Paul Nash – artist of peace and wonder caught up in war.

Prime Minister David Cameron announcing the commemoration of the 1914-18 war standing in front of Paul Nash's 'The Menin Road'.

The Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain charts a painting life that spans early surrealist pastoral works to images of the trench warfare of World War One.

Walking through the first room - Dreaming Trees - we find a painter that is the imaginative and spiritual heir of William Blake and Dante Gabriel Rosetti  (Samuel Palmer too I thought, but not mentioned). 

These beautiful paintings have the subtleties of the range of blacks and greys of moonlit landscapes.   They are enchanting, bringing us (me, anyway) back to childhood wonder at looking at trees at night.  He invested his trees with distinctive personalities, hinting at the animism of pagan and much Eastern philosophy.   Whatever the politics of this (Essentialism? Mysticism? ) they send a shiver down the spine , and British fine art culture had found a master of landscape in the early 20th century.  And then the war!

Looking at the early works, and knowing (as most people will who visit this show) that he was soon to be sent to the trenches – I wondered how such a sensibility would cope with the horror without dying inside. But then how could anyone cope with dying before death?   There is no difference between the human sensibilities of miner, factory worker, poet, bus driver, artist, when encountering human slaughter.   Variance of ‘sensitivity’ doesn’t count – and maybe the artist finds more reserves through his or her art.   Maybe it’s easier to survive psychologically.  Sure, he had a breakdown after World War One, as many did, and his death in 1946 at the age of 57, followed another war – arguably the culmination of the 30-year war started for imperialist gain in 1914. 

But back to the paintings. We enter the next room We Are Making a New World and everything changes.  Here are the war paintings, and his famous words are lacquered on the wall:  

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 for-ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.’  (Letter to Margaret Nash November 1917).  

His war experience changed his work and, using oils for the first time, instead of watercolour and pastel (neither medium associated with WW1) discovered a new painterly language of simplified form in order to paint ravaged landscapes and violent emotional experience.  A lover of the land, Nash was known to have described the very earth… turning inside out…  as men and explosions erupted in battle. 

The most famous of the war paintings is The Menin Road, lent by the Imperial War Museum – in front of which David Cameron launched the Lottery funded 14-18NOW cultural programme in 2013.  He was intending to present WW1 as a victory, and worth fighting, but his mistake in using that painting was palpable, as the painting subverted the message.  14-18NOW never presented the cultural justfications it was intended to by then secretary for education at the time Michael Gove.  Cameron’s mistaken use of this painting was one of the reasons that it was used it for the cover of No Glory: the Real History of the First World War by Neil Faulkner.

The painting We Are Making a New World  shows banks of red, blood-soaked  clouds in front of a landscape of blasted trees and shell holes – an inversion of his early landscapes of beauty and mystery. There’s no mystery here – just the bleak horror of what had happened.

The following rooms chart his return to surrealist painting. I wondered if less successful paintings, soon after the war, where objects were separate, making no coherent aesthetic whole were the result of a shattered imagination.

But he gets the unity back and, influenced by other surrealist painters George de Chirico and Eileen Agar makes unified paintings again, many of them exploring The Life Of The Inanimate Object.  But good art is made through community, and, as the French realist painter Courbet said All art owed more to other art than it ever did to nature.  

Nash was no doubt processing his war experiences through painting the places he loved. Although considered a surrealist, I experience him as a nature painter, like Constable, as he tried to get at the ‘spirit of a place’.   But the art world loves it labels and ‘isms – cooked up by the academy and the market, but no matter, it helps us navigate it.  

Pressed into artistic service in WW2, he produced one of his greatest works, Totes Meer (Dead Sea) in 1941.  This painting is accompanied by a short film, with Nash explaining how it was made from his sketches of crashed German bombers in the English landscape and the Cowley dump near Oxford.   It is striking how ‘dead’ and inanimate these objects are.  He could paint death as mysteriously as he painted life.   His last work is of a huge blacked out sunflower in a cornfield.   It’s a dreadful painting,  in the literal sense - full of dread

Source: No Glory in War

The Paul Nash Exhibition is at the Tate Britain gallery until 5th March 2017