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.
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.
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.
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.
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.