It might at first glance appear surprising that C.R.W. Nevinson, famed Futurist and master artist of the machine-age, would paint something as seemingly old-fashioned as a mule. Having made his name with stark, brutal, very modern paintings of marching soldiers and machine guns, as early as 1916 he was one of the best-known war artists in Britain. It is a reputation he has retained. He is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest artists from any country to have painted, drawn and etched from first hand the terrible events of the First World War.
But when in 1917 Nevinson became an official war artist working for the British and then the Canadian governments, his early perspective on the war shifted. The Mule Team was first shown at his famous ‘War’ exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in the spring of 1918, alongside numerous key works, including Paths of Glory, After a Push and Survivors at Arras. As Nevinson would explain in his introduction to the accompanying catalogue, his concern in many of these new paintings was in ‘recording the ordinary every-day life and work of the Imperial Forces’ in France, and they thus ‘differed entirely’ from his previous war paintings, ‘in which I dealt largely with the horrors of War as a motive. I have now attempted to synthesize all the human activity and to record the prodigious organisation of our Army, which was all the more overwhelming to me when I contrasted it with what I remembered on the Belgian front [in] 1914-15' (C.R.W. Nevinson, Paint and Prejudice, London, 1937, pp. 144-145).
Despite the Great War being above all things a mechanised conflict, hundreds of thousands of horses and mules were used on the Western Front in a diverse range of tasks – from pulling artillery guns and limbers, supply trucks and ambulance wagons to carrying shells and munitions. In his book The Horse in War, J. M. Brereton wrote how ‘on campaign, riding and leading the horse for months on end, sleeping in the open only a few yards behind the picket lines at night, and suffering the same privations, the soldier came to regard his horse as almost an extension of his entire being’ (J.M. Brereton, The Horse in War, London, 1976, pp. 128-129). And we see this in Nevinson’s painting – which, tightly cropped as it is, is much more about the muleteer than it is about his animals. And it is even about Nevinson himself, as well, in its sense of exhaustion, and also in the degree to which it reflects a solid, brave-hearted stoicism in the face of incredible strain and danger.
The painting is thus about man – about the solider and the artist. In this it reflects the observational and artistic techniques Nevinson outlined in his accompanying catalogue essay. As he explained there, all his work as an official artist on the Western Front had be done ‘from rapid short-hand sketches made often under trying conditions in the front line.’ An artist’s business, he explained, ‘is to create, not to copy or abstract, and to my mind creation can only be achieved when, after a close and continuous observation and study of nature, this visual knowledge of realities is used emotionally and mentally’ (The Times, 4 March 1918).
Though Nevinson sometimes relied on photographs more than he admitted, we see this idea of ‘close and continuous observation’ clearly expressed in The Mule Team. The critic from The Times recognized this achievement in his review of the ‘War’ exhibition, which was very well received by both critics and collectors. As The Times declared, seen together the paintings ‘prove the obvious fact that mind does affect vision, or at least the memory of vision; that no artist can use his vision as if it were a camera.’ Nevinson’s paintings ‘are real snapshots of the mind. They are momentary, but it is a moment felt more than actually seen.’
With its focused attention on the brutal, dehumanising effect of the war, together with his characteristic jagged Vorticist sky, this painting is unmistakably a Nevinson. Its importance to the artist is further assured by the fact that he chose to make a drypoint etching based upon it. These prints of The Mule Team are to be found in a number of major collections, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the British Museum and Harvard Art Museum.
We are very grateful to David Boyd Haycock for preparing this catalogue entry.