"I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will be a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls" - Paul Nash.
Paul Nash was a wonderful painter who had the great fortune of living through one of the most interesting periods of development art has ever seen. He also had the even greater misfortune of living through some of the most 'interesting' times humanity has ever seen. It sometimes feels like there's a mirror in the middle of both Tate Britain's retrospective of his life and his life itself.
That life both began and ended with William Blake like ponderings of other dimensions, other worlds. Imagine his life as a butterfly, each wing, viewed from a distance is as gloriously symmetrical as they should be, but, on closer inspection they carry the scars of World Wars I and II. Between those wars there would be a period of calm reflection, grace, happiness, and an embracing of modernity. It'd be no exaggeration to say he was one of the most important modern artists Britain ever produced.
Born in Kensington in 1889 Nash was never a city boy at heart. Both him and his art looked out to the countryside. Be it the green and pleasant rolling hills of merry England or the darkened, denuded branches of the haunted trees on the battlefields of Ypres. Nash operated a code in his work where paths equated to choices, trees stood in for people, and water represented oblivion.
His naïve, yet poignant, Blakean Vision at Evening (1911, above) which seems to merge dream with reality soon, after seeing action in World War I, gave way to 1917's Cherry Orchard (below). For Nash this was something of a loci, a way of remembering what he'd seen and who he'd lost. In May 1917 Nash fell into a trench, broke a rib, and was invalided back to London. By the time he returned in the capacity of war artist most of his regiment, the Artists' Rifles, had been killed in a single assault.
Fuelled by his great anger at the horrors of war he set passionately to work, sometimes producing a dozen or so pieces per day. The most notorious of these included We Are Making A New World (1918) and The Menin Road (1919). These amazing paintings act as dispatches back from a hell on earth where day and night were indistinguishable, dark soot rained down almost permanently, and young men were sent to die doing the bidding for their masters in a war nobody really understood.
The curators have pulled off a decent trick by reflecting on Nash's return from Belgium, and the end of the war that took over 16,000,000 lives, with a much lighter colour scheme in the next room. Nash's art too spoke volumes about how glad he was to be back home. All of the sudden, freed from 'filthy drawings of muddy places', there is sunlight, greenery, and the wonder and awe of nature. It feels like Nash would've wandered these great expanses reflecting on his joy to have survived the horrors of war. Behind the Inn (1919-22) shows a domestic farm and homestead backing out on to the woods. Wood on the Downs (1929-30) looks, again, at trees. This time they (and the people they are ciphers for) are alive. Proud, verdant, and growing rather than chopped down in their prime and left to rot on a foreign field far from home. Interestingly, the painting shows Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns, a site known to our walking group TADS.
This central part of Nash's career was, for me, the most fascinating. Considering the wars that bookended it you'd imagine it to be his happiest time as well but in 1921, when visiting his father, he collapsed and was diagnosed with 'emotional shock' from the war. When bad things end they don't just end. They stay with you one way or another. We all carry a lot of emotional baggage. Someone who's seen a war carries the most.
As the decade developed so did Nash. Whilst somehow finding time to work on theatre sets for a J.M.Barrie play he moved away from emotional shock towards emotional attachment. Specific places he held particularly close to his heart. Whiteleaf in Buckinghamshire, Dymchurch in Kent, and Iden in Sussex. After becoming acquainted with the work of metaphysical maestro, and forebear of surrealism, Giorgio de Chirco in 1928 Nash's work started to display signs of that artist's influence.
Dymchurch Steps (1929, though not finished until 1944) seems to speak of infinite possibilities and the charming Blue House on the Shore (1929-31) feels like it belongs in much warmer climes than England. Nash is fusing his native style with elements of pointillism and surrealism and coming up with a uniquely British modernism. Along with his contemporary Edward Wadsworth their work would come to be known as seaside surrealism. Nash even moved to Swanage to be near the sea.
Ever restless, around this time he provided a cover design for the Radio Times, and open to the innovative works of the great artists of Paris at the time Nash began to absorb some of Picasso's cubism into his oeuvre and in 1933 he founded the short lived Unit One with fellow artists Edward Burra, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and Wadsworth. Strongly opposed to British art's dominant naturalist tendency it had disbanded by 1935 but, in many ways, its work had been done. The UK was now more open to European influences.
Voyages of the Moon (1934-37) was inspired by a Toulon restaurant and Nash, ever more emboldened, branched out into sculpture with 1937's Moon Aviary which, when initially shown, was to be viewed through a blue gas mask to create a moonlit effect. A feature sadly not replicated by the Tate.
A commission by John Betjeman to write the Shell Guide to Dorset led Nash to Swanage where, with his new partner Eileen Agar, he took on Andre Breton and Salvador Dali's idea of the found-object. Nash being Nash these came to represent what he called the 'object-personage'. In the Marshes (1938) consists of plant stems and pieces of wood on bark and Only Egg (1936-37) is made up of stones and shale.
The influence of Max Ernst keeps cropping up but it's Nash's involvement in the International Surrealist Exhibition, held in the Burlington Galleries, in 1936 that Nash really starts to become an international name. Alongside works by Breton, Dali, Ernst, de Chirico, Picasso, Agar, Burra, and Moore there were contributions from Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray, Joan Miro, Yves Tanguy, Paul Klee, Jean Arp, and Rene Magritte. That would be a blockbuster show by anyone's standards now - and it was then.
Nash's fascination with megaliths, as symbols of course, was becoming more prominent in his work. He was fascinated with Avebury and Iron Age hill forts and in 1935 he painted both Equivalents for the Megaliths and Objects in Relation. There's almost a mathematical formality alongside the nods to ancient mysticism. As a master of fusing different elements it's superb to see him tying up the strands of his different interests. These works borrow from the new European schools of thought but look back to Nash's early landscape works.
1938's Nocturnal Landscape is the work that borrows most heavily from de Chirico but, at roughly the same time, he was working on Landscape from a Dream which mixes the influences of de Chirico and the surrealists with the seascapes Nash and Wadsworth had developed a decade earlier. It's a confusing, slightly discomfiting work, and it may well have been made in the full knowledge that the horrors of war that Nash had already experienced once were looming over the continent of Europe once more.
Imagine having lived through one war only to see another, even worse one, appear. Nash saw the crashed German bombers as both surreal, and very real, things. He painted them as found objects in 1940's Bomber in the Corn and then, jilted from his reveries, with Totes Meer (1940-41) looked face first at the sea of twisted, contorted metal of Cowley in Oxfordshire's salvage dump of downed enemy aircraft and saw in it wave after wave of fear and evil washing over the shores and drowning all of Europe in pain, and death. It's an incredibly powerful work and one, I'm certain, Nash would have preferred to have never had to paint.
Totes Meer means Dead Sea in German and, buoyed by Kenneth Clark's description of it as "the best war picture so far", Nash wanted postcard reproductions of it dropped over the Reich as propaganda. A pacifist, at heart, he may've been but he did not underestimate the perilous situation the rise of fascism had placed Europe in.
By Battle of Germany (1944, above) it seems Nash was so bewildered by man's inhumanity to man that he could barely find it within himself to paint anything with any narrative whatsoever. The Spanish called the parachutes that carried the soldiers down from the sky 'roses of death' and Nash, too, must've seen his beloved nature, once again, despoiled by the avaricious nature of man. One can only imagine the despair.
Nash, fortunately, lived to see the end of the war. He died in 1946 aged just 57, of a heart failure brought on by a lifelong asthmatic condition, and one of his last paintings, 1945's Solstice of the Sunflower, seems to reflect on an ascension of sorts. It looks like Nash waving goodbye to a world he'd seen be both heartless and cruel but also beautiful and wondrous. For one last year of his life Nash was allowed to return back to nature, back to William Blake. It's hard not to reflect on just how different Nash's war work is to his peacetime paintings. It seems unlikely he'd be campaigning for less unity in Europe right now but it'd be curious to know just what he'd think about the current rise of demagoguery, again, all over the planet. I doubt he'd be best pleased but we'll never know that so let's reflect on a brilliant exhibition of a brilliant painter. A man who managed to fuse his Britishness with an openness to Europe and was all the better for that.
Thanks to my friends Mark and Natalie for joining me both on this art excursion and on thrashing out some thoughts about it in the pubs of Pimlico afterwards.