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Crystal Lindsay

William Orpen: Politics, Sex and Death

A major retrospective of the artist William Orpen opens at the Imperial War Museum.

It is fitting that this major retrospective should be held at the Imperial War Museum for Orpen's war work represented an important shift in a social perspective which had put limitations on his artistic career. Whether it resulted in a new maturity in his work is debatable. An Irishman from a well-to-do family at a time when Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, he was made a Knight of the Realm in 1918. Orpen achieved such huge success with his portraits of the establishment that by the time of his death in 1931 he was probably the country's most famous (and certainly the richest) painter.

Drawn from collections around the world, the exhibition comprises over eighty paintings and forty drawings along with letters and documents related to the artist's life. Like Augustus John, a contemporary, Orpen's drawing genius was immediately apparent upon his arrival, fresh from Dublin to the Slade School. Classical anatomy was a vital part of teaching in the Edwardian age and Orpen himself was to teach, as a fine chalk teaching sketch of a male torso testifies. Between 1902 and 1915, he was to split his time between London and Dublin, with a teaching post at the Metropolitan School, where he established a regular life class; something which had been considered faintly immoral by the conservative Dubliners. His brooding nudes recall Sickert and Bonnard but the radiant "Early Morning" of 1922 shows a palette clearly influenced by French Post-Impressionists of that time.

Amidst all this, Orpen's self-portraits were a recurrent theme throughout his career and see him turn on himself some of the mordant and ironic attitudes for which he was renowned. Along with Augustus John, contemporary William Nicholson has also been recently feted with a London exhibition. Nicholson and his family are the subject of one of Orpen's paintings. "A Bloomsbury Family" shows a dysfunctional group with the father of the family presiding conceitedly over the rest. This was to be the tenor of many of his works – modern conversation pieces, with the sidelong glances of Orpen the outsider. Indeed, Orpen's own family were much neglected in his pursuit of his own sole needs.

After the excesses of society portraiture, Orpen's official role of war artist in the First War left a powerful grip on the last years of his life. His 'landscapes' of the devastated Somme recalls those of fellow war artist, Paul Nash. Orpen became increasingly disillusioned with the vanity of politicians – the very people who sat for him over and over, although a fine portrait of Winston Churchill in 1916 does justice to them both. Orpen's experience of the terrible waste of men's lives and the blankness of the War's aftermath never left him and some of his work reminds one of Goya in its nightmarish visions. His final word on it forms the major last piece of this exhibition: "To the Unknown British Soldier in France".

What do we think of him now? Like many figures of the Edwardian era, he quickly became eclipsed by the Modernist Movement which swept across Western Europe and possessed the public imagination. John Rothenstein, his nephew, and Director of the Tate Gallery in 1952, twenty years after Orpen's death said of him: "I have seldom known any man, and never a man of superior talents, with so little intellectual curiosity.....or with so contemptuous an attitude towards the life of the mind". Such a wounding attack influenced opinions of the artist for some time but this exhibition provides a fascinating opportunity to assess William Orpen's achievements. The "failure to describe what he felt most deeply" (Rothenstein) was perhaps inevitable for such a divided man.

• Buy the accompanying book William Orpen: Politics, Sex and Death from Amazon.co.uk

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