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1923 The Male Body as History and Symbol

The Royal Academy Illustrated for 1923, a selection of some 100 highlights from the Summer Exhibition, opens with the unlikely juxtaposition of a tempera painting, Youth, by Fredrick Cayley Robinson opposite a model for a war memorial by Sir William Goscombe John, The Response, 1914 (Figs 1 and 2). At first sight, the two works could not be more different: Robinson’s is tense, spare, and oblique, where John’s is densely packed, energetic, and dosed with a populist streak of sentimentality. Robinson’s title, Youth, launches the ambiguity that pervades the entire work: does the word describe the young man stretching languidly in the foreground, or should the viewer think of an abstraction, an idea of immaturity that the picture can only hint at or approximate? John, meanwhile, depicts a historical event: the gathering of a force of local volunteers in Newcastle, marching enthusiastically to join the British army in France.1

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In the Exhibition, Robinson’s modest painting hung in Room I, surrounded by portraits, landscapes, and a sprinkling of imaginative compositions; there was nothing to connect it directly to the war. Seen in reproduction alongside John’s crowded relief (placed as the centrepiece of Room VI, which contained models for another ten memorials), the link seems inescapable. Exhibited more than four years after the war had ended, both works looked back to a time of innocence, before the horrors of the campaign had unfolded. Both painting and sculpture formed part of the vital movement of recuperation, the strong desire to salvage something of lasting value from the wreckage of the war, which had left millions of dead, and shattered the idealism of a generation. In this, the Academy, as one of Britain’s most respected cultural institutions, had a massive role to play. When he painted Youth, Robinson had recently completed two major commissions. The first, four panels for the entrance of the Middlesex Hospital, had occupied him since 1914. He rounded off the cycle in 1920 with The doctor I, showing a group of male patients. They are dressed alike in military convalescent uniform; a crutch, a stick, and an arm in a sling all point unmistakeably to wounds received in action.2 In 1922, Robinson then painted a triptych as a war memorial for Heanor Grammar School, Derbyshire; while the central panel consisted of an assembly of historical and symbolical figures, the two wings depicted men on active service to the left, complemented by the women who remained at home on the right.3

In the decade after 1918, more than 30,000 memorials of various kinds were created to the 700,000 British servicemen and women killed in action. By 1923, the number of dedications was beginning to level off from the peak of nearly 10,000 in 1919 alone, but as time passed, the longer-term consequences of the war continued to be felt among the living. In the summer of 1922, the long-running government report on shell-shock was published.4 The wounds inflicted by the war were not simply the visible, physical ones; everyone in the country, or so it seemed, knew someone afflicted with the violent mood swings, the listlessness, the sense of despair that characterised the condition of neurasthenia. The report sought to determine if this was primarily a physical or a mental condition, and how it should be treated. For the most hardline witnesses, shell-shock was a failure of the will, a form of moral degradation, undermining the manly virtues of heroism and selflessness which defined the British ruling class.5

When Robinson painted Youth, he would certainly have known that the topic of shell-shock was uppermost in the minds of the British public. Through its subject and title, the work looks back to a physical and a mental state preceding adulthood, but for Robinson it was retrospective in two other significant ways as well. First, the work recapitulates a painting from 1907 with the same title; the 1923 version adds a social dimension, with buildings and people in the distance, so the figure is no longer entirely alone.6 Second, and more importantly, the pose has been altered slightly and the right arm lifted away from the body, so that it now appears as an almost exact quotation (in reverse) of Rodin’s early masterpiece, L’age d’arain (The age of bronze). Robinson may have expected some of his audience, at least, to notice the similarity, since a cast of Rodin’s sculpture had been prominently displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum since November 1914.7 It had been donated by Rodin himself, deeply moved by Britain’s defense of Belgium and “in honour of the British soldiers fighting beside his countrymen in France”. If this made it an appropriate reference for Robinson, it was even more so for Rodin, since he had conceived the work in Belgium while living there in the 1870s and the model was a Belgian soldier, Auguste Neyt.8 This information was widely disseminated in all the early biographies of Rodin published in English, together with an original title, “Man awakening to the world of nature” and the paraphrase, “Man of the First Ages”, explained as “very evidently a type of some primitive age”.9

While the essence of youth is often understood to consist of anticipation and boundless energy, Robinson’s Youth of 1923 is already cocooned in his past (his earlier self of 1907 and Rodin’s of 1877/1914), and faces the world around him with uncertainty bordering on dread. The very subject of the naked male body, in the post-war period, was one which most artists avoided; it still carried too many painful associations of dismemberment, and was only acceptable when seen as some obviously classicised ideal.10 The one exception to this rule seems to be the nudes of Henry Scott Tuke, seen regularly on the walls of the Academy until his death in 1929; his response to the war was to carry on painting his adolescent sunbathers on the beaches of Cornwall as if nothing had happened. Robinson, depicting his young male subject in a manner neither realistic nor completely idealised, appears to recognise that his intuition of 1907 was infinitely more relevant to 1923. He manages in one figure to encapsulate an excruciating sense of nostalgia for a vanished pre-war innocence, the acute vulnerability of his present state, and a poignant foreboding concerning the future.

  1. Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, National Recording Project no. 9476;↩︎

  2. The panels were acquired by the Wellcome Collection in 2009. Jeffery S. Reznick, The “convalescent blues” in Frederick Cayley Robinson’s “Acts of Mercy”, (accessed 9 August 2017).↩︎

  3. Imperial War Museums War Memorials Register no. 14286, (accessed 1 August 2017).↩︎

  4. Ted Bogacz, “War Neurosis and Cultural Change in England, 1914–22: The Work of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into ‘Shell-Shock’”, Journal of Contemporary History 24, no. 2 (April 1989): 227–256.↩︎

  5. For valuable distinctions between the concepts of masculinity and manliness in the period, see John Tosh, “What Should Historians do with Masculinity?: Reflections on Nineteenth-Century Britain”, History Workshop 38 (1994): 179–202.↩︎

  6. Now in the National Gallery of South Africa, Cape Town; James Greig, “Frederic [sic] Cayley Robinson”, The Old Water-Colour Society’s Club, vol. V, 1927–1928, pl. XX.↩︎

  7. Claudine Mitchell, “The Gift to the British Nation: Rodin at the V&A”, in C. Mitchell (ed.), Rodin: The Zola of Sculpture (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2003), 183–200.↩︎

  8. An early article called him “a fine noble hearted boy, full of fire and valour”; Trumann H. Bartlett, “Auguste Rodin, Sculptor”, American Architect and Building News, 26 January 1889, 45. Coincidentally, Neyt had recently published his own recollection of his role in the genesis of the sculpture in an article in Gand artistique of April 1922, but it seems unlikely Robinson would have been aware of this.↩︎

  9. Rudolf Dircks, Auguste Rodin (London: A. Siegle, 1904), 20; Frederick Lawton, The Life and Works of Auguste Rodin (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1906), 45.↩︎

  10. Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion Books, 1996); and Ana Carden-Coyne, Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism and the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), especially 127–139.↩︎

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