Paul Nash, We Are Making a New World, 1918. Image Source: Imperial War Museum/Tate
'There are places, just as there are people and objects and works of art, whose relationship of parts creates a mystery, an enchantment, which cannot be analysed.' – Paul Nash, Outline (1949)
Paul Nash needs almost no introduction; a renowned war artist and painter of surreal landscapes, he is arguably one of Britain’s most well-known twentieth century artists. However, there is a tendency to see Nash as somewhat separate from the development of modern art in the twentieth century. Perhaps this is due to the way we historicise painting traditions - associating landscape with the parochialism of an island mentality and contrasting it with the metropolitanism of more avant-garde moderns. Or maybe it’s our romanticising of the artist; he is often portrayed as something of a loner in British modernist circles. It’s these kind of received ideas that Tate Britain’s Paul Nash exhibition sets out to challenge.
Discussions of Nash are usually centred around two key periods in his life; his time as an official war artist in the First and Second World Wars. Paintings like We Are Making a New World or The Menin Road (both 1918) cannot fail to impress upon us the horror with which Nash saw the landscape ravaged by madness and destruction. Then, during the Second World War, Nash developed his interwar explorations of incongruous objects in the landscape. His painting Totes Meer (1941) confuses the eye with a sea made of the churned-up wreckage of Luftwaffe aircraft. Nash’s paintings of this period reflect a more nuanced response to war. Twenty years previously, Nash had depicted the horrors of the trenches, here he focuses on the more absurd impact of war on the English countryside.
This exhibition constantly makes links between the developments Nash was making and those being made by other, perhaps apparently more avant-garde European modernists. This is possibly too forceful for some, however, modernist artists in Britain seem plagued by accusations of parochialism and conservatism and it’s a point that needs to be made. Nash, despite romantic depictions that portray him as an outsider, was instrumental in the development of modern art in Britain. Whether in Dymchurch or Oxfordshire, Nash was at the centre of the growing debates in Britain centered around abstraction and surrealism. In 1934 he founded the modernist group, Unit One, which included the likes of Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson. The exhibition also draws attention to his importance in international dialogues, highlighting the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition as one example of his relation to the broader surrealist movement.
What’s interesting are the moments of transition between more well-trodden ground. The photographs, collages and assemblages produced during the time of Nash’s early infatuation with Eileen Agar in Swanage pinpoint an important moment in his thinking about landscape and the inanimate object. Included is a sculpture, Moon Aviary (1937), long thought lost by Nash experts, reconstructed and exhibited for the first time since 1942. Many of Nash’s other assemblages have been destroyed since being exhibited in the late 1930s and early 1940s, so the addition of Moon Aviary to the small collection of sculptures on display provides an unprecedented opportunity to appreciate this period of his work.
However, the real strength of the exhibition lies in making sense of Nash’s connection to ancient landscapes. Nash is often described as a ‘surrealist’ and while he shared surrealism’s interest in the unconscious, it’s through his relation of history and the individual to landscape that the ethereal elements of his paintings come about. Throughout his career he is persistently exploring what makes up the genius loci - the spirit of the place. From the first poetic and mystical ink illustrations, through the blasted terrain of the First World War, to architectural assemblages and surreal objet trouvé photography and then full-circle to the Wittenham Clumps again, Nash’s obsession with natural and synthetic primordial features is rightly at the core of this excellent exhibition. Now is the time shrug off our inferiority complex and celebrate Britain’s twentieth century modernists.
Paul Nash is at Tate Britain until 5 March 2017.
Students £13, National Art Pass £7.50.