Artists play a critical role in telling the stories about the society and lessons learned from such incidences. These incidences include war, cultural celebrations, religious beliefs and even economic activities. For example, the paintings, poetry, songs, and drawings from farming communities always revolve the agricultural activities. Additionally, the narratives and paintings or drawings among other artistic works are often used as a means of preserving the community’s experience. Historians have managed to establish that areas around the Sahara desert in Northern Africa was one time a productive agricultural land by observing the drawings on the walls at the archeological sites. Similarly, there are drawings that depict the turning points during the First World War. One of the popular famous during this period which also forms the subject of this paper is the Gassed painting.
Gassed is an oil painting by John Singer Sargent done in March 1919, just one year after the end of the war. Currently, the painting is located at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road in London. The painting measures 231 cm by 611 cm or 91 by 240½ inches. In this painting, John Singer shows the outcome of the mustard gas used during the war. It shows nine wounded soldiers moving in straight line possibly moving to the dressing room. The soldiers have their eyes covered with white cloth that is tied at the back of their heads. They are also holding each other’s shoulders maybe for direction since they cannot see where they are going. The first two soldiers in the line are held by another soldier or maybe a doctor since he is not in combat gear who leads them to the station. On the ground, there are several wounded soldiers lying with their faces up. They are also having a white bandage covering their eyes and tied at the back of the head just like the lining soldiers. Only one of the soldiers on the ground is looking up with binoculars.
The posture of the soldiers on the ground indicates exhaustion that perhaps resulted from inhaling the mustard gas as one is seen holding his head while another is seated but looking down, maybe too tired to look up. One striking thing from this picture is that lining soldiers are still holding their rifles firmly. The British War Memorial Committee commissioned John Sergeant to document the war in the Western front where he spent time with the Guards Division before joining the American Expeditionary Forces in Ypres.
The striking theme on the first glance at the picture is brutality and violence that came with the First World War and the selfless nature of these to fight on despite the fatigue. One of the soldiers on the ground uses a pair of binoculars to look up, maybe just to ensure they are safe from any potential attack. Historically, the British are hardworking people who overcame all hurdles to achieve the success they enjoy today. The soldier with binoculars reflects the true spirit of the British people since despite his current condition he is still holding on to his mission which is to win the war.
Secondly, the lining nine soldiers are firmly holding their guns despite the injuries and exhaustion. John Sergeant uses the lining nine soldiers to pass the spirit of resilience among the British people by not giving up their arms despite the injuries and fatigue. The sight of soldiers having white bandages on the eyes but still standing tall and holding their firearms firmly is breath-taking. It is the face of undying faith in their country’s ideology and focuses on their mission. Similarly, the painting depicts the unity among the soldiers, and indeed the British people, as they stand for one another. Firstly, the nine soldiers in line are supporting each other by holding one another’s shoulder since their eyes are covered with a white bandage. Secondly, the wounded soldiers are getting support from a person who is possibly a military doctor to reach the dressing station. In other words, John Sergeant uses the painting to pass his message that unity is the foundation of success among the British people.
Besides the spirit of resilience in the photo, there is an element of religious belief manifested in the painting. The nine lining soldiers are standing like a religious procession. In this cases, the dressing station acts as the temple where they will get a reprieve. Traditionally, people went to the churches and temples to seek reprieve from the God. The religious tradition seems to have influenced John Sergeant while making this painting. He used the opportunity to hit two birds with one stone, depicting the unity among the British and secondly showing the underlying religious belief.
In war, there is no direct winner as all the parties involved often lose their soldiers and property including the military weapons. This painting by Sergeant reveals just how violent a war by showing the aftermath of the mustard gas attack. Firstly, the soldiers are wounded, especially on the eyes, by the chemicals contained in the gas; their eyes are significantly affected that is why they are bandaged. There is a possibility that they cannot see due to the effect of the gas. Mustard gas cause blisters on skins and lungs hence there is a possibility their eyes were swollen after the exposure. Consequently, the medic had to cover them with a bandage to minimize the exposure duration, especially on the eyes. Another possibility is that they are already blinded by the gas and are in intense pain as portrayed by the third soldier in front and the fourth from behind. In fact, the fourth soldier looks like he has lost stability due to the pain.
The extreme violence during the World War One is further demonstrated by the bodies of the soldiers lying on the ground dead or helpless. One of the soldiers on the ground is holding his head helplessly while another is seated looking on down maybe waiting for help. However, the most painful part of the picture is that both live and dead soldiers are all helplessly on the ground. The experience of sitting together with the dead bodies is perhaps one of the traumatizing to the soldiers who participated in the war.
“The Trojan Women” is one of the greatest artistic works used in explaining the aftermath of war and also showing the inhumane behaviour that comes with the conflicts. The fate of the Athen’s military remained in balance for nearly sixteen years during the Paleopnnesian War with the Sparta. In any event of attack they were always on the front line to bear the consequences. John Sergeant’s painting also paint portray similarity as it depicts soldiers injured or killed by mustard attack from their enemies.
In summary, John Sergeant’s painting is one of the greatest works on the First World War. He was on the line of fire during the battle which provided him with great insight into the happenings during the war. He uses this experience to paint one of the most popular paintings which summarize the spirit of the British people and also the aftermath of the war.
Sergeant, Johm. Gassed. 1919. 30 April 2018 <https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23722>.
Soukopova, Jitka. Round Heads: The earliest rock paintings in the Sahara. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.
Tolson, Roger. Art from Different Fronts of World War One. 18 Sepetember 2014. 30 April 2018 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/wars_conflict/art/art_frontline_gal_01.shtml>.