The big Paul Nash exhibition now on at Tate Britain is a great show. Not just because it’s an unusually big and comprehensive review of his work, but because it raises so many interesting questions – about the part of an artist in homegrown and international traditions, about art’s relationship with the state in times of emergency, and about the artist as a conscious member of a movement or group. Nash was never a conceptual artist, except for a brief nod to Marcel Duchamp, but he was always interested in ideas, and he likes you to be too.
The curators treat the works chronologically and thematically at the same time. They start with tentative images from 1910 until the outbreak of war. Nash trained at the Slade but realised early on that the human figure was not his strength. Instead it was landscape that absorbed him, with all kinds of proxies marking the place of people in his paintings and drawings of the land. Two aspects of the English art tradition appealed to him: the Pre-Raphaelites, soon dismissed, and the transcendental work of Blake and Palmer, which stayed with him to the end.
None of these early works mark Nash out as of special interest. It was his experiences of the Western Front, and how he transmuted them into paint, that first made him. He went to France twice, once as a soldier with the Artists Rifles in 1917 and again, after recuperating from injury, as a war artist. The Tate’s second room is a shock and a revelation, especially when you can see the relative sizes of the canvases. The two most famous works are there, We are making a new world and The Menin Road. The first shows a deserted, boiling sea of mud, from which poke shattered and bare tree trunks. On the far horizon a bright sun rises above a tall bank of blood-red cloud. The Menin road, commissioned for a never-built ‘Hall of Remembrance’, is a much larger and more complex composition. Again the landscape is one of complete devastation – there is no ‘road’ to be seen – but this time the battle is still in train, and the detritus of killing – helmets, metal sheeting, concrete blocks, poisoned plants – lies everywhere. Nash called the location, near the village of Gheluvelt, ‘perhaps the most dreaded and disastrous locality of any area in any of the theatres of War’. The picture is a tapestry of unrestrained destruction. By 1917 and the Battle of Passchendaele the war had become overwhelmingly mechanised and relentless, as David Jones describes in his preface to In parenthesis.
How these and similar images of war came to be accepted by the authorities who commissioned many of them is hard to understand, and the curators, keen to move on the 20s and 30s, don’t stop to tell us. Nash’s mind was clearly deeply wounded by his experiences, and he made no secret of his horror and detestation of the war, in his letters home and his paintings, whose titles are often bitterly cynical.
Like David Jones Nash carried the mental burden of the war inside him for years after, with nervous breakdown as the result. He settled for a time at the coast at Dymchurch in Kent, where the grim concrete defences against the attacks of the sea, rehearsing the deadly stalemate of the Front, gave him an enduring subject for drawings and paintings. Most of these works are dark. One, Dymchurch Steps, is dominated by a sinister concrete cube, lifted straight from The Menin Road. In another, Winter sea, the long waves stretch into the far distance and have solidified into twisted sheets of grey metal.
After this period Nash’s palette lightens, and he moves into new areas, conscious of the new continental movements in art. This is when his great debate begins – between the landscape, particular and historic, and objects, made or natural, he found or placed within it. For De Chirico, whom he discovered in 1928, this was already a concern, but Nash more than anyone worried away at the question for the rest of his life. The Surrealists gave him a basic vocabulary to draw out the strange and uncanny from juxtapositions of object and landscape – and of different landscapes (land and sea interpenetrating, as in Harbour and room, was a favourite motif) – although Nash never swallowed the more radical medicines of the surrealists.
In 1933 he joined with other leading British artists, including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Tristram Hillier, in forming Unit One, a loose grouping of artists opposed to naturalism and committed to design and structure. The exhibition curators regard this period as especially significant, though it seems to me that many of Nash’s paintings from the time look arid and over-formal. But he never abandoned landscape, like the chalk cliffs of the south coast, inhabiting it with manmade and natural objects, as in Event on the Downs (1934). Megaliths, as at Avebury, become an obsession, sometimes almost anthropomorphised, sometimes reduced to basic geometric shapes. Deep history from a local landscape floods into the contemporary imagination, in a way that prefigures by fifty years the psychogeographical investigations of Iain Sinclair and others. Nash wrote
The landscapes I have in mind are not part of the unseen world in a psychic sense, nor are they part of the Unconscious. They belong to the world that lies, visibly, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.
The Second World War, in which Nash was employed again as a war artist, seems to have re-energised his imagination and given fresh power to his painting. The exhibition includes many of the photographs he took – Nash was keen to use photographs to stimulate the production of imagery – of wrecked German planes in a dump at Cowley near Oxford. These images fed directly into his great painting Totes Meer, or Dead Sea (1940-41). Waves lap beside a bare shoreline – not waves of water but of the shattered and twisted bodies of German aeroplanes. A single gull flies low over the mechanical carnage. Nash is revisiting here his painting of Dymchurch seawall, Winter sea, and reaching even further back, to his early model Samuel Palmer, for the moon that presides coldly over the scene.
Another fine, more abstract and colourful, war painting, Battle of Germany, followed in 1944.
Later in the war, and knowing that he was dying, Nash sublimated the essentials of his approach to land and object in a series of deeply felt pastoral landscapes. They look back to the paintings he was making in Buckinghamshire before the First World War, but they’re also informed by the moons of Marx Ernst and they often feature large flowers blossoming exotically in the foreground or looming over the landscape. These pictures, originating in surrealism, look forward directly to the work of Graham Sutherland and Ceri Richards, especially the ones dominated by a giant sunflower head.
While looking at these late paintings I noticed one on loan from the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea, bought in with the help of the Gallery’s Friends. (Why the Gallery bought the work isn’t clear. Topographically Nash was quite a provincial artist, who rarely left the south-east of England – though, as one photo collage in the show reminds us, he was a guest of the Davies sisters in Gregynog in 1939 and left them a painting of the estate.) The picture is called Landscape of the Bagley Woods and was painted in Oxfordshire in 1943. Its colours are more muted than in other pictures in the series. It shows a distant view of trees and fields below a partly cloudy sky. In the foreground, on a wall, two large papery flowers flare out, dominating the scene behind. In the distance, picked out by sunlight, is Wittenham Clumps, beech woods on the site of an Iron Age fort that had held a fascination for Nash since his earliest days as an artist. This is a completely realised painting, a summation of a lifetime’s thinking about what really mattered.