Paul Nash (1889-1946) was a landscape painter, a war artist, a surrealist and a mystic. But most of all he was a quintessentially English artist. Despite his determination to align himself with international modernism from the 1930s, his Englishness permeates everything he did. His work is emblematic of a particular, home counties Englishness; careful, muted, reserved and controlled, but extremely well-crafted.
The current exhibition of his work at Tate Britain is a comprehensive review of his work, but with a particular intent to remind us of his commitment to surrealism and international modernism, emphasising that key focus of the second half of his life. Strangely though I felt that the more you looked at his later surrealist works, the more you saw the English landscape painter shining through.
Nash started his artistic career as an illustrator, as become clears from the detailed works in ink and wash which open the exhibition. The Combat gives an early clue to Nash’s personality, consisting as it does of an angel in an allegoric landscape fighting with a monstrous bird. It is pure Blake and shows the early origins of the mysticism which permeates all of Nash’s work. The Combat is an exception in his work though in being centred around a figure. Figures are a rare presence in Nash’s work and when they do appear they are largely as ghostly symbols, not as individuals.
The great majority of his early and pre-war work are landscapes, specifically trees around the edges of the garden of his family home in Buckinghamshire. He reworked these scenes repeatedly and by his own admission treated the trees as individuals carefully noting their unique characteristics. Taken together the early pictures give a powerful sense of the talent that he represented.
At the start of Word War I, he enlisted in the Artists Rifles and served on the home front until 1917 when he went to France. His early paintings in France are almost optimistic in nature, illustrating the speed with which nature can recover from the ravages of war. Returning injured from an accident he was appointed as an official war artist before he returned. His output as a war artist remains amongst his best known and most powerful work which, a hundred years later, continues to shape our collective visual memory of that conflict. He moved from an artist in ink and wash to an artist who can handle oil paint at scale. He developed a symbolist language for representing the horror of war and of the trenches, whist not revelling in gore or human misery. We are Making a New World and The Menin Road are the two dominating works in this part of the exhibition. Indeed to my mind, The Menin Road is the dominant work in the exhibition. Commissioned in 1919 for a national memorial which was never built, it is over 3 metres long and almost 2 metres tall, the largest picture in the exhibition. At the centre of the picture two soldiers walk through a forest of broken stumps, with flooded pools in front and a zigzag network of trenches behind. It is a landscape disfigured, devoid of life apart from a few spectral figures, but with beauty and integrity nevertheless. Wildly different though it is in style and content, like Guernica it manages to create an image of all war, and be as relevant today as it was when it was painted. It is a painting in which Nash seems to break free of his normal English reserve and say something universal; there is nothing else in the show which packs quite such a punch.
After the war, Nash returned to landscape painting, continuing to explore home county landscapes while also absorbing new subjects. Some of the most powerful pictures from this period show the sea wall at Dymchurch at Kent. There is in these paintings a strong sense of the memory of war; trenches reappearing as sea walls providing a defence against the marauding sea. And a bleakness which seems to talk of inner sorrow. All the landscapes of this period are devoid of human figures. Nash is a solitary figure in his landscapes.
During the 1920s, Nash started to develop an increasing interest in surrealism and the the work of De Chirico in particular. Surrealist elements start to appear in his landscapes and then to dominate them. And by the 1930s he was describing himself as a surrealist painter and an international modernist. This was primarily an artistic response to the growing body of modernist European art being shown in London, but it was also a political response. At a time when familiar challenges to ‘modern art’ where first being raised and magazines like The Studio were asserting that ‘too much internationalism in modern painting’ was resulting in British (read English) art losing its ‘native flavour’, Nash felt that he had to fight back. In a series of writings he argued strongly that there was no contradiction between being modern and British. And as fascism started to come to the fore in European politics he was determined not to support the notion that the concept of defining art in native or nationalistic terms was in any way desirable. As a consequence he moved his painting comprehensively in a surrealist direction and exhibited with other British and European artists who were working in the same direction. Works like Druid Landscape which was exhibited at a group exhibition in in 1934 reflect his focus on surrealism and indeed abstraction.
World War II saw Nash reappointed as an official war artist and there are some fascinating pictures from that period recording crashed German planes in the English landscape. The major work in the exhibition from that period is Totes Meer (Dead Sea) depicting a broken sea of airplane parts. This picture was based a large dump near Oxford piled high with the remains of German planes.
Overall, this is a large and interesting exhibition. To my mind the first half of the work is the most powerful, up to and including his Dymchurch landscapes. With his move to surrealism I felt that Nash lost the power of a uniquely distinctive vision. There remain, of course, works to greatly admire but they are perhaps more rooted in intellect than passion. There is one room in the exhibition dedicated to a group show, Unit One, to which Nash made an important contribution but which included the work of other exhibitors at the show, including Ben Nicholson, Edward Burra, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. While Paul Nash considered in the round is in the first rank of this company, they are the more compelling modernists.