Paul Nash @ Tate Britain

The nine rooms in this show comprise a major exhibition of the life’s work of the painter, illustrator, sculptor, photographer and art critic, Paul Nash. The show proceeds in simple chronological order and, as well as oil paintings and watercolours, includes display cases containing letters, photographs, magazine articles, book illustrations, collages and sculptures, as well as two rooms putting his work into the context of contemporaries and collaborators. It is a comprehensive overview of a much-loved English artist.

Mysterious landscapes

Nash was born in 1889. He spent his early life in Iver Heath in what was then rural Buckinghamshire and early on developed a special feel for the modest highlights of the Home Counties landscape. He felt trees so powerfully that he thought they had almost human personalities – he depicted a particular stand of three trees near his home again and again, in different lights – and he was much taken with nightscapes and the moon and mysterious winged figures. He wrote poems and illustrated them in the manner of William Blake or Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Room 1 is dedicated to these, many of which felt childish and immature to me.

The great exception is a watercolour of Wittenham Clumps, in Oxfordshire, one of the oldest planted stands of beech trees in England, set atop an Iron Age fort. It is, in fact, only a very gently sloping hill, but in these pictures you can see his interest in pattern and linear shapes emerging from his not particularly accurate landscape technique.

The Great War

Nash was 24 when the Great War broke out. He was called up but not actually sent to France until 1917, when he saw the devastated landscape left after the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele. For such a sensitive man, so in tune with the special meaning of natural landscape, the war was a terrible blasphemy. He wrote blistering attacks on the war leaders in letters to his wife (on display here).

‘I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back
word from men who are fighting to those who want the war to go forever. Feeble,
inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their
lousy souls.’

In terms of technique, the war inspired him to start using oil (as opposed to his previous light watercolours) and speeded his tendency to find simplified geometric shapes in landscape.

Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917 by Paul Nash (1917) Imperial War Museum, London © Tate

Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917 by Paul Nash (1917) Imperial War Museum, London © Tate

He was always poor at depicting the human figure. Not many appear in the early watercolours, and the few soldiers in the war paintings are weak compared to the soldiers of C.R.W. Nevinson or Wyndham Lewis or John Singer Sargent or William Orpen. His most famous war painting contains no humans – the shattered tree stumps represent the countless blighted lives – and highlights the new more abstract vision.

Vying with it is Menin Road 1917, in which the soldier figures have successfully blended with the design, appearing as just another set of angled lines in a composition dominated by verticals and diagonals.

Nash began his career as an illustrator and a display case here shows the pen-and-ink illustrations he did for a book of poetry by war novelist Richard Aldington. These are cleaner and sparer than the big oil paintings. I’m a sucker for strong outlines and silhouettes, so I really like them.

The 1920s

Nash emerged unharmed from the war and came back to live in a succession of rural locations. His paintings reflect pastoral views at Whiteleaf in Buckinghamshire or Dymchurch in Kent, but now done in an unapologetically modernist style.

I’ve always liked the Dymchurch paintings. They have a peculiar understated ominousness about them. Now I learn from the audio-commentary that shortly after moving there in 1924 Nash had a nervous breakdown, probably a delayed reaction to the war.

He has converted the ungainliness which characterises all his work into Unease. They are English landscapes, southern English landscapes, with the flatness and homeyness and boredom that implies but with… edge, disquiet, pregnant with some unspoken meaning…

Discovering de Chirico

In 1928 Nash visited an exhibition of works by Giorgio de Chirico, an Italian artist more or less his contemporary. De Chirico’s empty piazzas and abstract architecture had, by  his own admission, a dramatic impact on him. Nash wrote a lot about his own practice and phrases like ‘the power of abandoned objects’, ‘dreamlike ominousness’ and ‘isolated architectural elements’ begin to enter his prose.

Some of these paintings look Mediterranean, as if Nash has swallowed de Chirico whole. Others are still set in the English landscape but now seen in a completely new way, where isolated objects somehow bring out meanings which were always latent but not expressed in ‘reality’.

Nash trained as an illustrator, was at one time art critic for the Listener and became an avid photographer, as well as designing fabrics and china, so he had many strings to his bow. He was also involved in set design for contemporary theatre and some of the post-de Chirico works take his existing interest in the geometric aspect of landscape and add a new element, imposing frames within the frame to create angles and perspectives and plonking down abstract features in landscape as if they’re stage sets incongruously abandoned in a field or wood.

Unit One

In 1933 he joined forces with a host of other modern British artists to create ‘Unit One’, a movement he helped publicise. They held an exhibition which went on tour round the country in 1934 and 35. The exhibition devotes a room to Unit One and it is very useful to see works by other artists alongside Nash, very illuminating, clarifying what visual elements he shared with his contemporaries and what made him different. Works on display include:

I realised what all his peers have in common is that their works are very finished, with sharp lines, smooth paint surfaces or – in sculpture – the smoothly modelled shapes of Moore and Hepworth. By contrast, most of the half dozen or so works in this room by Nash seemed rough and scrappy, on canvas where you can often see the fabric of the canvas showing through the oil, where colours deliberately don’t go up to the edge of others colours, leaving canvas showing through, and where the oil is applied with thick strokes which are visible from even a few yards away. This scrappiness and lack of finish is really obvious in a work like Pillar and moon (1932) but it’s present in all his work, something photographic reproductions smooth out but which seeing them in real life makes really apparent.

This patchiness extends to entire compositions, which are clearly not interested in either crispness of outline or really pure, mathematical geometry. Although they make an impact, I don’t really like them, they make me feel uneasy.

Although they’re obviously landscapes and presumably come out of Nash’s lifelong numinous sense of place and nature, they actually remind me of early Francis Bacon in the sense of lumpish unhappiness they convey.

Alongside these blotchy works, Nash had another style which was much more precise and seems to stem from his training in graphic illustration. From his flat in St Pancras he looked out onto an advertising hoarding kept in place by multiple struts. Combine this with the strong de Chirico influence and you get images which are interested in line and intersection (like the window frames used in ‘Month of March’):

The background is pure de Chirico, no?

Swanage

In 1934 Nash moved to Swanage in Dorset. His wife gave him a camera. And he met the artist Eileen Agar. The result was an explosion of activity recorded in a fascinating room containing scores of works by both artists. As surrealism took hold of his imagination he became fascinated by the juxtaposition of objects found along the seashore and then, by extension, anywhere.

As the audio-commentary points out, the sea, in itself, is a surrealist work – an improbable realisation of our weirdest dreams, and the evocative driftwood, stones, fossils and human detritus it washes up are ready-made objects which only need to be placed on pedestals to become works of art.

He and Agar photographed incongruous objects placed together, experimented with photo-collage, made reliefs and sculptures and assemblages – boxes containing mixed media, seashells, driftwood, stones, eggs, fabric. In fact, as with the Unit One room, I was more taken by the non-Nash – in this case Agar’s – work than by Nash’s. For me her stuff has a crispness and sharpness which contrasts with his vaguer, unfinished feel.

Eileen Agar in Swanage

It amused me that, like so many women artists, Agar was interested in depicting her own naked body. But – like so many woman artists – only when she was young and nubile.

Nash got some of Agar’s pieces into the landmark 1936 exhibition of Surrealist art in London, making her the only woman artist represented.

Nash in Swanage

One of the many display cases has a magazine open at an article by Nash entitled ‘Swanage or Seaside Surrealism’. This title somehow captures the slightly amateurish modernism of these suburban surrealists, a slightly shamefaced English provincialism which has more in common with Philip Larkin’s down-at-heel Hull than Louis Aragon’s glamorous Paris.

The surreal landscape

The Swanage experiments helped crystallise the Surrealist message that one or two carefully placed objects somehow bring out features of a landscape, which are otherwise left implicit and unobserved.

As usual I felt there was a big difference between the deliberately unfinished feel of most of these works and his other style, which is much more rectilinear and complete and – to me, as a fan of clean lines and sharp draughtsmanship – more immediately enjoyable. Such as:

Equivalents for the Megaliths by Paul Nash (1935) © Tate

Equivalents for the Megaliths by Paul Nash (1935) © Tate

The Surrealist exhibition 1936

Nash was one of the curators of the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London, which caused a sensation and aligned him in the public mind with the movement. All his influences came together in a series of works in which mysterious objects, sometimes with stage set framings, appear in otherwise placid landscapes. What do they mean? The most famous is Landscape from a dream.

Landscape from a Dream by Paul Nash (1936-8) © Tate

Landscape from a Dream by Paul Nash (1936-8) © Tate

The Second World War

And then – war again. Nash was invited to be a war artist. The Ministry wanted him to depict our heroic pilots in their gleaming Spitfires – but Nash found himself attracted to the wrecks of airplanes – German fighters and bombers, so cruelly yanked out of their element, their mangled metal wreckage looking like so many of the found objects he had been studying and creating over the previous decade.

The war was Surrealism come true. Many of the works here are watercolours again, showing the same lightness as the early Wittenham Clumps watercolour back in 1912.

Near his home in Oxford was a vast dump of wrecked German planes, the Cowley Dump. The exhibition features many b&w photos Nash took of the wrecked masters of the sky, and includes b&w film footage of our hero looking out over the vista of twisted metal. The result was what is often regarded as one of his masterpieces, Totes Meer (German for ‘dead sea’).

By this stage, after looking closely at 50 or 60 paintings by Nash I had developed a feel for what I liked and what I didn’t, and to my surprise I’d come to dislike paintings like this and prefer the more geometric works. Thus I find the arrangement of elements in the equally famous Battle of Britain (not included in the exhibition, for some reason) much more pleasing.

Last works

Nash only lived a year after the war, dying in 1946 at the early age of 56 from the complications of the asthma which had dogged him with ill health for much of his life. In these final years he returned to landscapes but now pregnant with obscure symbolism. The final room includes several of the series of works he painted which feature enormous sunflowers – a symbol of life when in its prime or, when dead and dessicated, of mortality.

Artists’ last works often reveal new knowledge; they have achieved everything and feel liberated to say what they want. According to the audio-commentary, the Queen Mother liked Landscape of the vernal equinox enough to buy it. She is quoted as saying you can almost imagine an animal or spirit emerging from the woods.

Thoughts:

1. Right to the end he keeps the scrappiness I noticed in room 2 or 3, in fact it is exaggerated, with white gaps between areas of paint forming holes in thickly covered paint through which something – what? – might emerge…

2. No people: early on he realised people weren’t his thing and so hardly any of his paintings, after a few war ones, feature them – the humans are implied by the objects, in the collocations of objects and landscapes from the 1930s, in increasingly subtle, complex and mystifying ways.

3. Pink-peach-apricot: a lot of these last works feature variations on apricot or peach colours, applied to skies, sometimes to other objects, even to shadows. As I strolled back through the show I realised this unreal peach-apricot crops up throughout the work from the beginning – for example, it’s there (improbably enough) in the wartime setting of Spring in the trenches, or in the 1930s surrealism of Landscape from a dream. 

In some way I can’t quite define I think that if you like Landscape of the vernal equinox, its patchy design, blotchy paintwork and apricot coloration – I think you will have penetrated Paul Nash’s mystery.

In these last works I can sort of see it, but I don’t quite get it. Why did he paint giant magnolias in the sky in his final paintings? I think it takes time to feel your way into Nash’s world, and this big thorough exhibition is an excellent place to begin…


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