ARTIST ROOMS: Self Evidence Photographs by Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe

6 APRIL – 20 OCTOBER | SCOTTISH NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1975-80 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 15.60 x 15.60 cm (paper 25.20 x 20.30 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

‘If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.’ Diane Arbus

In the 21st century, the Selfie has become an extended form of advertising and validation, increasingly in step with corporate interest. People are the app for 24hr addictive consumption of who they aspire to be, driven by market demand, or perhaps more accurately, corporate engineered desire for the next upgrade. Rapid fire clicking and scrolling is the order of today, in how photography and images of self are consumed, liked and followed. The idea of ‘self-evidence’ in this Artist Rooms exhibition is extremely compelling and timely, examining ‘three of the twentieth century’s most influential photographers’ and reactions to their work from a younger ‘Snapchat’ generation. It’s a moment to take stock of the extraordinary work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, what photography is in human terms and what it really means to take a shot.

2. FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) Space 2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 13.90 x 13.90 cm (paper 25.20 x 20.20 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

The work of Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) provides a quietly subversive sucker punch opening to the show. This series of beautifully layered photographs are on an intimate scale, naturally inviting closer inspection and defying narcissistic, grandiose expectations of self-portraiture.  From the telling age of thirteen, to her untimely death by suicide aged 22, Woodman explored an ever-shifting state of being and becoming. Using long exposures and slow shutter speeds, she retains a fluid sense of movement and obscures identity, effectively blurring the fixed time and truth certainty of her chosen medium. Woodman’s work is often described as “experimental”, however there is more deliberation and thematic consistency in her work than this label suggests. The way her photographs are staged are technically adept and complex, rather than angling towards brilliance by randomly shooting at it. As a student taking part in the Snapchat element of the exhibition very accurately observed, ‘Woodman has power over her own image.’ It’s an enviable position, given the state of unrelenting judgement and self-censorship metered out via the internet / smartphone in your pocket.

Woodman illuminates in Black and White what it is to be female, the dilemma and desire of being seen, which is still so socially/ culturally loaded, with the resistance of being an enigmatic, ghostly presence. That tension at the heart of photography, between fixing the moment, (becoming immortal, documenting or memorialising the subject) and acknowledging human mortality, is particularly poignant in Woodman’s work. I’ve always felt that she was “fixing the shadows” in her own heart/ mind, dancing death and the maiden style towards photographic illumination, as a statement of self-worth. With over 10,000 negatives and 800 prints, Woodman’s output was prolific, though only a small fraction of her work has ever been seen publicly, demanding further study and exposure.  She’s a fascinating feminist, vulnerable before the camera certainly, but entirely on her own terms. Woodman resists reductive definition in fleeting glimpses, becoming one with a medium that reaches for permanence whilst standing on a cliff edge of mortality with every momentary shot. She effectively haunts her own images, using her body as a prop and vintage clothing to ambiguously alter time. Tonal shifts in her work have a psychological edge of loss, a sense of disintegration and elusiveness in striving to know who you are that is universally human.

In Space 2 Providence, Rhode Island 1976, Woodman evades identification as an individual, grappling with herself inside the frame, turning her head during a long exposure so that what remains is movement where we expect her face to be. This idea is attached to a body in relative focus, gesturing forward, hands open and semi-outstretched towards the viewer. Her work reveals how self is realised, grasping for something (and someone) just out of reach. In Woodman’s hands, photography is an act of control for the female protagonist/ artist, usually in decaying, abandoned building surroundings. An image that exemplifies this dynamic comes from the Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island 1976 series, where Woodman is seen semi crouched on the floor in a polka dot dress. One hand is raised to her mouth as if something has just happened in a gasp, the other held to her chest. A residual patch of patterned wallpaper against bare, plaster wall is echoed in her clothing, semi unzipped at the side, revealing a pale gape of flesh. Debris on the floor adds to the sense of unease, glancing sideways, somewhere between dark glam fashion shoot, personal recognition and implied violation. There’s knowing in the setup of the shot, and in Woodman’s eyes, that pose questions for the viewer about what they are seeing or witnessing. It’s a halt to the screen swipe that hits you between the eyes.

There’s nothing accidental about how Woodman simultaneously hides and reveals herself. This residual presence means that the viewer can never own or possess the subject completely. It’s a quality that feels like a psychological imperative of self-preservation and discovery in her work. Vintage dress and decrepit setting toys with youth and beauty. The gaze is self-determined and positioned ambiguously within the set. The photograph is a dialogue, not an answer, about who the subject truly is. Images taken as personal communications with her boyfriend are more fixed in terms of the designated viewer, but still float as enigmatically as Woodman’s handwriting before our eyes. She’s playing with what it means to take an image, with photography as mechanism, mirror and conscious choice.

1. FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) From Angel Series, Roma, September 1977, 1977 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 9.30 x 9.30 cm (paper 9.80 x 9.80 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

We have only begun to examine the work of Surrealist photographers such as Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Dora Maar and Florence Henri in recent years. Woodman is an interesting inheritor of the inward facing camera in that respect. In From Angel Series, Rome 1977, we see the female protagonist, a shadow presence enveloped in large sheets of white paper, through a doorframe that reads like a proscenium arch. Another smaller door prop with a hand reaching round like a handle is as curious as Alice in Wonderland, drawing the eye further into the photograph. The overall framing is slightly skewed, like the geometric tilt of the figure, feeling to the edge of her paper costume with a bent elbow. The naked body/ self is screened by abstract form and tonality. What casts the eye across the foreground layer and deeper, through the doorway into the space beyond, is a tonal shift from left to right, from beached light to progressive darkness. This isn’t just physical or aesthetic but psychological. That emotional gravitas dances uneasily with the comic, play element of staging to create heightened, internal realism, or Surrealism. The shift in tone also evokes the passage of time inside the composition and in that moment of seeing.  It is imaginatively fluid, rather than presenting an absolute image of self. This is one of the smallest images in the show, so you are compelled to approach it closely, like seeing through the crack of a door left ajar. In historical terms the door left ajar that Woodman is stepping through is Surrealist and conceptual.

As I’ve suggested in previous posts on Lee Miller and coverage of the Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous exhibition (SNGMA, June 2016) [i], Surrealism as a concept, rather than a movement, gave women unprecedented latitude for exploring Self. Woodman’s use of the female body embraces the essential negotiation between seeing and being seen, exemplified in the work of Miller. Contrary to popular belief, Surrealism isn’t about the dreamy fantasy, but confrontation. ‘The free form craft of association, placing contradictory ideas beside each other in denial of the absolute,  asserts the political right to freedom of expression.’[ii] In the 1970’s, an era of activism, Woodman conceptually grasps the mettle and beauty of Surrealism in its purest form, which ‘brings us into confrontation with ourselves on an intensely psychological level; individually and collectively.’[iii] To photograph the self, disappearing and emerging in the same frame, celebrates that free, associative tension and also expresses an existential crisis of being.  There’s a feeling of profound liberty and isolation in Woodman’s photography, the idea that ‘You cannot see me from where I look at myself’, as she expressed it. We are confronted time and again with her essential mystery and our own as human beings.

In the popular imagination, photography is the ultimate proof of existence- that we have lived, yet it documents a singular moment of life and the loss of that moment, for the individual, generation and era. Woodman’s Untitled, Concord, New Hampshire,1977, taken after the death of her grandmother, brings us to a moment of profound silence and lengthening shadow. It’s a spectral image of the living and past generations, in the framed family photographs illuminated on the table and in the seated female presence, defined almost entirely by shadow. Light is cast on the side of the face, hands and into the corner of the room. Influenced by the sequential, emotive work of Duane Michals (b 1932), Woodman creates a self-portrait grounded in observance of loss. Although it is a deeply personal response to her grandmother passing, what we are confronted with is our own mortality. At its birth photography was described as a process of ‘fixing the shadows’, a metaphor in tune with Woodman’s singular command of the medium.

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971) The King and Queen of a Senior Citizens’ Dance, N.Y.C. 1970, 1970. Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper. 37.20 x 36.90 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 cm). ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

The work of Diane Arbus (1923-1971) is defined by her approach to portraiture, the essential relationship between artist /photographer and subject. Her congruence in making images and identification with her subjects remains compassionate and contradictory. Arbus presents alternative ways of life to the white picket fenced American dream and her eye to eye stance behind the camera continues to introduce audiences to taboo subjects. Debates still rage about whether her depiction of marginalised individuals constitutes empowerment or exploitation. The argument in this show unfolds empathically as ‘a de facto self-portrait,’ in the form of her Box of Ten Photographs (1969-1971). These images convey how Arbus saw herself and how she wished to be remembered as an artist. The self-evidence in this self-edit is significantly greater than the individual, revealing aspects of American society and humanity that still resonate very powerfully today. However you regard her images, here the box is semi opaque and articulates her signature loud and clear.

These 10 original prints are her intended legacy and proof of life. They expand her enduring statement:  ‘My photos are proof that something was there, which no longer is. You can turn away but when you come back, they’ll still be there looking at you.’

What seems to strike people, looking at the photographs she is famous (or infamous) for, those of disadvantaged people, perceived social outcasts or “freaks”[iv], is a combination of shame and pity, not coming from the subject, but as an aspect of self-projection on the part of the viewer. Photography as a medium is meant to reassure us, Arbus explodes that abject sentimentality completely. ‘I would never choose a subject for what it means to me. I choose a subject and then what I feel about it, what it means, begins to unfold.’ There is a sense of detachment in her initial approach, but also a powerful sense of connection and agency that endures in her work.

Images from Two American Families, published in the Sunday Times Magazine, Nov 1968, are a great example. It’s a revealing, uncomfortable juxtaposition that establishes where real tenderness lies. In A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, NYC, 1966 we see the family unit dressed proudly for a day off, though it is far from being carefree. The baby in a white playsuit and bonnet, gravitates towards the photographer with a hand semi outstretched. Her mother is naturally glamourous, offset by a weary, faraway expression that extends beyond the frame to what might have been. Her dark bouffont hair, Liz Taylor style eyeliner and flash of leopard print coat lining are contrasted with the baby held in front of her and the idea of motherhood experienced aged 16. The young father’s soft, serious gaze meets Arbus’s/ the viewer’s, holding the hand of their older child. There’s a feeling of youth confronting aged responsibility in the care of a child with learning difficulties. There’s also an edge of fractured separation, in individual familial gazes that do not meet each other. The descent of stairs creates an emotional trajectory, caught in the trap of the camera. We feel the unease of being brought so close in contemplation of someone else’s family unit, because it naturally causes us to reflect upon our own. This isn’t a private family snapshot, but documentary with ethical implications. That precarious line between viewer as witness and complicity of the gaze, in appreciation or ridicule, is part of Arbus’s potency as an artist. The human subject is unapologetically left open to scrutiny. Thankfully Arbus honours the complexity of that exchange.

The companion photograph, A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, NYC, 1966 widens the social commentary in comparison. It’s a we want what they have capitalist dream turned on its head, an indictment of American values where humour and tragedy collide. The expanded view is of aspirational property and status. The Mother, father and child are depicted at leisure on a lawn so large it feels more like a swimming pool they could collectively drown in. The mother resembles a Barbie doll, lying on a banana lounge in a swimsuit. It’s impossible to tell if her eyes are closed, or watchful beneath the fake lashes. Lying on a parallel sun lounge Dad looks like he’s having a breakdown, hand raised to his brow, like the cost of this upper middle-class suburban dream is all too much. The child in the background is bent over a paddling pool, which in relation to his parents, feels like a well he’s destined to fall and disappear into entirely. As Arbus stated; ‘They are a fascinating family. I think all families are creepy in a way.’ Western consumer/ popular culture engineers the desire for this lifestyle. Looking at Arbus’s take on identity, family and success, my first thought is seriously?! If there’s an aspect of absurdity and potential ridicule here, then its wrapped around a lie, rather than the human subjects. Arbus received two John Simon Guggenhiem Fellowship grants, to examine ‘American rites, manners and customs’ which I’d say was a perennial investment.

Arbus brings us face to face with the licence a camera gives you, prompting questions about how it is used, directed towards the self and/or others. Sometimes the closeup takes us to places that mainstream culture, or the powers that be, don’t think it should go.  A Young Man in Curlers at home on W20th St, NYC, 1966, was a daring imagewhen it was taken and in many countries around the world still is. Arbus’s photograph of a Boy in a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, 1967 with his “God Bless America” badge, could be straight out of Trump’s America if it weren’t for the period clothing. The irony being, that this face of youth, aged by forefathers’ ideals, is wearing a hat from an earlier period, popular in the 1920’s and 30’s- otherwise known as the Great Depression. Nostalgia and nationalism go hand in hand before the camera in a wholesome march towards aggressive dominance. The war in question is Vietnam, one of many invasions on foreign soil in the interest of putting “America first.” That plain belief is presented as an honest portrait, however as part of Arbus’s self-portrait it is deeply subversive. The problem with being hardwired for subversion is that you don’t achieve that level of awareness without digging the earth out from under yourself, acknowledging that you don’t belong to the status quo, even if “success” depends upon it. A photograph as Arbus described it is “like a stain.”

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971) Xmas Tree in a Living Room, in Levittown 1963, 1963. Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper. 36.80 x 37.60 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 cm). ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

I enjoyed the opportunity to revisit Arbus’s work as a self-portrait. The complete immersion of Retired Man and his wife at home one morning, NJ, 1963 (gelatine silver print) which is such a homage to normality, despite the nudity of both subjects and photographer and Xmas Tree in a Living Room, in Levittown 1963, reveal underappreciated facets of her personality. Xmas Tree never ceases to be both horrific and hilarious. It is devoid of any obvious human subjects, apart from the viewer, who is positioned in the foreground armchair, virtual reality style, with the viewer/participant’s hands resting on the edge of both arms. The discomfort is ours, seeing the celebratory, festive gaudiness of the tree, shoved into one corner of a disconcertingly clean and orderly suburban living room, which feels more like an internal void. Arbus is an artist who confronts us with belonging (or not) and this collection of self-evidence cements her legacy as a socially conscious artist, rather than a sensationalist, ghoulish collector of souls.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1983 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 37.40 x 37.50 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Driven by ego and craft, the work of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) presents a face to the world through role play and extreme duality. Mapplethorpe’s controversial S&M lifestyle and his death from Aids tends to draw focus away from his undeniable skill and sensitivity as an artist. Whatever attendant beliefs the viewer might bring to consideration of his work, the value of experience and the life of the photographer were of paramount importance the artist. This self-belief permeates all his work. The viewer may see it as destructive, immoral or offensive if they choose, however an image such as Self Portrait 1978 confounds notions of obscenity or moral judgement, because it asserts the individual’s right to be so powerfully. In this case, and in the context of the exhibition, the act is entirely self-directed. The photograph is an extreme confrontation and explicit provocation, in profane defiance of his Catholic roots, yet employing all the theatricality of a devotee. There’s no doubt that the play enacted between good and evil is dangerous, but for Mapplethorpe that’s the attraction- in art and in life. There’s no escaping that fact in his oeuvre. It’s woven into everything, from the delicate interplay of masculine and feminine in Self Portrait 1983 (printed 2009) to Self Portrait 1978 where the bullwhip reads like a devil’s tail. He’s a master of role play, perhaps best summed up by Self Portrait with Knife 1983, where we see him posturing with polarities- one hand raised, palm flattened in gesture of defence, while the other is extended to attack. The choreography could belong to no one else.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1980 (printed 2009) Photograph on paper, 35.20 x 35.00 cm; framed: 68.40 x 66.20 x 3.10 cm ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 2014

There is a right to self-expression which Mapplethorpe asserts throughout his career, in all his varied personas and this is perhaps where progress has been made in the 30 years since his death. In the late 1980s, his retrospective The Perfect Moment was cancelled in one venue, while another found itself at the centre of an obscenity trial. This is the first time Mapplethorpe’s work has been displayed in the dedicated photography gallery at SNPG that bears his name, originally established with assistance by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. This is cause for celebration, as is the recent news of a patient in the UK who due to advances in Aids treatment is now free from infection. I imagine that had Mapplethorpe lived, he’d be enjoying the spoils of a culture that elevates the artist as celebrity, building his legacy and continuing to unashamedly explore every facet of himself.

Although we see his declining health in the later self-portraits, above all else it’s the sheer force of his personality/ego that remains to the last. In Self Portrait 1988 we see that self-possession in action, despite his dishevelled hair and pallor. The hand on his knee appears to grasp mortality, the other clenched purposefully by his cheek. Sitting cross legged on a black leather armchair in a silk robe and embossed slippers, he resembles an aging tycoon. A Hugh Hefner type, slightly tainted by scandal, the kind of entrepreneur so revered in American popular culture as a model of success. The ripple in his brow and questioning mouth, partially open as if about to speak, issues an underlying challenge to, and affirmation of, white middle-aged male dominance.  It’s a fascinating image of wealth, respectability and mortal decay.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1988 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 57.70 x 48.10 cm ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

In a later Self Portrait 1988, he delivers one of his most iconic images, the head of the artist receding into a dark ground, while his hand rests steadfast on a walking cane, carved with a skull. It’s a universal memento mori, an individual confronting death and Mapplethorpe making a statement of power in composition and tonality, even as he fades. He’s become the force that’s stalking him, that stalks us all, and he does so with immense dignity. Seeing this image always makes me think of Shakespearean tragedies like King Lear, Hamlet or Macbeth. The immensity of darkness engulfing the protagonist is absolute, yet Mapplethorpe still rules the frame. Immortalised in a signature moment of brilliance, something he never doubted possessing, he sits hand in hand with God and the Devil, between the darkness and illumination of his craft.

The final ‘Snapchat’ section of the exhibition, where school students, photography and art students have responded to the exhibition with images, text and filmed interviews was incredibly moving and insightful. What struck me most was the element of shock and surprise in relation to photography as a discipline, rather than tool and the degree of artistic agency identified in the work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe. The concept of ‘making the image instead of taking it’ felt like a generational penny dropping. I also felt an acute sense of loss, in terms of how human creativity and expression is being indiscriminatingly shaped by technology. I was left wondering if a Woodman, Arbus or Mapplethorpe would even be possible today, whether their bold self-determination would be too easily quashed beneath an avalanche of self-censorship.

As the students described; ‘technology has made us less free.’ ‘Everyone is able to see us’ and it has become more difficult to approach life online and day to day on your own terms.’ Examining the work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, there’s a more audacious sense of identity in play and techniques that demand greater deliberation, in their handling of materials and negotiation with the subject. Taking the kind of portraits and self-portraits seen in this exhibition requires expanded self-awareness beyond the trigger- happy selfie.  In the case of Arbus, you have to admit something other than your carefully censored self into the equation/ workflow. Self-portraiture comes with humility and admission of the ‘other’, rather than simple self-gratification or promotion of the individual. Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, don’t just vainly declare ‘I am’ in their photography, but significantly alter our perception. They stand uniquely for themselves and for humanity in the process, in all its darkness and light. The beauty in this exhibition is self-reflexivity, realised unapologetically and with compassion through craft. Advancing technology has made photography available to more people than ever before, however it’s not the tool that creates art and critical self-reflection, but the human being standing behind the camera. I say standing, because that stance or attitude of self-awareness is so critical in framing the subject in the mind’s eye, before the image is taken. In a world awash with rapid clicks, evidence of that vital human faculty appears to be rapidly diminishing.

It’s a great pleasure to see this work brought together and to consider the responses of students to such unexpectedly radical images. This is a deeply affecting show, for the ways that Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe confront their own truths about being human and for the questions the exhibition raises about ‘self-evidence’ in the 21st Century. This is photography as a matter of survival and in the words of one student, art that ‘makes you keep looking.’

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/artist-rooms-self-evidence-photographs-woodman-arbus-and-mapplethorpe


[i] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Encounters Collecting the Marvellous, June 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/ Georgina Coburn Collective Action, article for the Times Literary Supplement July 2016 https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/collective-action/ Georgina Coburn Blogpost Lee Miller and Picasso June 2015 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/lee-miller-and-picasso/ Georgina Coburn Blogpost Lee Miller A Womans War IWM, London Jan 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/lee-miller-a-womans-war/
[ii] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Encounters Collecting the Marvellous June 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/
iii] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Ensounters Collecting the Marvellous June 2016http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/
iv] I use the word ‘freaks’ here in the context of Arbus’s statement which indicates an attitude of respect on the part of the artist; “There’s a quality of legend about freaks.Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Rembrandt- Britain’s Discovery of the Master

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
A Woman in Bed, about 1645 – 1646
Oil on canvas, 81.1 x 67.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, presented by William McEwan 1892
Photo: Antonia Reeve

7 July – 14 October

Scottish National Gallery

“Britain’s love affair with one of history’s greatest artists” is the celebratory focus of the Scottish National Gallery’s latest summer blockbuster. Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master features 140 works: oil paintings, drawings and etchings by Rembrandt Van Rijin, works from his workshop and those by British artists he inspired from the 18th Century to the present day. Seeing Rembrandt’s impact on the art of William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Henry Raeburn, David Wilkie, Thomas Duncan, Augustus John, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Jacob Epstein, Leon Kossoff, William Strang, Henryk Gotlib, Eduardo Paolozzi, Frank Auerbach, John Bellany, Ken Currie and Glen Brown is one of the fascinations of the show. It is also an exhibition about historical acquisition and how an artist’s legacy is enabled. Works on loan from the National Gallery, British Museum, Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Tate, London, the National Gallery of Ireland, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C bring together familiar images, new discoveries and reflections on why Rembrandt is so revered.

Outside the Netherlands, the UK holds the largest collection of Rembrandt works, a trend that began during the reign of Charles I and reached fever pitch in the 18th Century, when prints, drawings and paintings were highly sought after by private collectors. Cataloguing the artist’s work also began at this time, an indicator of Rembrandt as currency and a practical response to market driven climate of forgers and respectful copyists. The desirability of Rembrandt’s work among collectors in the British Isles has resulted in much wider awareness of his work and most importantly, the opportunity to experience it live, having found its way into public collections. Coming eyeball to eyeball with a Rembrandt seems to level all arguments about what good or bad art is. At base he shows us what art is, what it is for and why it matters.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
Two Studies of Old Men’s Heads, c.1639
Pen and brown ink, 8.1 x 9.4 cm
Collection: British Museum, London

The appetite for Rembrandt’s work has grown exponentially over the last 400 years, however his authenticity doesn’t lie with a stamp of approval from royalty, the aristocracy, learned experts or the validation of monumental prices at auction. The claim that his “imagery” is now “ubiquitous” and he is now a “global brand” is only true in terms of all the things his art embodies that cannot be bought, sold or even put into words. However you frame Rembrandt’s work, his emotional intelligence trumps every other narrative you attempt to overlay.  Therefore, I find it doubly fascinating that he has such a following in Britain. The most essential part of this equation isn’t the Master on the manor house wall or fashion, but the level of self-awareness communicated in his work, the thing that makes us what we are. In many ways the light in Rembrandt’s art hits a nerve of the great unsaid in British culture. Above all, his work is about intimacy and connection- something human beings will always crave and what makes him an eternally contemporary artist. Long before theories of Humanism, Existentialism or the apex of Maslow’s pyramid, there is Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) Self-portrait aged 51, about 1657 Oil on canvas, 53 x 43 cm Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, Bridgewater Collection Loan Photo: Antonia Reeve.

His Self Portrait aged 51 (c.1657 oil on canvas, part of the Bridgewater Collection loan to the NGS, Edinburgh) exemplifies the artist’s timeless appeal. It isn’t the image of a Master, but that of a man, in whom we see our own anxieties, aging and mortality. Rembrandt doesn’t elevate himself above the progressive march of years. He renders himself with self-respecting care and humility, equally surrounded by shadow. To encounter such an honest soul in Art is profoundly moving and deeply comforting. I’ve returned to this work many times and experience it in waves, emotion which emanates from the lines of his brow and deep-set eyes. It’s confrontation with the ground of the painting, behind his eyes and to sorrow, which connects to your own- regardless of what century you happen to be standing in. His face emerges from the darkest earth brown umber, the fertile ground inside us,  the clay beneath our feet and the dust we will become. We all know what age will make us and there he is, facing that inevitability, sharing it with us with unflinching dignity. In psychological terms Rembrandt’s self-portraits are the personification of congruence because they aren’t just about the artist, they are about an essential exchange with the viewer. His humanity is his genius. He affirms what art is for every time we meet his gaze-and not just directly in self-portraiture, figurative or biblical works, but in his landscapes too.

The Mill (1645 -48, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, Washington D.C) was a revelation to me in that respect. I can see why it has been described as “the greatest painting in the world”.  Although the human figures in the foreground are small and largely in shadow, it is an image of absolute benevolence and empathy. This surprising painting of a mill in the landscape has the presence and authority of his portraits, rooted in how we see ourselves. It isn’t a scene of a landscape but a register of light and human consciousness. Certainly the cruciform sails of the mill read as a Christ-like guardian over Rembrandt’s homeland of Leiden, but what hit me between the eyes standing in front of this unexpected masterwork is the dawning of light- for the artist and viewer. J.M.W. Turner described how, in this particular painting, Rembrandt had “thrown that veil of matchless colour: that lucid interval of morning down and dewy light on which the eye dwells so completely enthralled.” The way that Northern Romantic artists such as J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich or the contemporary Scottish landscape artist Allan MacDonald make that connection between Nature, the Divine and human consciousness aligns with the function of light in Rembrandt’s Mill. The presence of light is the entire crux of the image; as a sensuous reality and a prism through which a myriad of metaphorical colours can be seen. It’s the way, the truth and the life of painting. It even reverberates in the unusual geometry and patinated curves of the dark frame surrounding it, rippling outwards, beyond the pictureplane. Whether you believe in a God is irrelevant- this is as close to what moves, motivates and saves us as you are ever likely to get.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654
Oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm
Collection: The National Gallery, London

Rembrandt explodes expectations of historical genre by being himself. A Woman Bathing in a Stream -Calisto in the Wilderness (1654, oil on oak panel) is an absolute affirmation that art is life. There is no imitation of anything. We can see Rembrandt’s hand, not just stylistically but experientially, in the intimate shorthand of abstracted marks that form her hand. This isn’t a typical male gaze, or that of a Master, directed at a generic woman. Her shift conceals and reveals her body, but that isn’t the focus of the image either. There’s preservation of the self, seeking of the self, in this work that resides with the female subject. She’s looking down into the dark water at her reflection, which we cannot see, and about to step into it, to immerse herself. The wilderness of self-awareness and knowledge of what we are as human beings is open to her, perhaps not in the historical confines of her actual life, but here she stands as Rembrandt envisaged her, reimagined in the 21st Century. Her action in seeing is unaided and there is tenderness and honest regard in how Rembrandt models the figure. He doesn’t deny her sensuality or her capacity as a conscious being. The adjacent label suggests life imitating art in an image of the artist’s lover, exiled in real life by bearing him a child.  The mythological subtitle is something Rembrandt is well versed in, but he’s not playing a literary card here. In fact, he’s not playing at anything in this painting. What I love about this work and so many others by him, is the peerless, heightened privacy of the moment, fixed for all time. I’ve seen people gasp in admiration, incline their heads in contemplation, breathe out in relief and smile in recognition, each in their own way understanding what this image holds. Their body language and emotional responses tell me why Rembrandt’s art is a universal touchstone, rather than a “ubiquitous” “brand” described by PR speak.  For me the joy of this exhibition isn’t simply as a survey of the taste for Rembrandt, which is what art is often reduced to as part of an enduring British class system. It is the way that Rembrandt’s work speaks for itself across all borders, boundaries and time- and very particularly to the British psyche, adverse to intimacy. I can say this because I’m from one of its colonies.

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931)
Drawing after Rembrandt’s ‘A Woman Bathing in a Stream’, 1988
Felt-tip pen on paper, 38.9 x 29.4 cm
Collection: The National Gallery, London
© Frank Auerbach

As much as Rembrandt is a publicly acclaimed, popular artist, he has always been an artist’s artist too. It’s interesting that he appeals particularly to male artists- or at least that’s the message delivered by the final room in the exhibition. I think this has to do with the holy grail of creative immortality, the “Master” validation, consciously or unconsciously sought. Alignment with that vision of greatness can be driven by ego, or the homage can be to the inner nature of Rembrandt’s work. He communicates very powerfully what it is to be human and that self-awareness is synonymous with making, casting him the patron saint of artists. In the history of Art Rembrandt has wholly succeeded in transcending himself.

Frank Auerbach (b.1931)
Tree at Tretire, 1975
Chalk, charcoal and gouache on two sheets of paper, 77 x 72.5 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, presented by Miss Dorothy Claire Weicker, 1984
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art
Photo: John McKenzie

Henryk Gotlib’s Rembrandt in Heaven (c1948-58, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery) made me smile in it’s reverent homage to the ruddy faced, aged man, flanked by angels and being presented to a melancholy Christ, with Mary standing supportively behind her troubled child. The earthy palette and gaze of the angel on the far left, which meets our own, tips its hat to the substance of Rembrandt’s art. The hand of the angel gestures simultaneously towards the Master and his Master, pointing toward heaven. The high esteem of the artist is clear, but so is his naked, everyman appearance. The interest in Rembrandt by artists during the post WWII period is a natural gravitational pull. Post collapse of civilization, it is a time when the world is trying to rebuild itself, when individuals are grappling with the rubble they are, or are standing in. Rembrandt’s essential humanity is a focus of light in that darkness. That innate sensitivity, manifests in Frank Auerbach’s abstract work, Tree at Tretire (1975, chalk, charcoal and gouache, NGS, Edinburgh) in direct response to Rembrandt’s The Three Trees (1643, Etching, drypoint and engraving, British Museum, London)

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
The Three Trees, 1643
Etching, drypoint and engraving, 21.3 x 27.9 cm
Collection: British Museum, London

Rembrandt’s arboreal trinity has a figurative presence, tempered by the delicacy of drypoint. He is as close to the etching plate as he is to the soul of the subject, a quality to be found in contemporary master printmaker Ian Westacott’s etchings of trees, which are essentially figurative.  This is also the energy Auerbach taps into with the velvety boldness of charcoal in his Tree at Tretire. It has nothing to do with being influenced by Rembrandt the Master and is much more about human connection beneath the subject. The force of Auerbach’s conviction, applied to his chosen media on paper, creates a visceral sense of disintegration, coupled with restoration. Auerbach translates the figurative power of Rembrandt’s The Three Trees into an abstract vision, rooted in the human need of his own time. Rembrandt is primarily known as a painter, however his work as a printmaker equally sees him at the height of his powers. One of my favourite works in the show is only slightly larger than a postage stamp, the exquisite etching Self-portrait in a Heavy Fur Cap; Bust, 1631 (The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.) The hand-held size, direct gaze and vulnerability of finely etched marks create an image of the artist grounded in intimacy and his lifelong commitment to understand.

Rembrandt Van Rijn- Self Portrait in a heavy fur cap: Bust, 1631. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2018

Ken Currie Rembrandt’s Carcass (1991, etching, NGS, Edinburgh) after the painting Slaughtered Ox, portrays the artist as a flayed bag of flesh, richly illuminated in black and white. Laced with Currie’s characteristic brand of irony, it is a memorial, a homage, and as with so many of his works, a hymn to human consciousness and mortality. As Currie has stated, “being haunted by paintings” is the mark of Great Art.

For me, the image that best sums up the exhibition is An Old Woman Reading, 1655 (Oil on canvas, Buccleuch Collection), believed to be an image of the artist’s mother. It is the presence of light, emanating from the open book, concentrated on her face and chest in warm russet and golden hues that equally fills the heart and mind of the viewer. Her face is bent in concentration beneath the black hood, her mouth slightly open, completely absorbed in self-determination, seeking enlightenment. Perhaps it’s the bible she’s contemplating, but standing here in front of this painting the chapter and verse does not seem to matter. What is communicated is compassion, love and empathy; Rembrandt’s shining, inextinguishable legacy and the ultimate value of art.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Special thanks to Harris Brine, The National Galleries of Scotland Press Office, The Bridgewater Collection and Graham Nisbet at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow for their assistance with images.

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933

TATE LIVERPOOL 

23 June – 15 October 2017

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Self-Portrait with Easel 1926
(Selbstbildnis mit Staffelei) 1926
800 x 550 mm
Leopold-Hoesch-Museum & Papiermuseum, Düren
© DACS 2017. Leopold-Hoesch-Museum & Papiermuseum Düren. Photo: Peter Hinschläger.

“Photography has presented us with new possibilities and new tasks. It can depict things in magnificent beauty but also in terrible truth, and can also deceive enormously. We must be able to bear seeing the truth, but above all we should hand down the truth to our fellow human beings and to posterity, be it favourable to us or unfavourable.” August Sander

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933 is an overwhelming experience and a profoundly relevant exhibition in a “post truth” world. It combines two extraordinary shows Artist Rooms: August Sander and Otto Dix: The Evil Eye, each giving context, insight and new perspectives to the other. With over 300 works on display there is a lot to take in, including Dix’s devastating War etchings. Visitors are directed first to the Sander exhibition which is completely absorbing, so allow yourself ample time to spend with Dix’s compelling work in part two. (You may well need a break inbetween!)  Entwined with a historical timeline in handwritten script, August Sander’s black and white photography brings humanity and compassion into focus, in perfect counterpoint with the psychological extremities of Dix’s paintings, drawings and prints. Curated by Dr Susanne Mayer-Büser, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director and Lauren Barnes, Assistant Curator, Tate Liverpool in collaboration with Artist Rooms (a collection jointly owned by the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate) and the German Historical Institute, the exhibition is an inspiring collaboration, moving beyond words and essential viewing.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne 1931, printed 1992
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 149 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

The Weimar period in Germany between the first and second World Wars has always fascinated me, because the outpouring of Art it produced illuminates the best and the very worst that human beings are universally capable of. Art has a pivotal role to play in acknowledging, understanding and potentially altering human perception. It can confront us with uncomfortable truths and with the timeless necessity for ongoing ethical, social and cultural reappraisal. Weimar Germany produced astonishing, disturbing and visionary work in film, literature and visual art, dancing on the edge of an abyss, or peering courageously into it as Germany descended into Nazi radicalisation. Sander and Dix were witnesses to the monumental collapse of civilization around them. Their work is testament to “magnificent beauty” and “terrible truth” of the human condition, encompassing our propensity for creation and destruction as a species. To have lived through such a time is something of an abstract to 21st Century eyes, which is why this work needs to be seen, doubly so in the times we’re now living in. This history lived visually displays how chillingly easy it is to deceive ourselves, individually and collectively.  In terms of freedom of expression and tolerance, Art is a matter of life and death, something totalitarian regimes have always understood and that we forget at our peril.

The effect of seeing this exhibition may be jolting, shocking and highly confrontational to some viewers, especially in relation to the savagery of Dix’s work, but grinding poverty, dispossession and the depravity of war exist all over the world today and that should shock everyone.   Sander’s epic photographic project People of the 20th Century, which began in 1910 and was still unfinished when he died in 1964, endures as a creative act of responsibility, reconnaissance and remembrance. The exhibition presents 144 photographs from the series, mixing the various categories and portfolios: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City and The Last People. Sander sought to create “a social atlas of Germany”. His categorisations responded to the descent into fascism with the addition of The Persecuted and Political Prisoners portfolios, the latter made by his son Erich Sander in prison before his death in 1944. Significantly August Sander doesn’t preach or denounce, but allows the character and dignity of each sitter to speak for itself. These aren’t portraits taken for aesthetic reasons or commission, but with the objectivity demanded by the political, social, cultural conditions and constraints of the time. Sander’s lens, like his mind  and heart, were egalitarian by nature. He was leftist, antifascist, aligned with the Cologne Progressives and worker’s movement, politics that made him a target for the National Socialist party. In 1936 stocks of his first book Face of our Time (German: Antlitz der Zeit), published in 1929, were confiscated by the Nazis and the photographic plates destroyed. His work was considered “un German “by the Third Reich in its essential connectivity. What speaks to the viewer across time are the faces of individuals and the humanity at the heart of Sander’s life- long project. Photographing German society according to hierarchical occupations and class was entirely in keeping with his worldview. To contemporary eyes, categorising human beings may seem extremely clinical and ironic given the systematic application of that methodology to the Holocaust. We may also perceive categories such as The Last People; idiots, the sick, the insane, and the dying or The City; Travelling People, Gypsies and Transients as dispassionate and potentially inflammatory, however Sander’s intent was inclusion, highlighting marginalisation in German society.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Disabled ex-serviceman c.1928, printed 1990
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 190 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

In Disabled Ex-Serviceman (1928, gelatin silver print on paper) for example, we see the human cost of industrialised warfare in his image of an amputee at the bottom of the stairs, literally and metaphorically, unable to rise. After the disastrous First World War, the pointed gaze of the soldier confronts us with the pariah status of an entire nation and our own complicity or resistance in the world. There is no glory or heroism, just damaged, desperate lives in a climate of inflation, unemployment and poverty.  Sander’s portraits affirm the relationship between photographer and sitter as one human being beholding another, appealing directly to the emotional intelligence of the viewer. Whether fixing his gaze upon a Mousetrap Salesman, Proletarian Intellectuals, Blacksmiths, Bricklayers, Mothers, Artists, Circus Performers, Industrialists, Philosophers or SS Officers, Sander’s grasp of humanity allows him to craft an image of everyone without judgement, a quality that should never be mistaken for neutrality. The eyes of his sitters meet ours in moments of recognition that are immensely powerful, poignant and prophetic. We see in Sander’s photographs so many people who would have been reclassified by the Third Reich as less than human. We will never know how many of these people were tortured, starved and murdered as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Political activists, so called “degenerate” artists, disabled people, homosexuals or anyone of non-Aryan descent were all marked for extermination by the regime. Thankfully in Sander’s work we can still see some of their faces, long after the generation who survived WWII have passed.

One of my favourite Sander images is Girl in A Fairground Caravan (1926-32, silver gelatin print on paper). Framed by a small window with just her head and shoulders visible, her hand extends to the outside lock on the door, within a stain-like pattern on the side of the caravan. On the cusp of adulthood her face is solemnly fixed on the viewer, poised, wary, with eyes far older than her years. Far from a youthful, carefree existence, we feel her confinement and the edge of trust in the camera as witness. It is an intensely psychological portrait of a threshold stage of life and its attendant fears, together with a burgeoning climate of isolation and persecution. With the hindsight of history, the caravan resembles a railway carriage. Whenever I look at this photograph I wonder what became of this young woman, how her story unfolded in the gathering storm and whether she survived, existed or eventually prospered. Sander’s images are timelessly potent in that respect. Even though many of his sitters are nameless, they are real, relatable and hauntingly empathic, as fragile as we all are in the midst of events we cannot control. The girl looks as though in the next moment she could turn the key in the lock and step outside, but here she remains, held in a single breath of hesitation, suspended forever in the photograph between childhood and adulthood, life and death.

There’s unexpected beauty and grace in Sander’s image of two Blacksmiths (1926, silver gelatin print on paper), part of the Skilled Tradesman / The Worker- His life and work portfolio. The older man, hammer in hand is so positively strong, proud and confident in his skill, gained through years of experience. We feel that he is at a stage of life where he is comfortable in his own skin, whilst his younger apprentice, with a heavily defined and doubtful, creased brow, hasn’t matured into his profession or himself yet. Side by side with the anvil between them they are level, part of an endless cycle. Humanity is Sander’s baseline in every shot.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Turkish Mousetrap Salesman 1924-30, printed 1990
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 191 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

In the photograph Turkish Mousetrap Salesman (1924-30, gelatin silver print on paper) from the portfolio The City/ Travelling People, Gypsies and Transients, we see strength, resilience, weariness, fear and sadness in the face of a man, perhaps in his late 40’s or early 50’s. His intense eyes convey vulnerability and stature, transcending his position in society. Economic hardship and uncertainty are etched across his face. Sander’s choice of a large format camera, glass negatives and long exposure times, capture with care every detail of the person. We feel the rough texture of the salesman’s worn jacket, delicate wisps of aged hair and patches of loss, his scars, beautifully defined mouth and soulful eyes. Rejecting the latest photographic equipment, Sander favoured the daguerreotype, declaring that it; “cannot be surpassed in the delicacy of delineation, it is objectivity in the best sense of the word and has a contemporary relevance.”  The choice of analogue in our own time and what it signifies in terms of Craft and human values, equally so.


August Sander, 1876-1964
The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha 1925-6, printed 1991
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
205 x 241 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

Sander’s double portrait of The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha (1925-6, silver gelatin print on paper) presents an interesting dynamic of equality. Martha, a fashionable socialite, faces the camera in a frontal pose, whilst her husband with his unmistakable profile is positioned behind her, blonde hair slicked back in an “American style”. We are left in no doubt that the primary subject is Martha and she’s confident in the role. The image is from Sander’s portfolio The Woman and the Man’, classified in the group ‘The Woman’, part of his ‘People of the 20th Century’ project. In spite of the classification of “wife” Martha is in no way subordinate and in her direct gaze we see a person in her own right with a strong, intellectual presence. It is a fascinating partnership which reveals itself further in Dix’s paintings and drawings of his wife, clearly in a different league to many of his other depictions of women. Referred to affectionately as Mutzli, we see her dignified profile in Woman in Gold (Mutzli) (1923, watercolour, gold paint and pencil on paper), her face partially concealed by a sophisticated, decadent hat. In Dix’s beautiful drawing Portrait of Mutzli Koch (1921, pencil on paper) we see only her face and neck, draped in the suggestion of a luxurious fur, hair pulled back into a bun with arched eyebrows framing her gaze. Dix draws the curve of her cheekbones, nose and cat -like almond eyes with the strength and delicacy of a caress, every mark declares his love for her, a quality more frequently absent from his Art.  The tenderness and sensuality in this drawing is equally met by Mutzli’s direct gaze at Dix. The artist’s picture books for Hana, his wife’s child from her first marriage, are fantastic and delightful, with scenes from Fairytales, the Bible and hybrid creatures rendered in watercolour and pencil. Although they are not without a Dixian edge, fused with the dark spirit of the brothers Grimm! Dix’s Bremmen Town Musicians, part of his Cornucopia for Hana (1925) are rather demonic looking in contrast with scenes such as Knight Hans at Hoher Randen and His Family on Horseback with its bright, buoyant palette. This aspect of the artist’s work, combined with domestic family life is a recent discovery, bringing a surprising dimension to an artist famed for his acute lack of empathy.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) 1924
Etching on paper
196 x 291 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

Serving as a machine gunner in WWI, Dix was exposed to unspeakable violence and killing on an unprecedented scale. We cannot begin to imagine the horror of trench warfare, the loss of life or the social disintegration which followed the annihilation of an entire generation, but in his series of 50 etchings War/ Der Krieg (1924) Dix gives insight to his experiences on the front line, attempting to purge himself

“All art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time.

Like Goyas cycle of over 80 etchings and aquatints The Disasters of War (1810-1820) which he consciously studied, Dix’s War etchings are among the most powerful, visceral and damning images ever created in response to human atrocities. The process of etching was intensely physical for Dix, like scratching his wounds, a cathartic bloodletting, burning away the surface metal with acid to banish his nightmares. It is hard to describe the way that these monochrome images of a modest scale conjure the smell of death and rotting flesh, the terror of men driven mad by fear, hollowed out by exhaustion and the relentless shelling, reducing the earth to a pitted, desolate landscape of body parts. Dix leads us into his memories of the Western Front, battlefields where the horizon is ruptured, disappearing into broken lines like lost hope. Human bodies are caught on barbed wire, impaled, mutilated by machine gun fire or dismembered by bombs. Surprisingly one of the most disturbing images is the most still, completely uninhabited by the human figure. Shell Holes near Dontrien Illuminated by Flares (1924, etching on paper, 195 x 260 mm, Otto Dix Foundation, Vaduz), conveys a moment of profound, out of body stillness, when the world slows in the face of severe shock and trauma. This is a print that you can actually hear, held in the breath of the artist/witness and the viewer beholding it. It is an image etched in my mind forever.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Dying Soldier (Sterbender Soldat) 1924
Etching on paper
198 x 148 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

In Soldier and Nun (1924, etching on paper, 200 x 145mm Otto Dix Foundation, Veduz) the artist depicts the desecration of rape, placing the viewer behind the soldier in the composition. This voyeuristic positioning on the threshold mirrors the scene before us, amplifying the horror of bearing witness. There is also, in the context of Dix’s oeuvre, a very uncomfortable edge of complicity in how the image is composed. The print was withheld from the original cycle, deemed too shocking to be shown, but like all of Dix’s war etchings it is a document of modern warfare that needs to be seen and acknowledged. Dix’s Sex Murder (Lustmord) (1922, Etching on paper, 275 x 346mm, private collection, courtesy of Richard Magy Ltd, London) displays a bloody crime scene, clotted in black with two dogs copulating in a corner like a cartoon. There is no empathy in Psychopathy and none here either in the rendering of the female figure as a mutilated, discarded doll. The misogynist violence in early pulp fiction, the plotlines of contemporary thrillers, TV cop shows and interactive games like Grand Theft Auto aren’t so far removed from Dix’s Sex Murder as a recurrent obsession in 20th and 21st century popular culture.  Dix often depicted himself as a predatory, lurid and monstrous figure in his work. He projects severity and power in his self-portraits, a veneer of fashionable respectability that is prone to disintegration in the fluid immediacy of his watercolours and hard-edged drawings. Dix displays his own morality and logic in chaotic and highly disturbing scenes which would be confessional if they weren’t so entirely without remorse.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Corpse Entangled in Barbed Wire (Leiche im Drahtverhau) 1924
Etching on paper
300 x 243 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

There is undeniable madness, depravity, societal decay and death in Dix’s Neue Sachlichkeit /New Objectivity, elements shared with fellow artists George Grosz and Max Beckmann. Satirical and abhorrent depictions of the human figure were weapons Dix and Grosz used to attack middle class complacency, the military, church and state. The unflinching reality of their work is grounded in human behavior and experience, their rejection of Romantic idealism and expressionism. In the aftermath of WWI and the “Golden Age” of the roaring 20’s, Dix declared that;

“People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people’s powers of resistance.

Whilst I don’t doubt the artist’s intention of resistance, there is also an aspect of his personality, arguably unleashed by his war time experiences, which revels in the adrenalin fueled excitement of killing and sexual violence. It is a source of masculine power for Dix, coupled with personal revulsion and disgust. The artist’s commitment to depicting “life undiluted”, to “experience all the darkest recesses of life in order to represent them” is a double-edged credo. He admitted that “the war was a horrible thing, but also something powerful. I was not about to miss it. You have to have seen people in this untethered state to know something about humans”. Dix’s response to what he saw around him, later manifested in immersion and participation in the underworld of Weimar Germany’s streets, nightclubs and brothels, a search for truth devoid of nobility or redemption. His works on paper explore a nocturnal world distorted by fear, loathing and collective psychosis.

Otto Dix, 1891–1969
Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin 1927
(Liegende auf Leopardenfell) 1927
Oil paint on panel
680 x 980 mm
© DACS 2017. Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. Gift of Samuel A. Berger; 55.031.

Dix’s grotesque, almost hallucinogenic depiction of prostitutes and their clients, including sailors and soldiers (including  himself), achieve a heightened state of animalistic abandon and debauchery. Even his society portraits, rendered with the finest technical precision, amplify the prevailing sense of Nietzschean annihilation, a philosopher Dix was drawn to at an early stage of his development. The artist’s extremism is centred on the body, in the coupling of sex and death, the dominance of instinctual drives and inevitable decay, which he projects onto the human figure as Germany personified. His iconic portrait of nightclub dancer Anita Berber (1925) in garish, pursed lip red is a parody of glamour. Reclining Woman on a leopard Skin (1927, Oil paint on panel, 680 x 980mm, Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Gift of Samuel A. Berger, 55.031) is a superb example of the dangerously mesmerising spirit of the age. The woman in the painting with her cat-like eyes and claw-like hands holds the mask of her pale, made up face temporarily in place, coiled like a caged animal about to strike. The red folds of fabric and leopard skin feel strangely alive, with the figure positioned in the draped, though spartan, recess of a boudoir/ lair.  The acidic green gossamer dress garishly clashes with opposing red, while the woman’s glazed eyes are remarkably cold and fixed, seeing right through to the flesh and blood that you are. In the background a Hyena-like creature lurks in the darkness, teeth bared, a manifestation of raw instinct and animus/anima depending on your point of view. The arrangement of the body is a series of highly articulate serpentine curves, painted with consummate skill. The calculation in this image is frighteningly compelling, concealed and revealed by the artist’s technique. We sense that we are only a second away from the mask of the subject or artist being torn away and that anticipatory tension permeates much of Dix’s work.

In Vanitas (Youth and Old Age) (1932, tempera and oil paint on canvas) the subject is at once a rendering of Death and the Maiden, derived from the medieval Dance of Death and a visual statement of Dix’s contemporary Germany. The proudly smiling, golden haired nude, every inch a beamingly healthy Aryan maiden, could easily be a poster girl for the Nazi propaganda machine. However, Dix places her on a distinctive edge of shadow, framed in judgement within an allegorical tradition. We feel immediately that she would not be out of place in a tableau of the Seven Deadly Sins. Her expression is so righteous and sure of itself that it is faintly ridiculous, whist a skeletal crone hovers in the background. It’s a reminder that the girl in the foreground is just food for worms as we all are and that her idealised beauty is preposterously shallow. It’s an ugly, repulsive image in the association between ethics and aesthetics, but that is precisely the point. The artist’s rendering of the figure is sharp as a blade in his exposure of the subject as part of a cultural tradition of seeing.

Dix was acutely aware of his German artistic heritage like a Faustian pact. His use of tempera techniques, oils and the woodcut reflect the influence of German Renaissance masters such as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Crannach the Elder and Hans Holbein. The fastidious delicacy of his paint handling meets the savagely critical depiction of the rich, privileged and famous. Even at this level, flattery is exceedingly rare in a Dix painting and sentimentality categorically dead. Then as now, the gap between rich and poor was ever widening and Dix captures the outrage and repugnance of those conditions, whilst denying political motives in his art. His searing body of work remains anti-war, in spite of the revelry he conveys in minute details of violence. The objective recognition and striking calm of a prostitute meeting the gaze of the artist in Dedicated Sadists (1922, Watercolour, graphite and ink on paper, 498 x 375mm), suggests that although Dix defended his art as a moral imperative, on a deeper, personal level he is confronting aspects of himself with the same brutal honesty. Dix’s humanity ultimately resides in his complexity as a man and an artist, holding up a mirror to the ugliness every human being is capable of. Dix doesn’t just paint, etch and draw death as the great human leveller, he strips it naked and makes no apologies.

There is a profound sense of darkness, light and the internal struggle between the two present at the beginning of his practice, when Dix was experimenting and finding his voice. Birth (Hour of Birth) (1919, Woodcut print on paper, 180 x 156mm, Galerie Remmert und Barth, Düsseldorf) in starkly, chiselled monochrome is a fine example. The sun and moon are attendants, the nipples and belly button are stars in a body bisected by the absolute values of black and white. The child’s path into the world is, at least initially, an angular projection of light from its mother’s open thigh. There is a trajectory of fate in this black and white vision of the world that feels inescapable. Dix’s painting Longing (Self Portrait) (1918-19, Oil on Canvas, 535 x 520mm, Galerie Neue Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) is a fractured face in deep blue/ black with red mouth agape, a man divided between a quartet of dualistic elements. Between sun and moon, the impulse of life in the pink embryonic form in the top right-hand corner and a red devilish goat in opposition. A green star and branch springing from the artist’s head implies creativity and intellect as the anguished man’s only means of survival and integration.

Dix had eight works in the infamous “Degenerate Art Exhibition” held in Munich in 1937. He lost his teaching position and 260 of his works were confiscated by the Nazi’s between 1937 and 1938, some of them destroyed. Looking around this phenomenal exhibition, it is a miracle that the works we see today survived. Like Dix, August Sander created a prolific body of work and whilst their images may confront us with uncomfortable truths, their New Objectivity is pertinent to unfolding events on the contemporary world stage. We are witnessing the largest displacement of people ever seen since WWII, growing inequality, economic turmoil, modern slavery, increasing radicalisation of politics and the threat of environmental catastrophe. In viewing this exhibition, we cannot hide from the powers of creation and destruction wrought by human hands and are forced to examine our own resistance, complicity and responsibility for the history we are making today.

Tate Liverpool, Portraying a Nation Germany 1919 – 1933 exhibition trailer:

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Paul Nash

Paul Nash Nocturnal Landscape (1938, Oil paint on canvas, 76.5 x 101.5, Manchester Art Gallery ©Tate)

Paul Nash Nocturnal Landscape (1938, Oil paint on canvas, 76.5 x 101.5, Manchester Art Gallery ©Tate)

Tate Britain, 26 October 2016 – 5 March 2017

Forty one years after the last major Paul Nash exhibition, Tate Britain has brought together 160 works drawn from 60 private and public collections for this extensive, timely and fascinating retrospective.  Best known for his war art and Surrealist landscapes, this exhibition illuminates lesser known aspects of Nash’s practice including his photography, collages, 3D assemblage work using found objects, writings, poetry, print making and book illustration. It is an exciting opportunity for reappraisal and discovery of many aspects of the “unseen” in Nash’s trajectory. Literally unseen are Nash’s double sided painting; Circle of the Monoliths (1936-7, Oil on canvas) and The Two Serpents (1929, Oil on Canvas. Private Collection) which have never been exhibited and the newly discovered assemblage sculpture; Moon Aviary (1937, Cedarwood, ivory, stone, bone. 500 x 253 x 150 mm, Ernest Brown and Phillips Ltd) believed lost for over 70 years. However it is Nash’s visionary “unseen” which powerfully reveals itself throughout, highlighted by exploration of his creative process and the juxtaposition of his work with significant objects, archival materials and the work of his contemporaries. One of the best rooms in the show “The Life of the Inanimate Object” is also one of the most unexpected in terms of revealing Nash’s imaginatively fluid process, with his work seen alongside that of fellow artist Eileen Agar (1899-1991). The dialogue between them; personal and professional, the free associative techniques of collage, assemblage and liberating spirit of experimentation combine all of Nash’s passion, vision and lifelong reverence for Nature, reflecting humankind. In the context of this room the artist’s fusion of objects in the landscape and the crafting of his compositions is brought to life; making pure, unconsciously logical sense. Other dimensions also emerge beyond Nash’s individual paintings; the artist as an advocate, collaborator and spokesperson for the British and International Avant-Garde in a time of unprecedented political, social and cultural upheaval. In the “Unit 1” reconstruction room featuring works by John Armstrong, Tristram Hiller, Edward Burra, Edward Wadsworth, Ben Nicholson, John Bigge, Barabara Hepworth, Henry Moore and in the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 focus, we see Nash in a national and global field of reference. It is hard to imagine that generational lifespan of memory: having survived the First World War and living one year past the end of the second, experiencing the madness of one annihilating conflict, only to see the world plunge headlong into another with the rise of Fascism.  Nash’s work grapples with that psychological / cultural crisis in a unique and very British way. There is a sense of inherited tradition and emotional reserve, the simultaneous absence and presence of the figurative in Nash’s evolving way of seeing that is distinctive, insightful and progressively contained in the formal structure of his compositions.

Paul Nash, Circle of the Monoliths c.1937–8, Verso: The Two Serpents (1937-8, Oil paint on canvas, 710 x 920 mm, Private collection.)

Paul Nash, Circle of the Monoliths c.1937–8, Verso: The Two Serpents (1937-8, Oil paint on canvas, 710 x 920 mm, Private collection.)

In one of his earliest works The Combat (1910, Pencil, ink and wash. 356 x 258 mm. Victoria and Albert Museum) Nash depicts an angel with sword drawn, descended upon by a dark avian form; half bird of prey, half human against an eternal night sky. They are suspended above what feels like an immense hill, defying the actual scale of the drawing, with finely rendered lines of ink creating a minutely detailed piece of defended earth. Nash was irrepressibly drawn to Nature from a young age and for him it was imbued with living spirit. The Buckinghamshire countryside was a retreat for the family in an attempt to improve the health of his mother and as a child Nash spent time on his own and with his siblings in the nearby woods; a place of solace, play and imagination. The Combat introduces the Divine struggle between good and evil, influenced by the symbolist works of William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Nash’s way of seeing through Nature represents “an inward dilation of the eyes” that enabled him to perceive the “Genius Loci” or spirit of place in the landscape and also the aspirational nature of humankind reflected within and without.

In the beautiful nocturnal mindscape The Pyramids in the Sea (1912, Ink and watercolour on paper. 336 x 298 mm. Tate. Purchased 1973) Nash seamlessly transforms water to sand and sand to water in a dreamlike flow of lines, tinged deep midnight blue/ black. Rhythm and movement preside in the surging tide, governed by the moon overhead, with two man-made pyramids shadowing the swell of dune-like waves.  The Falling Stars (1912, Ink, Pencil and wash on paper, 370 x 230 mm. Private Collection) and The Three (1911-12. Ink, chalk and watercolour on paper. 393 x 279 mm. Private Collection) are equally poetic as Nash moves from symbolic illustration in his earliest drawings to a more abstract style of communicating ancient, divine presence in the landscape. In The Falling Stars Nash’s marks of foliage upon the mystical gathering of entwined trees reads like musical notation. The viewer is conscious of a human eye and mind perceiving the immensity and mystery of the natural world. In The Three a trinity of towering elders in the form of trees, their foliage and heads conjoined as if in counsel, cast long shadows over the field. The mid-level horizon line, positioning of the reimagined figurative group and a flock of birds about to wing out beyond the frame, create a sublime feeling of height, space and light which is both physical and metaphysical. The anchor, dominant presence and ancestral knowing within that space of mind are the trees, a recurrent motif in his work. For Nash the English countryside was “full of strange enchantment. On every hand it seemed a beautiful, legendary country, haunted by old Gods long forgotten”.  Like Blake’s poem Jerusalem there is an imperative in Nash’s oeuvre of reimagining and building a new world; “the mental fight” of divine creativity cast in a moral chasm between “dark satanic mills” and visions of a “green and pleasant land.”  For Nash this linked strongly to pre-Christian ways of seeing and being in the landscape. He was drawn to the human mark; to Iron Age forts and stone megaliths as objects and places of collective remembrance and to a mystical, poetic tradition in British painting, printmaking and illustration. Equally Nash was aware of contemporary developments; the work of the Vorticists, who in 1914 declared a new urban aesthetic; “The New Vortex plunges to the heart of the Present – we produce a New Living Abstraction”.  This hard edged adaptation of Cubism celebrated modernity, rejecting the over-refined poetics of past British Art. But the glory of the machine age and advancing technology also brought the horrific reality of mechanised warfare and mass killing the likes of which the world had never seen before. WWI destroyed Vorticism’s angular jubilation. By its end Western civilisation as it was known had imploded, with over 17 million dead and 20 million wounded. Nash was to produce his own form of ‘living abstraction’ in response to the age and his wartime experiences. Evolving his own visual grammar, Nash fulfilled a broader role as witness for a generation in a way that no previous official war artist had.

Enlisting as a soldier in the Artist’s Rifles in 1914 and sent to the Western Front in February 1917, a trench accident and broken ribs effectively saved Nash’s life. Whilst he was sent back to England to recover, nearly all the men in his unit were slaughtered at Passchendaele. He returned to the front as an official war artist in November 1917 and the following year created many of his best known works, moving beyond documentation of the conflict to create an unprecedented public record of warfare in terms of loss. Nash’s experiences in WWI shattered everything that had come before and in the irony of his most celebrated work We Are Making A New World (1918, Oil on canvas. 711 x 914 mm. IWM Imperial War Museums) we see a decimated landscape of body and mind; torn by shrapnel, cratered by bombs, a churning mess of mud and splintered, dead trees. The blood red sunrise casts a singular blinding eye of light over man-made devastation. The land is wounded flesh, extending to heaven;

“Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous mockeries to man,… black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds…The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow…the black dying trees ooze with sweat and the shells never cease.”

“It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a 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 to Margaret Nash, 13 November 1917.

Paintings such as The Ypres Salient at Night (1918, Oil on canvas, 714 x 920mm, IWM Imperial War Museums) depict zig zag fissures of torn earth in the trenches, an emotional geometry that enters a sky ripped apart in After the Battle (1918, watercolour and ink on paper, 598 x 733mm IWM Imperial War Museums) and many of his post war landscapes of the 1920’s and 30’s. It is both a psychological wound and a compositional device, leading the mind’s eye  powerfully and emotionally into the painting. The subterranean world of The Ypres Salient at Night is darker than natural night, lit with hues of acidic green from an overhead explosion and reducing human figures to a few huddled, fractured silhouettes. Time feels suspended in eternal  purgatory. The Menin Road (1918, oil on canvas, 1828 x 3175 mm, IWM Imperial War Mueseums) is the battlefield perceived in the cold light of day; tiny scattered figures at the centre of the painting dwarfed by  the ruin of that engulfs them on all sides, as far as the eye can see. Burned hollows of human trees, twisted metal and a foreground swamp of fathomless debris create an apocalyptic image of modern warfare and its aftermath. Oppressive cloud and shafts of light lance the sky in opposition to the agitated curvature of clouds defined and held somewhere between daylight and darkness. The “road” of the title, all of the certainties of the way ahead through life, have been obliterated, like the hopes, dreams and lives of an entire generation. Originally commissioned by the Ministry of Information for a Hall of Remembrance, there is an overwhelming inner silence in this painting which still arrests the viewer today. Although its dimensions cast it in the role and tradition of a heroic, commemorative history painting, no belief in “God, King and Country” could justify what Nash shows us through lived experience in this image.

Paul Nash. Wood on the Downs.(1930, Oil paint on canvas, 715 x 920 mm,Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections. Purchased in 1960 with income from the Murray Fund.)

Paul Nash. Wood on the Downs.(1930, Oil paint on canvas, 715 x 920 mm,Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections. Purchased in 1960 with income from the Murray Fund.)

In his post war work Wood on the Downs (1929, Oil on canvas, 715 x 920mm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections) a gathering of trees and their canopies are melded into a protective front, the curvature of foliage a response to the battering of Nature’s elements. Rolling hills in the background and a white winding road give the impression of hope, but the dominant presence in this work are a huddled mass of slender trees. It is impossible not to think Nash’s lost comrades or survivor guilt when contemplating this image.  In the post war period Nash suffered a breakdown and moved with his wife to Dymchurch where he painted seascapes and the Romney Marshes. The enormity of the sea is an overwhelming force of memory for Nash, having almost drowned, and he paints it defensively, as something to be held back or contained like the memories and life experiences that threaten to drown us. In Night Tide (1922, Ink and watercolour on paper, 381 x 559mm, Private Collection c/o Robert |Travers, Piano Nobile Gallery, London) the frozen waves are sharpened into solid sculptural curves, with the seawall barrier supporting the shadow of a lone figure.  Winter Sea (1925-37, Oil on canvas 710 x 965mm, York Museums Trust-York Art Gallery) is one of Nash’s bleakest works with menacing, cruel waters resembling planes of sheet metal; a tonal highway of dirty green, brown and white leading the eye into an eternal path, with a hollowed indentation of earthen sky where the sun should be. The mood of this work feels very much like an emotional and psychological precursor to Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-1, Oil paint on canvas, 1016 x 1524mm, Tate, Presented by the War Advisory Committee 1946) which expands Nash’s inner vision of Dymchurch to the whole of Western civilization. What has always affects me so deeply about this work is the transformation of Nash’s wonder into industrial wreckage; an expanse of bluish grey seemingly without end, inferring an ultimate ending. When viewing Nash’s photographs of wrecked, fallen aircraft at Cowley Dump near Oxford in 1940 the tide of materials is painfully real. Totes Meer (Dead Sea) recalls the uncanny silence of the battlefield, with the fallen wings of enemy Luftwaffe bombers visible under a waning crescent moon- or is it an eclipsed sun? Either way time in mortal terms is rendered meaningless. The twisted metal creates an oppositional current of movement and unnatural waves; a pale, barren echo of the sea transformed into a desert.

Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41, Oil on canvas, support: 1016 x 1524 mm, frame: 1170 x 1680 x 97 mm. Tate. Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee, 1946.)

Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41, Oil on canvas, support: 1016 x 1524 mm, frame: 1170 x 1680 x 97 mm. Tate. Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee, 1946.)

There is a popular misconception about Surrealism, that it represents a dreamy escape into fantasy and unconscious desires; it is however, in the best hands, highly confrontational in terms of Self, evolving out of the protest that was Dadaism. The Self isn’t just the individual as we have come to define it in 21st Century popular culture but also collective in nature. Nash writes about the “unseen” in his landscapes as a form of perceptive self-awareness, grounded in reality;

The landscapes I have in mind are no part of the unseen world in the 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.” -Paul Nash, ‘Unseen landscapes’ Country Life, May 1938.

During the 1920’s and 30’s Nash’s Art becomes stylistically distilled; with the introduction of found objects into his paintings, division of the picture plane to suggest shifting perception/ simultaneous viewpoints and the fusion of organic and man-made elements to create a heightened sense of Genius Loci. The De Chirico exhibition held in London in 1928 inspired Nash to explore an architecture of mind that we see evolving in still life paintings such as Token (1929-30, Oil paint on canvas, 51.4 x 61.2, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art). In this image the found object is pushed into the viewer’s foreground, suspended on an easel, positioned in the corner of a room with a telling background of referential frames. An oval plaque of figurative Classicism in the form of a featureless mother/ goddess and child recede into what feels like the interior of the wall. We read the image in relation to the love token, with the gilt frame and uprights of the easel layered behind the foreground stack of object, notebook and canvas. It is a finely balanced composition, semi Cubist in spirit, no doubt linked to the Nash’s visits to France in the 1920’s, but with a feeling of shifting perspective through time, the artist grappling with the art of painting and alternate realities within the picture plane. Similarly Opening (1930-31, Oil paint on canvas, 81.3 x 50.8mm, The Daniel Katz Family trust, London) grasps the mettle of structural composition in a series of framed thresholds. A glimpse of seascape can be seen in the distance, but it is the shifting nature of interior ways of seeing that are invoked by this work.  Poised Objects (1932, Pencil, chalk and watercolour on paper, 55.9 x 37.5, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford) also alludes to perceptive clarity through abstraction with the projecting eye like a lighthouse, guided by creative process.

In Room 6 The Life of the Inanimate Object we see Nash’s diverse use of media with objects such as driftwood, stones and bones having their own life force and entering into his compositions. With fellow artist Eileen Agar there is a sense of a symbiotic relationship; between them and in the artist beholding Nature. Agar’s collage and frottage on paper composition Philemon and Baucis (1939, 52 x 39, The Mayor Gallery, London) together with its mythology is telling in that respect. In Swanage (Graphite, watercolour and photographs, black and white on paper, 40 x 58.1, Tate. Purchased 1973) Nash’s use of collage creates a mindscape of figurative megaliths out of pieces of photographed wood and bone, pioneering his formal and visionary approach to landscape painting. We also see this in Still Life on a Car Roof (1934, Photograph, digital print on paper, printed 2016, Tate Library and Archive), an arrangement of objects juxtaposed with the surrounding environment in three dimensions, then photographed by Nash in black and white. The composition of paintings such as The Archer (1930-1937-1942, Oil on canvas) and Event on the Downs (1934, Oil paint on canvas) make total sense in the context of this room as the artist moves with ease between different media; crafting his visions fluidly through collage, photography, found objects, assemblage, drawing and painting. Although Nash’s landscapes are branded Surrealist for their unexpected juxtaposition of land, sea, objects and architecture, when seen in the context of Genius Loci, ancient human marks in the landscape and his studio practice they feel more like realism in perceptive terms. This heightened reality also has a collective element which is rather different to the 21st Century marketed image of Surrealism as a dreamy, escapist brand.

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream (1936-8, Oil on canvas, 679 x 1016mm, Tate, Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 1946 ©Tate.)

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream (1936-8, Oil on canvas, 679 x 1016mm, Tate, Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 1946 ©Tate.)

Nash naturally found his place in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, which included works by Magritte, Picasso and Ernst. However the dreams he explored, not surprisingly given his wartime experiences, were grappling with the nature of the self, reality and truth. Landscape from a Dream (1936-8, Oil on canvas, 67.9 x 101.6. Tate, Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 1946) illustrates this beautifully in the bird of prey beholding itself, overlapping frames, reflections, and the expansion of interior windows positioned in the landscape. It’s a fusion of alternate realities played out inside the conceit of a two dimensional painted surface. It contains and expands how we see as human beings- as a confrontation with our own natures, reflected in and beheld by an inner spirit of Nature. The reflection of the bird of prey stares back at the viewer, with abstraction functioning as a focal tool, unconsciously pulling a fractured world and soul back together to make sense of its darker self. It acknowledges the mystery and uncertainty of life, but also the possibility of new ways of seeing and being in the world in response to individual and collective trauma.

Towards the end of his life cycles in Nature, the marking of the seasons in the old ways; the Solstice and equinox, create a kind of repose in Nash’s work. In many ways he comes full circle and asserts his place in a long tradition of visionary and ancient land art in Britain. As his own life was ending he returned to the guiding forces of nature; sun and moon and the ritual landscape. In Solstice of the Sunflower (1945, Oil paint on canvas, 71.3 x 91.4, National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, Gift of the Massey Collection of English painting 1952) Nash aligns the path of the sun with the flaming fire wheel of the sunflower and the ancient pagan practice of rolling burning bales. In its companion piece Eclipse of the Sunflower (1945, Oil paint on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4, British Council Collection) a different aspect is invoked in the decaying foreground sunflower and its eclipsed light above that still extends like a halo of hope around the soul and the world. In 1943 Nash discovered Scottish anthropologist James Frazer’s comparative study of mythology and religion The Golden Bough, which in many ways validated Nash’s lifelong felt sense of the landscape. The end of WWII in 1945 and Nash’s declining health also inform these final summations of life, Nature and the human condition. He presents us here in 2016 with a vision of humanity relative to Nature, in full knowledge of our capacity for annihilation and for the creative, aspirational light of renewal. Nash’s greatest legacy is remembrance, of the fallen in wartime certainly, but also in the movement of the seasons and ancient human marks on the land that still speak to us if we only stop and listen. In the end, as Nash’s work illuminates, creativity is the only thing that saves us.

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