Paul Nash: An Unlikely Mouthpiece for a Nation Destroyed
'I am no longer an artist…I am a messenger…to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls' - An exploration into a war artists life of letters, painting and social commentary.
by Kitty Atherton | 19 November 2020
Feeble, inarticulate, the commentary Nash imparted in a letter to his wife Margaret, in late 1917. The very words I would renounce when presented with the bleak, poetic and visionary landscapes of Paul Nash. Being enlightened by his post-war work originally, since Nash had taken residency in East Sussex; my home county, after being discharged. It was here that he produced the surreal isolated planes and ghostly seascapes, that seemed reflective of his mental state after his deposition to the Ypres Salient. These scenes, disturbing in their ‘surface’ tranquillity and permeated by dark symbolic undertones, could only reinforce my attentiveness to the work Nash produced in response to his time as an active soldier.
As Simon Grant outlines, Nash had an awareness of mortality from a young age, arguably stemming from his illness’ as a child yet undoubtedly provoked by the premature death of his mother Caroline. Growing up in Buckinghamshire, Nash immersed himself in the historical sites local to him. In particular the Wittenham Clumps, an Iron-Age hill fort; and a source for much of his early landscape observations. 1910 saw the beginning of Nash’s lifetime devotion to the arts. He enrolled at the Slade school, and, whilst struggling with figural drawings, focused his attention on the poetry of William Blake, guiding him in his endeavour to explore the English countryside.
It was St. Elois, on the Ypres Salient, that gave Nash the necessary stimulus to experiment with depictions of war. After being invalided for an injury, Nash spent time developing his technique. Works such as ‘Chaos Decoratif’ show early expressions of the vorticist movement; later celebrated in the works of Wyndham Lewis, an artist who equally resided in rural Sussex post-war.
Paul Nash, Chaos Decoratif, 1917.
Nash grew angry at war, the glory of its advertisement, and the reality of its environment. He expressed how ‘no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like’, and indeed he was true, many were oblivious to the ‘daily and nightly background of the fighter’. What he subsequently produced was pioneering. Nash wrote in a letter home: ‘Twilight quivers above, shrinking into night, and a perfect crescent moon sits uncannily below pale stars’. It was the natural landscape, its perfection, its tangibility, and ultimately its ability to be subject to destruction, that moved Nash in such a way as to use it as a metaphor for the physical suffering of man.
Whilst the poetry of Sassoon, the palette of Singer Sargent, and the fellow Slade student Stanley Spencer all sought ways to express the soldier’s mindsets through their physical hardships, Nash transported the viewer into a hauntingly isolated battlefield. Devoid of action, and emphatic in depicting the aftermath.
Pieces like ‘We Are Making a New World’ are not only elegiac in its title, but are perfectly dichotomised in its optimism by the desolate nature of the landscape, utterly unrecognisable, and far removed from Nash’s early observations of the ‘poplars carmine with buds’. Now this ‘strange beauty of war’ is expressed through the dramatic undulations of the ground. The intention of this piece seems to be to create an unearthly sight. Is this our land? Nash makes us question how we can manipulate nature in such a way as to reconstruct our perception of a landscape. What is perhaps most interesting about Nash’s work, is how these observations of the natural world intertwine with Nash’s commentary on human futility. Seen in the symbolism of the piece, the red looming cloud for example, is often compared to the blood of the soldiers, the trees, now stumps, bear likeness to the brittle bones of the corpses. Nash commented how ‘sunset and sunrise are blasphemous mockeries to man’, and yet, the sun, if anything, seems to offer a glimpse of hope in the earthy darkness of the landscape. Whilst Nash regards the physical battlefield as expressing ‘no glimmer of god’s hand’, he seems to insert his optimism in this piece, even if the rest of the painting is a vexed exaggeration of his communications home.
Paul Nash, We Are Making a New World, 1918.
In World War Two, Nash was given a post as a war artist attached to the Royal Air Force, it was here that he became somewhat unpopular. His work was a breakthrough for modernism, and yet many believed his work to be too detached detached from a war-artists purpose, to convey human endurance against the relentlessness of war. His production of a piece entitled ‘Totes Mere’ or dead sea, seems to introduce an element of anthropomorphism. The scene of a swamped body of planes seems synonymous with the carcasses that littered the battlefield. Art Historian Kenneth Clarke noted how ‘it is impossible to paint great events without allegory’, and this is indeed what Nash employed.
Paul Nash, Totes Meer, 1940-1.
To say the only undercurrents in Nash’s work are the metaphors within his landscapes, would be erroneous. In fact, pieces like ‘The Menin Road’ commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee, include two isolated soldiers receding into the background of the piece, these figures seem so small, so insignificant against the vast destruction of nature, that we can only imagine as viewers, the obliteration of humanity.
Paul Nash, The Menin Road, 1919.
Therefore, in many ways, Nash’s work strives to be one of the most influential bodies of work created in response to the atrocities of war. In my eyes, the artwork that seems so controversial, strives to be the most memorable. The artist’s letters home only seek to aid the viewer in the viewing, Nash removed himself from the ‘interested and curious’ nature an artist is inclined to adopt. Instead he embraced the duty of a messenger, brutal and honest were his words. In observing his work, one can only hope such horrors will not be revisited, whilst hope is always on the horizon, like the sun in “We Are Making a New World’, Nash sought a world that was constructive in its responses to the war, and the immediacy of his words are forever echoed in his paintings.