Stranger than expected: the Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain

I must confess that until now, I’d never really found the paintings of Paul Nash (1889-1946) particularly striking. Perhaps that’s not so surprising. Apart from the fact that I’d only ever seen two or three examples of his work at any one time, I wasn’t aware of any especially great claims having been for him as a major artist: of the various books I possess about twentieth-century art, apart from two Phaidon coffee table books (so big in their minimally informative way that they mention virtually everybody who’s managed to get something into a gallery), only Herbert Read’s ‘A Concise History of Modern Painting’ bothers to mention Nash – and even then the single reference to him in the index leads you to a page from which the painter’s name is conspicuously absent.

Still, I knew Nash had some reputation as a war artist, so on finding myself with a spare afternoon, I decided to check out the exhibition of Nash’s work currently at Tate Britain. And I’m glad I did so; seeing so much of his work gathered together in one place reveals a considerably more interesting artist than the one I thought I knew from occasional encounters with individual paintings. I certainly wouldn’t make a case for him as one of the greats, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t produce, during a career that lasted about three and a half decades, a fair number of very fine, often very strange and surprisingly haunting pictures.

Seemingly never very comfortable depicting human figures (some of the World War One pictures show men in or above the trenches, but that’s about it), Nash specialised in landscapes and still lives. The latter, while making clever play with frames, angles, perspective and different kinds of objects, still feel a little academic – like formal studies, rather than works fully engaged with – and are probably most interesting insofar as they show his drift both towards an abstraction sometimes reminiscent of cubism and towards a kind of surrealism. Those characteristics are also to be found in the landscapes, which are altogether more rewarding.

Right from the beginning. Nash seems to have responded to landscape with an almost mystical sense of its power. The earliest pictures, influenced by Blake and Rosetti, tend towards a rather whimsical interest in the shapes of trees, though ‘The Cliff to the North’ (1912, pictured above), mixing ink and watercolour, uses the shadow of a woman on a Norfolk clifftop to suggest the dark, mesmerising force of the North Sea. In his first paintings of the battlefields of WWI he seems to have marvelled at the ability of the natural world to reassert itself, but later works like the ironically titled ‘We Are Making a New World’ (1918) capture the full horrific effect on nature of years of violent destruction. These are his most powerful early works: geometrically bold, brooding, direct.

new-world
‘We Are Making a New World’ (1918).

Nash’s experience of the war affected him so deeply that he underwent a collapse in the early 1920s, and moved to Dymchurch to recuperate; his paintings of the sea and marshes are almost as vivid and memorable as the war pictures. Later, however, his mood seems to have lightened, and partly through his relationship with artist Eileen Agar (several of whose own striking works feature in the exhibition) he took an ever greater interest in found objects, which he would depict, in paintings, photographs and collages, standing like weird creatures and monuments in a highly charged landscape. Some of these works bring to mind Ernst, De Chirico, even Dali or Magritte – though, imaginative and fascinating as they are, they feel somehow polite, even hesitant compared to the creations of those particular artists. ‘Equivalents for the Megaliths’ (1933) and ‘Landscape from a Dream’ (1938), for example, are both compelling and mysterious, yet the delicate colours – perhaps more reminiscent of Morandi than of the Surrealists – somehow soften their effect.

landscape-from-dream
‘Landscape from a Dream’ (1938).

There is, in Nash’s pictures of places like the Wittenham Clumps, Avebury and Dorset, something at once mystical and magical, yet muted. In their quietly romantic obsession with an ancient landscape, they feel very English, not altogether unlike A Canterbury Tale, or some of Michael Powell’s other films. Therein, perhaps, lies both their strength and their weakness.

Unsurprisingly, World War Two seems to have pushed Nash back towards bolder colours, not only in war paintings like the remarkable ‘Totes Meer’ (‘Dead Sea’, 1941), with its ocean of dismembered German aircraft,

dead-sea
‘Totes Meer’ (1941).

or the near-apocalyptic ‘Battle of Germany’ (1944), but in other late works suggestive of a more poetic/philosophical interest in the cycle of life and death, such as ‘Landscape of the Vernal Equinox’ (1943) and ‘Eclipse of the Sunflower’ (1945), an extraordinarily assured work oddly evocative of Turner. Moons and suns, day and night dominate these deeply metaphorical, visionary pictures of a world at once elemental and mythic yet strangely familiar; a world not, perhaps, so distant after all from that Norfolk clifftop of years earlier, with its dark sea lit by a frail but undying moon.

nash-eclipse
‘Eclipse of the Sunflower’

The Paul Nash exhibition continues at Tate Britain until 5 March 2017. Photographs courtesy of the Tate and the Imperial War Museum.

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