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2014 marks the centenary of the start of the First World War, and many museums and galleries are marking the occasion with events and exhibitions. The National Portrait Gallery has kicked things off with a display called The Great War in Portraits. I decided to visit one weekday afternoon, when I had some time off work: I thought, as the exhibition was free, it would be best to go during an off-peak time. I think I made the right decision: the exhibition was pretty crowded as it was, and there was a sign up warning of further crowding at peak times.

The exhibition shows widely different images of the people involved in the war, evoking their varied experiences and roles. It makes use of different mediums, including paintings, film, drawings and photographs. There is even a sculpture: the Prologue displays Jacob Epstein’s ‘The Rock Drill‘, a robotic-looking figure representing humanity’s fascination with mechanisation. This was originally created in 1913, the year before modern warfare would cause such devastation. However, the version shown here is the 1916 version, which Epstein created in response to the war. Gone is the celebration of automation, machines and the power of technology. Instead, the sculpture has had the drill removed and three limbs severed, reflecting the horror and destruction of war.

The exhibition is divided into a number of sections. Royalty and the Assassin contrasts formal, old-fashioned portraits of heads of state before the war with an image of Gavrilo Princip, the teenage assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Paintings of British, German, Russian and Austrian-Hungarian leaders evoke imperial grandeur and arrogance, while to a lesser extent photos of the President of the French Republic are designed to represent power. However, the picture of Princip is subdued and understated. Together, these images reflect the world before World War I and the political and social climate in which it began.

After war was declared, military leaders began to take on more power, and Leaders and Followers illustrates the hierarchical order, with traditional, formal images of commanding officers who often wore medals. Ordinary soldiers are also represented in more informal poses, often in groups and in a markedly down-to-earth manner. Both kinds of images were often shared as postcards.

By 1916, it was clear that the war would not be ‘over by Christmas’ and the horrific consequences were becoming apparent to many, even as those in power fought to maintain the illusion of jingoistic patriotism. The pictures in The Valiant and the Damned vary wildly in tone, with images of decorated soldiers, poets like Wilfred Owen, the infamous Mata Hari, killed or injured officers, and soldiers from all corners of the globe. For me, the most moving and striking images were the sketches made by Henry Tonks of facially disfigured servicemen. Reconstructive surgery made great strides during the war, and some wonderful achievements were made, but even so the experiences of these soldiers must have been dreadful: Tonks’ images help to give them back dignity and a sense of identity.

And then, something completely different – Fact and Fiction: The Battle of the Somme in film contrasts films by the British and German propaganda bureaus concerning the Battle of the Somme. These films were designed to evoke the ‘thrill of battle’, showing soldiers working and living together, and actually displaying images of dead and wounded soldiers. The first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, resulted in horrific losses including 19,240 British soldiers. Nevertheless, the film made by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, The Battle of the Somme, was a huge popular success, reaching an estimated 20 million people. It was truthful up to a point, but did not convey the full horrors of the battle. The German film, on the other hand, released in January 1917, enjoyed less success, partly because it used inaccurate footage and enacted scenes.

After the war, Britain and Germany largely headed in contrasting directions as far as art was concerned. In Britain, the trauma of the carnage led to a return to the comforting and familiar past, while in Germany there was a reaction against the old order and Expressionism gained ground. Tradition and the Avant-garde shows pictures from both of these widely different concepts, and how different artists reacted to the war.

This is a small but very well-presented exhibition that thoughtfully compares and contrasts different responses to the war in terms of portraits. It’s certainly worth a visit, particularly as entry is free. The exhibition runs until 15 June 2014.

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