Review of Paul Nash: Tate Britain Exhibition (26th October 2016 - 5th March 2017)
Catalogue edited by Emma Chambers Tate Publishing 2016
"The Englishness of English painting is a very definite but rather elusive thing. Paul Nash's name is one of twenty which spring to mind whenever I try to isolate this particular quality." Eric Newton, 1942.
The above are the opening lines of the fine catalogue which accompanies this new exhibition devoted to the work of Paul Nash, an enigmatic figure who in so many ways represents the difficult journey undertaken by English artists in the first half of the twentieth century. Across Europe art movements were springing up and then disappearing, from Cubism to Futurism, Post-Impressionism to Dadaism. Artists all over the continent were both connecting to the past, and reaching out to the future —and then the First World War blew it all apart.
The first years of Nash's artistic development, perhaps like those of any great artist, are significant. He left school with few qualifications, but had grown up playing in the woods near his family home in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire. His early drawings clearly show that he was captivated by the quiet natural life around him, depicting trees, clouds, and dream-like scenes which hinted at the supernatural. In 1910 he enrolled at the Slade, at a time when it was experiencing what Henry Tonks, the Professor of Drawing, would later describe as a “crisis of brilliance.” His fellow students included David Bomberg, Christopher Nevinson, Isaac Rosenberg, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Stanley Spencer, William Roberts and Adrian Allinson, surely a roll-call of the finest English artists of the next fifty years.
He did not thrive at the Slade. Like Nevinson, who had an equally difficult time, he commonly drew barbs from Henry Tonks, who seemed to delight in belittling his students with very audible sarcastic comments about their work in the life classes that he ran. In consequence he left after a year, hence his absence from the famous photograph of the 1912 Slade picnic. However, this should not imply that his time there was wasted. In 1911 he produced Vision of Evening, his tribute to his mother, who had died shortly before he started at the Slade. Nash had long been influenced by Blake and Samuel Palmer, and clearly believed that landscapes could reveal mystical qualities inherent within their structure and position. This work, in which he places an idealised portrait of his mother emerging from a cloudy blue sky above a still landscape of trees and ploughed fields, is an attempt to both acknowledge his grief and also show that the mystical is present in the world around us—we just have to be willing to look for it. This idea would become almost omnipresent throughout his oeuvre, and can be seen as the driving force behind many of his greatest works.
When war was declared Nash immediately volunteered for the Artists Rifles. This unit provided an opportunity for artists, writers, and poets to support the war effort in a non-combat role, for the point of this regiment was that it was entirely based within these shores. It was not until 1917 that they saw active service overseas. In 1917 Nash transferred to an active battalion, the Hampshire Regiment, and was sent to the front near Ypres. It was there that he had an accident which probably saved his life. Just a few days before the start of the bloodiest First World War battle, Passchendaele, Nash stumbled into a trench (he may have been sketching at the time!) and broke several ribs. As a consequence he was hospitalised and sent back to England to convalesce. Three days later the Hampshire Regiment was ordered to attack and most were killed or wounded. After recovering physically Nash was asked to return to the Front, but this time as an official war artist. He was back at Passchendaele by November 1917 and set about recording what he witnessed. The resulting drawings were to be transformed into some of the greatest war paintings ever produced.
Before he returned to Belgium in 1917, however, while convalescing, he completed a beautiful watercolour, The Cherry Orchard. This was his first response to the horrors of the war, a theme which would occupy Nash for the rest of his life, but, as in his later works, the artist depicts not human misery, but the destruction of the natural world. Although the work was produced in the summer of 1917, the trees in Nash's orchard are bare. They are arranged in straight lines, like soldiers on parade, or, more poignantly, like gravestones in a war cemetery. Across the front of the orchard is a high fence topped with barbed wire on which two swallows have been caught. This is a dead landscape, still and lifeless, all of the earth's energy sucked out.
In November 1917 Nash, in a letter to his wife Margaret, wrote what is arguably one of the most damning of all condemnations of the events at Passchendaele. The words explode off the page and are worth quoting in full, but space will not allow this, so these few lines must give the flavour.
“Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God's hand is seen anywhere.(…) They (shells) alone plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses and mules, annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave which is this land; one huge grave, and cast up on it the poor dead.”
And he ends with this famous line.
“Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.”
This was his answer to those who wanted the war to continue. Angry words from an angry man. But did they result in anything of any importance? The answer is not a simple 'yes' but an giant affirmation when we consider that Nash produced a series of paintings which must surely be regarded as some of the finest anti-war images ever made. Void, The Mule Track, The Menin Road, The Ypres Salient at Night, and, finally, the apocalyptic We Are Making a New World are so powerful that their ferocity can still shock us today.
Standing in front of We Are Making a New World is not a pleasant experience, and nor is it meant to be. This is a landscape like no other. When we remember how Nash could connect with the natural world and find spiritual meaning within its forms, this picture makes very clear the depth of his response to the horrors that he had witnessed. One of the first things that we notice is the complete lack of any human trace, despite the fact that thousands have died on this battlefield. This is a landscape where human interaction has become impossible. Decaying tree stumps stand in the muddy puddles of bomb craters, filled with foul-coloured water. Blazing over this silent world is a rising white sun. The colour has been drained even from this symbol of life and recovery, so that the sunrise, which normally brings rebirth, is made impotent. What has happened, Nash says, is impossible to repair. The earth itself has been blown apart irrevocably, humanity has destroyed itself, and the remains have sunk into the abyss.
The years after the war were not happy ones for Nash. In 1921 he and Margaret moved to Kent, but he suffered several breakdowns, probably due to his wartime experiences. His paintings from this period are quite bleak, a good example being Winter Sea, painted between 1925 and 1927. In this work a grey setting sun is sinking down over a colourless sea. The waves fold over one another as the colours change from the creamy white of the sunlight to the grey and black of the water itself. As in much of Nash's work, there is a profound sense of stillness: one can imagine the silence that one would feel in front of this scene, listening to the barely audible sound of the waves gently expiring on the beach. But while this subject, the natural action of sea upon a seashore, should inspire feelings of calm and perhaps reflections on natural beauty, this work seems to be about desolation —a dying sun lowering over an infinite expanse of colourless water.
English artists of the 1920s and 30s are often accused of ignoring the international movements which were transforming art around the globe. Surrealism was one of the most influential, and while Nash did not move into the direct light of this powerful group, as the decade progressed more elements associated with the movement could be found in his work. Mysterious objects and perspectives suddenly appear: a giant concrete block on the beach at Dymchurch (Dymchurch Steps, 1924-44), a huge shrine-like structure in the centre of which is an endless corridor superimposed on another beach scene (Nostalgic Landscape, 1923–44), and, perhaps most unsettling of all, in Opening (1930–33) there is a dislocated view into a world beyond our own about which we know nothing, but which we can see is empty of humanity.
As the next decade progressed, Nash explored those elements of Surrealism which seemed to him to offer more possibilities. His work was moving towards abstraction, but it was an abstraction which was based upon patterns and textures found in the real world. In 1931 his wife bought him a box camera, and like Man Ray he began to photograph found patterns and shapes which he could then develop into motifs in his paintings. He would later, after meeting the young Surrealist artist Eileen Agar, bring 'found' objects back to his studio and develop landscape pictures around them.
In 1935, Nash fell hopelessly in love with Agar. By this time his health was failing, as he developed chronic asthma which he could barely keep under control. Yet in that year he produced work at an astonishing rate, nearly eighty canvases. Inspired by his earlier visit to Avebury, where he found the stones a source of wonder for their texture, shape, and also for the spiritual qualities that they represented— and perhaps also by his love for Eileen and their long walks around Swanage looking for 'found' objects— Nash embarked upon a frenzy of activity. He painted the Avebury stones in Stone Tree and Neolithic Landscape, depicting giant imposing shapes, chipped and hard-edged, set in barren landscapes: objects of indeterminate age which exude mystical strength.
In 1936 Nash produced Swanage, which in many ways represents the pinnacle of his work in this period. It is a montage of drawing, watercolour and photograph. Sketches of 'found' objects, including an anchor given to him by Eileen, are placed in a landscape built up of watercolour and photographs of the sea and beach at Swanage. The result is dreamlike and yet rooted firmly in the real world. Like the finest Surrealist work, it strips back the veil from familiar experiences by placing ordinary objects in extraordinary settings.
By 1939 Nash had become disillusioned with life in Swanage and moved to Oxford. When the war began he was immediately employed again as an official war artist, this time attached to the Air Ministry, focusing on the conflict in the air rather than in the trenches. The outcomes, however, were eerily the same. Just as he produced some of the most iconic images associated with World War I, he was to do the same for World War II. Nash ultimately submitted four canvasses, all of them magnificent. The best-known is, of course, Totes Meer (Dead Sea). The scene is one which has now become familiar, a broken landscape over which a colourless sun hovers, cold and seemingly lifeless. Beneath the grey-green sky lie the remains of shattered aircraft. To appease the grandees at the Air Ministry, and to allow the painting to be used for propaganda purposes, the only insignia visible are those of Nazi Germany, yet this is fairly cosmetic.
The true subject here, as it was twenty years before, is the destruction of the natural world. The landscape is again barren and bleak, without hope. A black sea moves silently away in the distance, while in the foreground the broken remains of fighter aircraft fill all the available space. This is the graveyard of military machinery, the very same machines that have destroyed the world which produced them. Nash has returned to the themes that confronted him in the earlier conflict, and finds that the wheel has turned full circle. The first war wrought havoc upon the landscape, but peace allowed some kind of recovery; this second conflict has not only continued the destruction, but the machines responsible have annihilated themselves in the process.
The last painting that Nash submitted to the WAAC was The Battle for Germany (1944). This work presents us with the view from an aircraft flying over an unnamed German city. Beneath us we can see tiny shapes of buildings, while in the centre there are swirling plumes of smoke and fire, the result of an earlier raid. As had by now become a commonplace with Nash, a pale colourless moon hovers over a nondescript landscape while the destruction continues all around. The implication of the title is that these raids will go on until this city, and all the others in Germany, are destroyed. The earth is burning again and there is every chance that the smoke and fire will envelope the moon as well as the landscape on which it shines.
By the end of the war Nash's poor health had become more serious. Early in 1942 he visited Hilda Harrison’s house at Boars Hill, near his home in Oxford, to recover and convalesce. From her garden Nash could see the Wittenham Clumps, which he had known as a child. He had first painted this enigmatic scene in 1913 and it seems that, as he neared the end of his life, it came to represent his own passing into the ethereal sphere. A series of paintings from 1944 and 1945 depict the Clumps in different lights, with blazing suns and shining moons. These works have an otherworldly quality, celebrating natural beauty and suggesting hope for the future. Unlike his war scenes, these pictures are filled with light and new growth, and it is tempting to suggest that these late paintings represent his hope to be free from the disease and illness which had dominated his final years, and to again feel the freedom and sunshine of his childhood.
The final works in both the catalogue and exhibition are Solstice of the Sunflower and Eclipse of the Sunflower, both dated 1945, the year before Nash's death, and they provide a fitting climax. Both feature a fiery sunflower head, and in the first work there is an equally incandescent sun behind it. The painting is an explosion of movement and colour, a passionate affirmation of life at a point when Nash must have known that he was nearing his own death. The choice of the sunflower in these works is in itself revealing, for the flower is not only a symbol of love, it also proverbially turns to face the sun. Surely it is not fanciful to sense that Nash was evoking his own lifelong fascination with the sun as a symbol of life and rebirth. It could be that this is a kind of self-portrait of the mind —Nash, at the end of his life, turns to face the light for the last time.
Seeing Nash's work together, within the context of either book or exhibition, is a chastening experience. Taken as a whole, his journey from outraged combatant to modernist master is easy to chart, and fascinating to follow. His work demands that he is regarded as one of the outstanding English artists of his generation, but this collection shows that he also transcends that label. English, yes, but also European, Nash was an important member of a worldwide elite of twentieth century artists who pushed the boundaries of expressive art while uncovering secret truths about themselves and the world in which they lived. Magnificent.--Paul Flux