Paul Nash at Tate Britain (2016)

Paul Nash is one of our great artists, who lived through and interpreted some of the most tumultuous times in recent British history. He was both a catalyst for the rebirth of landscape painting in this country as well as a key figure in introducing European ideas on Abstract Art and Surrealism. All of this activity is documented in a fantastic new exhibition at Tate Britain, which is the first of its kind for some time.

Nash’s painting is rooted in a sense of place, yet transformed through the eye of the imagination. On the one hand, it speaks of the profound connections to the landscape that we as human beings have. But also of how our physical imprint upon it- however fleeting- transforms our perception of it. Through time, from the traces of past people, natural process or the unknown. The cycles of the seasons and the tides. The effects of the equinox. The effects of War.

In his art, how the landscape is depicted reflects something of Nash’s internal state of mind. Each subject, every time it’s recorded, would provoke a different response in him. The resulting images express particular moods and atmospheres, that have their origins in the heart of the artist.

From all of this Paul Nash evolved his own personal mythology. Places familiar to the artist served as starting points for his imagination. This may be a vast landscape like Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire or an enigmatic stone, knurled piece of familiar wood or a potent object. All possessed the necessary spark for Nash to combine, arrange and transform them into heightened visions, that appeal to our sense of wonder and enchantment. His paintings and other work get directly to the heart of how we engage with the places we inhabit and their subsequent effect upon us.
Their power and hold on the mind.

The phases of the moon too were a constant source of inspiration to Nash and are a powerful presence in many of his paintings. Most famously in his most famous work, that most subtle yet direct piece of allegory, ‘Totes Mear’ (Dead Sea) from 1940-41.

“Oh Dreaming trees, sunk in a swoon of sleep
What have ye seen in those mysterious places?”

Paul Nash, Poem written for Mercia Oakley, 1909

The first room in the exhibition is entitled ‘Dreaming Trees’ and showcases Nash’s exquisite early landscapes. ‘The Three’ were a group of mature elm tress that occupied Nash’s imagination around this time and we have two on display. ‘The Three in the Night’ from 1913 being particularly enigmatic.

Inherent mysteries that connect us to the landscape, bring us to Nash’s deep feeling for the work of the early 19th Century painter and printmaker Samuel Palmer. Of all the influences on Nash, it was, arguably, to be Palmer’s work that had the most profound effect on him. In his early art, we also see traces of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as that of Palmer’s mentor and inspiration, the visionary poet and artist William Blake.

The other studies, including early versions of Wittenham Clumps, were evocatively realised at different times of day and night, using a variety of approaches and materials. Each picture has a distinct atmosphere and the selection on display demonstrates the artist’s early level of accomplishment. In 1908, Nash had attended the London School of Photoengraving and Lithography and I think some of that training is evident here. Later in 1912, he had his first show at the Carfax Gallery which included many of these pictures.

Here we see the beginning of Nash’s lifelong attachment to the places that would become his subject matter for the rest of his life. These would come to include the standing stones at Avebury; places in Swanage and Dymchurch. Nash wrote to Oakley about his discovery of Whittenham Clumps. How he “wanted an image of them which would express what they meant to me. I realised that I might well make a dozen drawings and still find new aspects to portray” that this landscape was “full of strange enchantment… a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten.”

Nash studied art at the Slade for a year, but his talent wasn’t a great fit with the emphasis on figure drawing that was a priority there. Nevertheless at this time, the school had some of the most significant talents of the era as students. Artists like Stanley Spencer, Ben Nicholson, Mark Gertler and CRW Nevinson. Contacts.

Throughout his life, Nash enthusiastically engaged with contemporary developments in Modern Art. By the summer of 1914, he had been employed at Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop and was at the centre of the many progressive debates about art. He was also elected to the London Group, a group made up of many who would shape the future of British Art.

But then came the First World War, which changed everything.

The Artists Rifles. Just the name speaks volumes about the concept of Patriotism during the Great War. About how everybody had to be seen to be ‘playing their part’ in the glorious conflict. Many great artists had joined and so to did Nash.

In the next room, we see Nash’s work from this period. He had very different reactions to the effects of the conflict; both upon the landscape and in general. The horror amid the trenches and waste of human life disgusted him. But during his first experience in a relatively quiet section of the front, Nash became fascinated by how, amid all the destruction of modern warfare, nature could be seen to be taking back hold of the land. All the shells, bullets, gas and barbed wire that had torn up the land and soaked it with blood; couldn’t eradicate the natural cycles of the seasons. That the landscape itself played to a different rhythm, beyond the mere incursions of man. So a painting like ‘Spring at the Front’ in all its varied colour and variety of form, seems strangely reassuring. The irony wasn’t lost on Nash, as his writings home testify.

Injured at the front in late 1917, Nash returned home to recuperate and spent time on his sketches from the front. These were well received and he was successful in being accepted as an official war artist. He had previously completed Officer training and so returned to the front as a Second Lieutenant to observe that final year of the conflict. Nash’s bitter experience caused him to write “I shall not forget it as long as I live. I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature, unspeakable, utterly indescribable”. On prominent display is one of the most famous pictures of the war. Based on his drawing ‘Sunrise, Inverness Copse’, the enigmatically titled ‘We Are Making A New World’ from 1918 depicts the sun bursting through wet clouds and blasted trees, over a muddied shell-pocked wasteland. I think the paradox implicit in the title is a challenge to many people’s contemporary perception of war as in some ways ‘progressive’. Remember that, along with almost everyone else, many intellectuals and artists had initially viewed the conflict in a positive light, as some kind of purification through ordeal; until their illusions were shattered amid a sea of needless death.

Nash was an official war artist in both conflicts, but his ‘patriotism’ if it can be so called, was of a personal kind. Drawn from a love of place, of home and belonging.

After the conflict, Nash returned home, successful both as an artist and a soldier, having ‘done his bit’. He proceeded to depict familiar subjects that held particular significance for him. However, evident in his Post World War One work are tendencies towards abstraction and perhaps more profoundly for him, Surrealism. They opened creative doors for the artist that would last the rest of his life. ‘Nostalgic Landscape’ painted between 1923-38, suggests the mystery of Giorgio De Chirico in it’s claustrophobic space, distortions of perspective and echoes of shape. This is a very theatrical image, but then consider ‘The Shore’ from 1923, a poetic study of an empty beach at Dymchurch, that emphasises it’s rhythmic forms in an almost geometric way.

Increasingly drawn to Surrealism, Nash found new ways to re-imagine and visualise the British landscape. Many pictures from this period show the artist’s obsession with the ancient standing stones of Southern England. How these monoliths have an almost sentient presence. In his work, Nash explored the idea of a ‘life force’, present in inanimate and once living objects like bones and wood.

A painting on display called ‘Landscape from a Dream’ from 1938 is one of a group of images that are developed from placing such enigmatic and unrelated objects together in landscape settings, In this Nash was reflecting a core Surrealist principle, as expressed by Lautréamont. (Nothing is more) “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”. The resulting arrangements evoke mystery and suggest possible relationships between the objects. The observer too both creates their own narrative through the act of looking at the painting, yet by doing this, they also becomes a ‘part’ of it. The significance of the dream state would remain a potent influence on Nash, who continued to explore the borders between dream and reality. Other paintings exploring these ideas include ‘Event on the Downs’ (1935) and ‘The Archer’ (1930-42). The latter arrangement suggestive of an unfolding event, upon which the action has ceased when ‘discovered’ by the viewer. Both appear ‘frozen’ in time, as if photographed.

In fact Photography became increasingly important to the artist’s practice during the 30s and there are plenty of examples on display. These include documentary pictures that provide us with a fascinating insight into Nash’s ability to transform a subject. Particularly enigmatic for me was to see for the first time a powerful photo-collage I first saw in a book many years ago called ‘Swanage’ from around 1936. It’s made from fragments of photographs collected by Nash and the artist has ‘filled in’ the background to complete the picture.

Also on display in this exhibition are a large amount of Nash’s research and published writings, displayed here in accessible vitrines. Significant ‘found’ objects and fragments sit together. ‘Only Egg’ is an assemblage from the mid 30s and is shown in conjunction with the extraordinary art of Nash’s contemporary, with whom he would work around this time; Eileen Agar. Also presented here is his ‘Collage for Eileen’ which consists of printed paper and a leaf.

A part of this exhibition is devoted to Nash’s role as a catalyst in bringing to Britain the lessons of the European Avant-garde. He was in touch with many other Modern artists of his day including Hepworth, Moore and Nicholson and exhibited at Unit One; a touring exhibition across the UK in 1934/5 as well as at the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936. All of this really helps the viewer to put Nash’s career in context and is fascinating to explore. We also see throughput the show, his work as a fine printmaker and illustrator.

The exhibition continues in room 8 ‘Aerial Creatures’ with the story behind ‘Totes Meer’ or ‘Dead Sea’. As mentioned, Nash was again an official war artist in World War Two. The inspiration for this painting came from seeing photographs of fragmented wreckage of German planes shot down and sent for recycling to the Morris plant near Cowley, Oxfordshire. We are shown an excerpt of Jill Craigie’s documentary ‘Out Of Chaos’ from 1944, depicting Nash at work on this painting and sketching, which reveals something of how it came to be. The story is also reinforced by photographic evidence. It is possible that Nash also had in mind ‘The Sea of Ice’ by Casper David Friedrich from 1823-4, as there are strong similarities in composition and style. The Luftwaffe planes, we know were brought down by our RAF, appear as just another part of the landscape, another feature of its long past, that will inevitably wear away to nothing. Ours is a landscape that no unnatural power can lay claim to. In the sky is the moon, for ever in it’s endless cycles, shining on this land and the enemy. Yet a beacon of certainty that will remain, like the landscape, long after that ‘enemy’ is defeated. In its certainty, we know our country will prevail.

Nash’s’ work of the Second World War depicted the com trails of the fighting planes, witnessed during a dogfight as in 1941’s ‘Battle of Britain’ and downed enemy planes like ‘The Messerschmidt in Windsor Great Park from 1940. ‘Battle of Germany’ is a later work on a similar scale and related to ‘Totes Meer’. It’s complex composition and abstract form are perhaps not as direct or easy to interpret as it’s more famous sibling, but it is nevertheless a potent statement filled with foreboding as the defenceless city lies in the path of the incoming tide of war.

Room 9 is fittingly titled ‘Equinox’ and includes Nash’s last and in many ways, most intense and visionary works. I couldn’t help but think he knew the end was near for him. ‘Solstice of the Sunflower’ and ‘Eclipse of the Sunflower’ (both 1945) are the last images the artist would paint and evoke something cosmic or apocalyptic. Their subjects seem in a transitional state and reflect Nash’s early interest in William Blake. The two versions of ‘Landscape of the Vernal Equinox’ (1943 and 44 respectively) are exquisite depictions of that fleeting moment on his beloved Wittenham Clumps; itself appearing permeated by the light and in a state of flux. In these epic paintings, it seems as if the sky, the night and the huge moon wish yo join with the land, trees and flowers.

I found this to be a very special exhibition. It was revealing as it was thoroughly enchanting. The curator and assistant curator (Emma Chambers and Inga Fraser respectively) have made a brilliant job of selecting the work and contextualising it. The structure of the exhibition worked very well to tell the artist’s story and the presentation and lighting I thought were exactly right. Also, the supporting material was spot on. The catalogue was excellent too, as was the thoughtful inclusion of a special publication dedicated to Nash’s photography. Both are ‘must haves’ if you like the artist’s work.

In conclusion, this was a thoroughly well designed and thought out show and one I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone. If you want to be inspired and to see our landscape revealed and transformed through the eyes of a visionary artist, this one is definitely for you.

(C) Gideon Hall 2016