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Reality and Reconstruction

How artists responded to the realities of the First World War, by facing the truth head on, retreating into escapism and attempting to reconstruct what conflict has destroyed.

In this week's Cultural Front, Francine Stock explores how artists reacted to the bitter reality of conflict.

First she learns from the meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart hospital in Edinburgh, an event that directly lead to Owen becoming one of the greatest War Poets in the British Canon. To commemorate their meeting, fiddle maker Steve Burnett has been commissioned to make an instrument for both men, and we get to hear them played together for the very first time.

Next we travel beyond the Eastern Front to the Russian Revolution. In time theatre and film will create an enduring myth, but we delve into the poetry that acts like snapshots of history, preserving the truth of the messy, divisive revolution and showing what it was really like to watch the entire social order crumble and reform into a new world.

Of course, not all artists tackled war head on in their art. 1917 was the year that saw Pablo Picasso begin his collaboration with The Ballet Russe and the creation of his biggest ever piece of work - The Parade Curtain. How would the public react to a piece that was all about youth, joy and defiance of war, when the people they loved were still fighting at the front?

Back home, sculptor Francis Derwent Wood was volunteering in a London hospital when he saw first hand what happened to the men who had been injured in the line of duty. Seeing the profound psychological impact on patients suffering facial injuries Wood decided to set up a studio within the hospital, with the goal of sculpting tin masks that would make the patient look as close as possible to how he had been before he was wounded. A century later, we're left puzzling about what these masks really are - a well intentioned but flawed medical tool, or a kind of anti-portraiture that shows the realities of war in a way that still feels visceral even today.

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28 minutes