplane swooping through the sky, Nevinson treating the profile of the plane as one might a bird silhouetted against the clouds. Interestingly, the painting is dated to 1916 and thus predates Nevinson's own experience of flying (this occurred in the early part of 1917, and in his autobiography he recounts the uncomfortable occurrence of being shot at), despite his using a viewpoint which appears to place us above the plane. However, the darker side of the subject becomes clear in the lithograph Swooping Down on a Taube which the artist produced the following year. Using almost exactly the same composition (reversed in the printing), Nevinson moves us slightly closer to the plane, allowing us to see not only the distinctive circular insignia identifying it as British, but also the machine gun mounted above the top wing. Crucially, he also introduces a second plane, identified by its birdlike silhouette as German. Placed below the British plane, the sense of impending conflict, and the expected outcome, is overwhelming. Spiral Descent has been in the same family collection since its purchase from the Leicester Galleries shortly after WWI. As much of Nevinson's output of the period is held by public institutions, it offers collectors a rare opportunity to acquire a work that is both historically significant and visually stunning. We are grateful to Dr Jonathan Black for his kind assistance with the cataloguing of this lot.
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