Walking into the Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain is like going back in time to explore the big themes of the 20th Century. War and peace.
Nash lived through the two defining wars of that century. He fought as a soldier in the First World War and painted as an official war artist in both the first and second. His war experiences changed his art forever and inspired his best work.
Paul Nash may not be ranked as one of the true greats but his work captures the feel of the early 20th Century perfectly. This was a period of conflict, disruption and change, something which Nash reflects so well in his paintings.
A Bitter Truth
I love Paul Nash’s paintings. They’re distinctly British but with touches of Surrealism and Symbolism. They veer from pastoral modernist landscapes to war paintings of soldiers in the trenches and the wrecks of crashed planes.
Paul Nash is most famous for his war paintings, of course, and they stand head and shoulders above his other works in the Tate show.
His apocalyptic images show the unspeakable horror of war. Nash described the battlefields of France as “a nightmare of a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature”.
Nash was a soldier himself and knew the horrors of war all too well. He narrowly escaped being killed in the bloody assault on Hill 60 at Ypres in 1917. Whilst the battle raged, Nash was back home being treated for a war wound. It was a lucky escape. Dozens of fellow officers from his battalion died in the futile attack.
‘Soldiers in the Trenches’ depicts two men on duty against a bleak, war-torn landscape with shell craters and attenuated trees. The men look broken and vulnerable.
It’s as if the soldiers are frozen in time, rooted to their posts. This is the visual equivalent of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen’s war poetry.
“No pen or drawing can convey this country… no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous,” wrote Nash.
Nash’s painting ‘We Are Making a New World’ is one of his most lacerating and desolate with its images of gouged mud, shell holes and dying trees.
A shining beam of sunlight hovers on the horizon of the painting, perhaps suggesting a brighter future, but the wrecked landscape with its stunted corpses of trees looks like a scene from Hell.
As a war artist, Nash wanted to get as close to the action as possible, even though it nearly killed him several times. He captured these war images in nothing but brown paper and chalk before working them up in oils.
Paul Nash loved the natural landscape and he was shocked by the wounds inflicted on the countryside. The devastation of nature is captured brilliantly in these works. It’s a vision of total annihilation.
It was with these paintings that Nash seems to have discovered his own style and visual language to convey the horrors of war. I was intrigued to discover how Nash felt about the harrowing experience in letters which he sent home. His words are powerful and bleak:
“It us unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer interested and curious. I am the messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.”
Paul Nash letter, November 1917.
After the war, Nash became enamoured of classic English landscapes with their shapes and forms, from Oxfordshire hilltops to the Berkshire downs. The softness of these paintings come as quite a shock after his war imagery.
He’s keen to convey the memories and feelings in these very English places, their mystery and enchantment. Nash was interested in depicting places that had a special significance to him. There are echoes of Surrealism in many of the works, with a nod to the great painter De Chirico, in particular.
The oddly-titled ‘Equivalents for the Megaliths’ explores the shapes of England’s rolling lowland landscapes with hay bales becoming cylinders and ploughed fields taking on geometric patterns. There are also echoes of Avebury’s ancient stone circle in Wiltshire with its strange boulders with which Nash was obsessed.
‘Landscape from a Dream’ is a symbolic and surreal painting which is almost dreamlike. It shows a Peregrine Falcon seeing its own reflection in a mirror, looking at itself perched and mirrored in flight.
This strangely haunting image uses one of Nash’s favourite locations – Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset – as a backdrop. The painting shows a strong affinity with the Surrealists and shares their obsession with dreams and the unconscious.
Nash saw himself as closely allied to the Surrealists as a group of artists and helped to organise the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936.
But his later experiments with landscape painting took him into new territory and his mature works feel less influenced by other European art movements.
A love of nature
Paul Nash had a deep connection and love of the English landscape which extended far beyond his paintings. One of the surprising discoveries from the Tate exhibition is that Nash produced a wealth of creative work, from photographs and collages to sculptural pieces. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of these works displayed before.
I love his assemblages of natural objects – flints, driftwood, bones and small geometric objects which he arranges into ‘still lives’. These pieces are a true revelation.
My favourite work is Moon Aviary, a spindly wooden construction with shapes which balance precariously along its ledges. It’s almost architectural with its geometry.
I was also largely ignorant of Nash’s photographic work which develops an intensity during his later career with images inspired by the Second World War.
The Monster Trees are amongst Nash’s most powerful photographs, conveying the raw power of nature, but also reflecting man’s destructive power.
Uprooted tree trunks, gnarled wood and fallen branches are shown as if they’re from a monstrous landscape with a nod to mythology and the supernatural.
It’s hard to know if Nash is showing us the unpredictability of nature or whether some devilish work has been at play.
The mystical nature of these works leaps out, but there are also undercurrents of something sinister.
Return to War
“When the Second World War came, suddenly the sky was upon us all like a huge hawk hovering, threatening. Everyone was searching the sky waiting for some terror to fall.”
Paul Nash, 1945.
When the Second World War started, Paul Nash once again became involved in painting war images, producing some of the finest works of his career.
He became fascinated by the images of crashed German bombers in the landscape. ‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea)’ is one of his most evocative works on this subject. The subject is actually Cowley Dump near Oxford which became a graveyard for wrecked plans. The crashed planes resemble a sea of grey, metallic waves. It’s a poignant reminder of the futility of war.
‘Flight of the Magnolia’ is a radical departure for Nash which sees the artist experimenting with mystical images (painting at top of blog post). The painting depicts an unfolding magnolia bloom with its fluffy cloud-like petals. It’s one of Nash’s ‘aerial flowers’ series and is said to have been inspired by an unusual cloud formation that Nash saw on an early morning trip to Dorset.
But the Second World War had also affected Nash’s perception of the sky:
“When the war came, suddenly the sky was upon us all like a huge hawk, hovering, threatening. Everyone was searching the sky, expecting the terror to fall: I among them scanned the low clouds… hunting the sky for what I most dreaded in my imagining. It was a white flower. Ever since the Spanish Civil War the idea of the Rose of Death, the name the Spaniards gave to the parachute, had haunted my mind, so that when the war overtook us I strained my eyes always to see that dreadful miracle of the sky blossoming with these floating flowers.” Paul Nash, 1945
Nash’s airborne flowers reflect the artist’s own feelings about mortality. Painted not long before his death, Nash spoke of the hovering spectre of ‘the flight of the soul’. He said: “It is death I have been writing about all this time… death, I believe, is the only solution to this problem of how to be able to fly”.
Visionary landscapes are the inspiration for the final paintings of Paul Nash. There are echoes of Surrealism but they also remind me of the Symbolist works of Odilon Redon and William Blake.
These cosmic paintings are filled with the images of the sun and moon, and the landscapes over which they hover. Aerial flowers feature strongly.
Nash returns to some of the early themes of his career seen in his Symbolist drawings, using a more mature, distinctive style.
For me, his most stunning landscape is ‘Eclipse of the Sunflower’ painted at the end of the Second World War in 1945.
The sunflower takes on the dual character of sun and fire wheel, becoming a glowing mythological presence. Nash had planned to make a series of four paintings using the sunflower as an emblem of the sun in the sky, but died before he could complete them.
I love his supernatural world of the imagination, illuminated by the forces of nature. It’s an uplifting end to a splendid show which reaffirms Nash as one of Britain’s great war painters and a truly talented landscape artist.
After 70 years, Paul Nash’s paintings still shine on… like a diamond in the landscape.
Tammy’s Guide – Paul Nash @ Tate Britain
The Paul Nash exhibition is at the Tate Britain in London until 5 March, 2017. There is an admission charge.
The nearest Tube station is Pimlico, and the Tate is also served by bus number 88 from Oxford Street and Great Portland Street – or by water bus from Tate Modern on Bankside.