NOW

JENNYSAVILLE, SARA BARKER,CHRISTINE BORLAND, ROBIN RHODE, MARKUS SCHINWALD and CATHERINE STREET. 

JENNY SAVILLE
Rosetta II, 2005 – 2006
Oil on watercolour paper, mounted on board, 252 x 187.5cm
Private collection © Jenny Saville
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

March until 16 September 2018
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One), Edinburgh.

It’s hard to believe that the latest instalment of NOW, part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s contemporary art programme, is the first major showing of Jenny Saville’s work in Scotland and only her third exhibition in a UK museum. It seems that for many of our finest artists, international acclaim is a pre-requisite for national acknowledgement. The Scottish National Gallery’s newly acquired Study for Branded (1992, Oil on paper, 100.3 x 74.4 cm) is amazingly the only example of Saville’s work currently in a UK public collection, made possible by the Henry and Sula Walton Fund.  Whilst the curatorial aim of the three year NOW exhibition programme is very much about placing contemporary Scottish Art in an international context, it also illuminates the national context of how we regard art and artists in the 21st century.

The purchase of multiple works from Saville’s Glasgow School of Art graduating show by collector Charles Saatchi, her participation in the Saatchi Gallery’s Young British Artists III exhibition (1994) and the Royal Academy’s exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists (1997), effectively launched Saville’s career in terms currency on the international art market. However, that’s not what gives her work its immense power, universality, or ultimate value. As five rooms of her work spanning 26 years powerfully testify, she achieves that integrity entirely on her own terms. The scale of this artist’s emotional intelligence, discipline and command of painting is truly extraordinary, crossing multiple boundaries in how we perceive the female body, art and humanity.

In the history of Western Art and the Scottish figurative tradition Saville’s work radically transforms perception of the female nude with its unflinching honesty. Presenting completely “un-idealised”, “uncompromising” images of the human body, Saville confronts us with the timeless and sometimes overwhelming truth of human vulnerability. It’s a truth which ideal Beauty has cloaked for centuries, then effectively obliterated in popular culture of the 21st Century. At base we are all flesh, magnified in Saville’s adept handling of oils, pastel and charcoal, with all the discomfort and fragility which attends mortality.

Propped (1992, Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm. To be shown with mirror opposite) looks the male dominated figurative tradition in Art, society and within the Glasgow School of Art right in the eye. Perched atop a stool, a naked female figure with huge, foreshortened thighs and knees closest to the viewer, gazes down, sizing us up with a sneer, her raw hands clawed in tension. The model’s white shoed feet are crossed over, anchoring her frame to the thrust and elevation of the artist’s vision. What should feel precarious isn’t, she commands the composition and across it, written backwards, read in the mirror opposite as part of the painting, are the words of French Feminist writer Luce Irigaray;

“If we continue to speak in this sameness- speak as men have spoken for centuries, we fail each other Again words will pass through our bodies, above our heads- disappear, make us disappear…”

JENNY SAVILLE
Trace, 1993 – 1994
Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm
© Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

Wedged between the painting and mirrored confrontation, the immense physicality of this disappearance becomes present in the room as idea and experience, written on one’s own body in everyday life. It is only in looking by default at ourselves that the words become visible. Behind this mirror, at the entrance to this first room, is Trace (1993 – 1994, Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm. Collection of Larry Gagosian), a sobering acknowledgement from neck to buttocks, viewed from behind. Although the palms are flat they feel psychologically twisted, facing the viewer like those of a prisoner in a lineup. The exposure of pale skin, nuanced with greys, ochre, blue, umber and crimson, is painfully incised with the marks of underwear, imprinted on the skin. The cool, serene flesh-toned palette fills the canvas and the mind like a question. We’re faced with where we stand in this branding, then we step behind the painting to the Propped mirror and see. The way the exhibition is hung, cleverly places the viewer in direct relation to the work in this room. The space between Propped and the self-reflexive surface of the mirror is relatively neat, so you can’t stand back to distance yourself from either. Initially the human figure, expression and attitude, led by Saville’s paint handling draws you in, then you turn a perceptive corner and come face to face with the mirror, your own body and yourself. It’s a powerful mechanism of interrogation that perceptively creeps up on you before you know it, like all great art should.

Witness (2009, Oil on canvas, 270 × 219.4 × 6.4 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA) places a magnified young face, with the mouth exploded in a vertical position, so that the viewer becomes witness. Saville commented: “It was tough going to push beyond the surface horror into the paint.” Unlike a crime scene/ forensic photograph of documentation, the statement here is a document of the human mark in deep cadmium, alizarin and burnt umber, the stark, peachy pale skin magnifying vulnerability. Saville goes beyond gore into the nature of flesh made human. Even in this context, she fills the viewer with wonder in every mark, as bodies disappear and emerge in relative abstraction. Muse (2012 – 2014, Charcoal on canvas. Unframed: 212 x 170.4 x 3.2cm, Private collection) is a particularly beautiful example, where the deconstruction of form and idea reconstructs the self with force, passion and determination. You gain a sense of Saville’s artistic discipline, intense curiosity and driven process in this show and it’s awe inspiring! Crucially, unlike at lot of other YBAs, her approach to her subject transcends the marketable artist/ celebrity persona- her work is simply about bigger stuff in action and vision. She is resoundingly her own muse in a way that truly inspires.

When painting on the monumental scale of Fulcrum (1998 – 1999, Oil on canvas, 261.6 x 487.7 cm. Collection of Larry Gagosian) there is no option other than to use your whole self to make the marks, like the honed work of a dancer. The physicality lies not just in the three ample female figures, wound together but in the act of painting. The superb handling of this expansive palette of flesh, sliced vertically with fragments of crimson, as if the surface of the canvas were itself flesh and blood, is startlingly real. It is also deeply meditative, with each model held in their own unique world of expression. The fulcrum in this work, the movement used to move or raise something, is the artist’s whole self and contemplation of what it is to be human. How else do we enact change but creatively, imaginatively- as individuals and as a species?

JENNY SAVILLE
One out of two (symposium), 2016
Charcoal and pastel on canvas, 152 x 225 x 3.2 cm
© Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.
Photo: Mike Bruce

One of my favourite images in the exhibition is One out of two (symposium) (2016, Charcoal and pastel on canvas, 152 x 225 x 3.2cm), a wonderfully ambiguous act of erasure and visibility. As a fluid, layered drawing the alizarin crimson graffiti-like marks, merge with the tracery of a forensic outline and the deconstructed works of old masters. The feminine in this work lies in the grace and repose of head and shoulders, the still core of facial expression, sculpted in chiaroscuro and the sensuous movement, hands clasped around backs that surrounds and absorbs the subject and viewer. Although Saville is often mentioned in the same breath as Bacon and Freud- the stated connection simply being fleshiness, there is a powerful philosophical dialogue that resides in her work, in this painting drawn from Plato’s Symposium, consistent with an ancient tradition of essential thought and debate. Although Saville treats paint as “liquid flesh” the undeniable “viscosity”, the internal tension or friction of the material, isn’t merely physical, but intellectual, psychological and emotional. To be a conscious human being, you can’t not experience internal viscosity being mind and flesh, even more so when the politics of gender or aesthetics of Beauty are applied to the body. Saville’s approach to the female body, unlike so many male artists and critics, isn’t just about masses of flesh. Saville is more holistic and therefore even more confrontational in the context of our 21st century globalised worship of appearance. To write about her work in terms of one dimensional physicality is to miss the point entirely, because to do so, as the artist suggests in “Propped” is to make ourselves disappear.

JENNY SAVILLE
Olympia, 2013 – 2014
Charcoal and oil on canvas, 217 x 290 cm
© Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Taking Art History by the throat and shaking it is Saville’s Olympia (2013 – 2014, Charcoal and oil on canvas, 217 x 290 cm). The artist is too visually literate for this painting not to bear a link with Manet’s much celebrated reclining nude of the same title; a prostitute attended by a black servant bearing flowers- presumably from a client, with an arched backed black cat at her feet. When it was first shown in 1865 the confrontational stare of the female protagonist, provocatively commanding the composition, was considered shocking. The nude, though arranged for a male gaze, becomes self-possessed in this work and that sense becomes highly evolved in Saville’s coupling of black and white flesh, with fragments of cityscape in the background. The female figure in this work is absorbed in her own thoughts, whilst her lover’s embrace (which could be male or female, depending on audience projection) forms part of a whole series of question marks. Despite the sensuous energy of form and mark, these aren’t bodies served up for salacious gratification. Saville’s middle-aged Olympia is mindfully present and beautiful, in the same manner as the artist’s symposium paintings, here with a downturned mouth suggestive of thought rather than naked pleasure, passion or possession. Multiple realities are actively embraced by the artist and possession on all levels resisted, turning the entire history of Western Art effectively on its head and prompting a broad smile on my face as I exited this final room. What I love so much about Saville’s work is the intense care, exploration, intellect, discipline and ambition required to create it, what it gives to the viewer and to the world. Saville is more of a trailblazer than she has yet been acknowledged for and I hope that this show will begin to address that publicly. NOW could not be more vital or timely in that respect.

Whilst Saville’s work is the centrepiece of the NOW exhibition 2018, works by Markus Schinwald, Christine Borland and adjacent work from the National Galleries of Scotland collection, including photography by Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), also provided great stimulus for thought.

MARKUS SCHINWALD
Orient, 2011
HD video,9 min, loop
Camera: Sebastian Pfaffenbichler;
Production: Close up, Vienna;
Produced by Georg Kargl Fine Arts, Wien; Yvon Lambert, Paris; and Gió Marconi, Milan
© the artist.

Austrian artist Markus Schinwald’s fascinating two screen video work Orient (2011, Looped, two channel HD video 09:00 min. each, colour, sound) reminded me of Pina Bausch’s choreography with its everyday immediacy, potently considered gestures and emotional punch. It is the first time that this work, originally created for the Austrian Pavillion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, has been shown in Scotland. Set in the monumental ruins of an industrial space, the doubled intersection of images, movement and bodily gestures, together with two different voiceovers create a free associative experience for the viewer/ participant. The relationships between a group of well-dressed men and women, moving in unison, individually or paired in observance of each other are, completely compelling as performance, accented with slapstick humour and irony. There are also moments of pure poetry written with the body; tap dancing feet in a sea of colourful, discarded circuitry wires, a man awkwardly scaling a door of opaque glass with a young woman walking straight through it a subversive moment later or a man with his leg caught between two giant structures of concrete trying to wrestle himself free. How we orient ourselves in time, space and in relation to each other is part of the eternal loop and I loved the way that each time I watched Schinwald’s split screens, new combinations of sound and image stimulated different streams of association.  The way the artist splits and reassembles the collective psychology of being human provoked my curiosity and I was thoroughly taken by the mindful calculation and seeming randomness of this work.

CHRISTINE BORLAND
Positive Pattern,2016
Milling foam, Perspex, MDF, paint, five parts
Number 2 in an edition of 3
© Christine Borland, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Purchased with the Ian Paul Fund 2017. Commissioned by the Institute of Transplantation, Newcastle.

Christine Borland’s Positive Pattern (2016. Foam, Perspex, MDF, paint. No2 edition of 3), five abstract objects modelled on the spaces within Barabara Hepworth sculptures were created using 3D scanning and CNC router technology. The intriguing combination of Science and Art, originally commissioned by the Institute of Transplantation, Newcastle to honour organ donors and their families, is aligned with the viewer’s own body and internal organs according to plinth height. Because I have a reviewing policy of not reading any explanatory labelling/ text before looking at visual work, what struck me initially was the ambiguity of material. Housed in Perspex boxes it had the solidity of carved limestone, but the texture was too fine, implying a more delicate substance. The forms themselves were beautiful, hovering in an imaginative space between the organic and human-made, like macquettes in a stage of becoming. The presentation and grouping of objects felt clinical, collectively poised, flowing in energy yet isolated at various levels and confined in their cases.

The problem I often find in appreciating Borland’s work, is that reading an adjacent exploratory text is made necessary by the maker. The human element in Borland’s art is predominantly the linking of ideas, rather than empathy and it tends to leave me cold, even though I find the work interesting and aesthetically beautiful in its stylistic cleanliness. The beauty here really lies in the cavity of Hepworth’s head, her humane approach and thinking as a sculptor, appropriated by Borland. This isn’t a criticism, more an observation of the skilful way Borland handles commissions, successfully negotiating the worlds of contemporary art and medicine. The specificity of commissioned / public works of art is such that she doesn’t always transcend that directive when work is shown out with its original context. My feeling is that Borland’s real talent is alignment of ideas rather than making art. Although this creates a Positive Pattern overall, it lacks soul. Visually there’s a glimmer of feeling, which if you’re keen you pursue, but the primary conduit of meaning is often written context which goes with the territory, rather than extending or exploding it- in the artist’s practice and in terms of viewer perception. Whist Borland’s cleverness can be impressive, it isn’t enduring when placed in the same exhibition as an artist like Saville.

Also included in the exhibition are four painted metal sculptures and wall-based works by Sara Barker, influenced by writers Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing and Jeanette Winterson. Barker combines drawing, painting, sculpture and collage rather self-consciously to “investigate the act of making”. The compartmentalisation and dreamy palette of the artist’s triptych, 3 fabric figures on the Heath changes the sky (2017, automotive paint, folded aluminium, stainless steel rod, perspex, 180 x 240 x 28 cm) is a bit too obvious in making the viewer aware of facets of seeing, with a painterly nod to the Bloomsbury group. Again, interesting ideas are in play in this work; “figuration, edges and borders of our bodies, experience and landscapes creating portals that open up a space for reflective thought” but they are essentially derivative, I don’t get a sense of Barker’s stance towards these concepts or the nature of her investigation other than quotation. It’s illustrative understanding of ideas compared to the depth of understanding of the human condition absorbed, experienced and communicated by Saville. Robin Rhodes’ homage to Muybridge had a similar impact on me and Catherine Street’s work felt underdeveloped in its exploration and execution. Admittedly when you have such a strong backbone to a show it’s hard to equal it, conversely a great show will display equal artistic muscle despite exhibiting diverse bodies of work. Saville’s new work Aleppo for example, currently on display between two Titian’s at the Scottish National Gallery on The Mound, stands up all by itself in juxtaposition. Here is NOW you might say.

JENNY SAVILLE
Red Stare Head IV, 2006 – 2011
Oil on canvas, 252 x 187.5cm
Private collection © Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

I would urge anyone with an interest in humanity to visit this exhibition. You’re unlikely to see all 17 Saville works, drawn from private and public collections across the globe, altogether elsewhere.  The paint handling and scale are incredible, in ways that don’t translate in reproduction and the artist’s insight is truly profound.  However, if you can’t make it to Edinburgh and live further South, Saville’s work can also be seen as part of the All Too Human show at Tate Britain until 27th August 2018, in the company of 20 figurative artists including Francis Bacon, Paula Rego, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossof, Euan Uglow, Walter Sickert and David Bomberg. A great accompaniment to both shows is the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art broadcast interview with Saville as part of the NOW exhibition (link below). Hearing the artist speak about her work is as much of a privilege as seeing it, a rare quality both sides of the equation for a branded YBA! Figurative art and the discipline of painting are far from being dead.

Jenny Saville in conversation. National Gallery of Scotland Streamed live on 23 Mar 2018 You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2NQZ5ggYJQ

nationalgalleries.org
#ModernNOW

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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