(Yet another art exhibition reviewed after it's closed)
”My love of the monstrous and the magical led me beyond the confines of material appearances into unreal worlds.”
- Paul Nash
A Sense of Place
The Futurist Marinetti was usually to be found raging over something, but English art particularly got his goat. He'd jeer at “the soft, sweet and mediocre, the sickly renewals of Medievalism”, opprobrium he'd doubtless have poured all over Paul Nash.
In fact when you look at the early works of the artist best-known for becoming the one British Surrealist people have heard of, it's remarkable how in thrall to Romanticism he then was. Pre-war, it was Blake and Rossetti who were his touchstones. And iff there's anything to persuade you he wasn't going to become a painter of country gardens, it's the elements of fantasy illustration. Nash even trained as an illustrator and, like Blake, often illustrated his own poems.
Marinetti's spittle traces a broad arc, but there may be places where it sticks. Some of Nash's early work was blandly pastoral, the coloured chalk works in particular could have adorned drawing rooms. Nevertheless, the first room of this exhibition gives us not just the seeds of the mature Nash but some strong artworks in their own right – even among the most fantasy-oriented pieces.
Take 'The Combat', (1910, above), one of several works to portray human figures not in but above a landscape. If the noble profile set against a beaky visage suggests stock notions of good versus evil, try looking some more at those combating figures. You'll notice how alike they become. The 'bird', despite it’s beak and unfurled wings, is followed by some decidedly human legs. It’s not terribly clear what it holds in that beak, but it seems to mirror the sword held against it. And if we look back to the seemingly human figure he too has wings, if currently folded. Though he has his feet planted firmly on the ground, he dwarfs the trees in a way which recalls the folk art custom of assigning size by symbolic importance.
In his accompanying (admittedly not very good) poem Nash writes “there is no history but this”. And it is this Manichean sense of ceaseless conflict between eternal forces that lifts the work from generic fantasy art into something genuinely post-Blakean. For this reason I favour the title given here over ’Angel and Devil’, though it seems unclear which Nash came up with first.
If this could also be interpreted as a comparison between earth and air, the theme is taken up a few pictures down, this time with both human figures and moralism removed from it. Though the setting is fantastical, there is something deadpan and naturalising about 'Pyramids in the Sea' (1912, above). There doesn’t seem anywhere on Earth Nash could actually have seen this sight, yet he depicts it as though he has. Ostensibly we're seeing a borderline, with palm trees visible behind the pyramids. Yet the waves seem to be not crashing against but morphing into them, with the dune beneath the palms like a fore-echo of their arrival.
It's often read as proto-Surrealist, portraying dream and wakefulness as shifting states in a way similar to Rivera's 'Communicating Vessels'. But it could also be seen as portraying nature and culture similarly amorphously.
So perhaps it was the fantastical elements in his art which, when purged of their pastoral cliches, took Nash to Surrealism? Nothing so simple. For one thing, from hereon in the fantastical tends to wane. And more importantly, there's a direct link from his nature scenes to his Surrealist work. Which is largely because 'nature scenes' is something of a mis-label. Along with the fantastical human figures leave his work (you can sometimes see the traces from where they were erased), and he instead takes to portraits of trees. (His aim, he said, was “to paint trees as though they were human beings”.) Take for example, 'The Three In the Night' (1913, below.)
These three trees marked the boundary between Nash's garden (in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire), and the wider country – hence they are threshold guardians of sorts. He wrote of his fascination with “something which the ancients spoke of as genius loci – the spirit of a place, but something which did not suggest that the place was haunted or inhabited by a genie in a psychic sense ... Its magic lay within itself, implicated in its own design and its relationship to its surroundings.” Archaic people don't tend to “worship nature” in a generalised sense, as is sometimes imagined. They more commonly find specific spirits and meanings in particular places. And these animist notions recur throughout Nash's work.
The Negative Sublime
One day they'll make a biopic of Nash. It will start with an English gentleman capturing his country walks with bright and innocent watercolours. Which will then segue into a shell going off above the First World War, then slightly later him painting how dashed cross he is about it all. Hopefully we've already shown how the first part of that equation is off the mark, so the second can't fare much better. It was the Vorticists and Futurists, the ones who believed in the gleaming machine age, who has their world most torn apart by the War. And Nash was of a different breed.
Nevertheless as David McKean has said “he found his voice during the war”. It was war which turned him from a good artist into an important one, something which might not have happened any other way. Certainly Nash himself saw things as transformative, painting in oil for the first time and writing home:
“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.”
There's now a debate over how anti-war these works were taken to be at the time. It questions whether his focus on nature was a euphemistic consequence of censorship, indulging the peculiarly British sentimentality of lamenting a shattered tree above a dead solider. Certainly his images aren't as visceral or grotesque as, for example, Otto Dix's. Though he first saw war as a combatant, by the time of these works he was an official war artist. And it is true that ’The Menin Road’ (1918), specifically commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee, is more ostentatious, more smooth and refined and thereby less effective than some of the other works.
But human figures can appear, in both 'Wounded, Passchendale' and 'After the Battle' (both 1918). What is more accurate to say is that it's the more successful works which leave them out, suggesting questions about them are the wrong questions.
'We Are Making a New World' (1918), deservedly Nash's best known war painting... perhaps even his best-known work of all, depicts his subject the most clearly. It's not the frenzy of battle, nor even it's cost in human life, but the existential hell of No Man's Land.
Compare it to CRW Nevinson's 'After a Push' (1917). (Shown as part of the Imperial War Museum's recent 'Truth and Memory' exhibition.) Both not only depopulate No Man's Land but remove some of the more obvious features, such as the barbed wire. But Nevinson depicts the scale of the thing, an uninhabited plane stretching off to the distant horizon. It could have stretched to envelop the world, for all that we see here. Whereas Nash paints more claustrophobic, less realist images which capture it’s alien-ness.
'We Are Making' is in fact a reworking of the more realist ‘Sunrise Inverness Copse’ from the previous year. (Not part of the show but this Wikipedia page compares them.) And that sense of a sunrise is important. Nash wrote in a letter home a year earlier “sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man”. And here he paints the chorusless dawn, a deathly stillness, trees blasted and blackened husks, the very ground no longer solid but a shapeless corrugated pulp.
We use nature as a symbol of renewal. Here we see the ultimate in barren-ness, winter without spring. Not the end of battle but the end of life. With Nash’s talk of blasphemousness, there is a sense the War is being compared to the final tribulation. A Romantic artist paints the sublime, nature as an overwhelming force. Here Nash paints it's inverse, invoking the scale of the sublime only to portray it's absence. And seeing these works in the context of his career makes them more powerful. The artist most keen to show us the land has a spirit is now exhibiting it’s slain corpse.
We may be better off assessing the works' effect on us today than trying to reconstruct a past response. In the same letter home he comments “I may give you some idea of its horror, but only being in it and of it can ever make you sensible of its dreadful nature”. Art is not reportage, it always works on it's subject from some angle and sometimes the oblique works the best. And in our era, when we can have highly graphic photographic evidence of the horrors of war, sometimes even broadcast by their perpetrators, perhaps Nash's approach can get under our skin better.
And if 'We Are Making' is the Tribulation then 'The Ypres Salient At Night' (1918), with it’s Tommies huddled below a glaring flare, seems a semi-blasphemous reworking of the Wise Men and the star. But, more importantly still, it presents the trenches as a jagged zig-zag. (Echoing the pre-war work 'The Cliff to the North', 1912.) As the show says many of the war compositions work like mazes, stuffed with the obstruction of detritus, no way out of them for the eye.
While the sublime tends to be presented via vast vistas, as with Nevinson, these works are so fragmentary to almost be collages. (An effect emphasised by Nash's iconic painting style, which makes each object look slightly discrete.) It's reminiscent of TS Eliot's well-known post-War poem 'The Wasteland', which suggested that all that was left to poetry was broken fragments of earlier works.
Disembodied in Dymchurch
After a breakdown brought on by the War, Nash recuperated on the Dymchurch coast of Kent. It's in fact the works from this time which are devoid of human figures. 'The Shore' (1923, above) somehow seems neither natural nor man-made. Rather than the genius loci of earlier we have an absolute anonymity of place, worn smooth of distinguishing features. ’Pyramids By the Sea’ had shown the land and sea effectively merging into one another, here the only thing there seems to be is the space between. It’s a No Man’s Land, if of another kind. If the war paintings presented no escape for the eye, these are such smooth sweeping planes they seem to have no purchase for the eye. It's the standard landscape ratio but seems to have an overwhelming horizontality, a world in which no human figure could ever stand up.
With 'Winter Sea' (1925/37, above) the sea is not just morphing into sheets of metal, it's hard to tell it from the land. You feel you should be looking out to sea, your feet planted on the beach, but it doesn't feel that way. And what makes a metal sea a striking image is also what makes it hard to write about. It's an immediately striking image with no way to parse it, no Freudian theory to neatly wrap it up in.
In 'Dymchurch Steps' (1924, above) the block of a featureless building is just placed on the landscape, with no obvious way in. The image is less solitary than desolate, as if Nash had slipped out of society, perhaps for an afternoon stroll alone, and now finds himself unable to return – an exile at home, all apertures closed.
David Mckean's graphic novel of Nash's life, 'Black Dog' (in part performed at the Tate Britain on 13th Nov), bases itself around the week in 1921 where he fell unconscious. It speculates on what he might have dreamt during that time. But we might want to imagine a greater conceit, that he somehow painted these works whilst in that other state. If that sounds less than likely, we'd also have to contend with the fact he moved to Dymchurch only after he re-woke. But as Alice Channer comments, he painted “from strange perspectives, from above the landscape, as if he's levitating, disembodied”. ('Tate Etc.' magazine 38) They seem the work of some bodiless spirit, at an inevitable distance from all things.
The pre-war Nash painted body and soul as indivisible, united in place. But now the same elements are irreconcilable, divided even in himself. They're less angsty expressionist howl than the sense of dislocation that more commonly comes with depression.
Surrealism’s Coming Home
'Plage (Tower)' (1928, above), is perhaps a transitional work. The architectural features placed on the coast make it something of a successor to 'Dymchurch Steps'. But unusually it was painted in France, and shortly after Nash had seen de Chirico's work, which (as with many Surrealists) had inspired him. In both artists the human presence is rendered significant by it’s absence. Denied it we seek to find significance in objects and environments, even to the point of anthropomorphising them.
Nash is sometimes criticised for lacking the visceral impact of continental Surrealists. Almost inevitably, it’s Dali who’s dragged up. But to reduce it all to shit-stained trousers not only misunderstands Nash but Surrealism in general. Unlike Dada or Vorticism it was not principally based around the shock but the haunting image, the sight you can’t quite forget after you’ve seen it.
Similarly, we have become steeped in the notion that Surrealism is something foreign, that the continent was the place for dreaming, with it’s exotic place names and strange Mediterranean architecture. Yet the idea that the numinous can be found in the everyday, even everyday England, is central. So Nash defamiliarises the English country just as De Chirico did the Mediterranean town. The fact that his work often looked like the product of the English gentleman, with a slightly tweedy parochialism, becomes not a weakness but a strength.
Nash was always something of a gentleman painter, never truly becoming expert with a brush. Here for example his sea is just a kind of slightly askew patterning, his white clouds blobs. But that slight amateurishness somehow makes his work look more visionary. The artist so interest in nature was never that keen on naturalising nature, so his imperfect realisations of objects and scenes just encourage you to look through them. They don't look like folk art exactly, but there's the same disinterest in objects except as symbols.
A room is given to Nash's still lives which are, if we're honest, for the most part the sort of dull and provincial fare that would send Marinetti off into another rant. But it is worth their inclusion just to see where he takes things. He doesn't just progress through them but almost superimposes each successive work upon the others. Each already has collage elements, incorporating reflections, intersecting planes and multiple perspectives. And this takes us to 'Lares' (1929/30, below) – not so much a still life as a semi-abstract work on the theme of openings.
The Surrealists always had a penchant for apertures and here it's like Nash is trying to morph all openings into one. There's more a sense of repeating recesses than actual spatial depth. It's reminiscent of the way it can be enticing to peer through a crack, while an open window view is uninvolving. Some paintings act as portals, like Alice's mirror, into the subconscious. And this definitely seems to deny the flatness of the wall behind it. Rather gloriously, it was exhibited in a frame within a frame.
But even after coming across de Chirico and continental Surrealism, the English landscape continued to exert a huge influence on Nash. 1933 was to prove a significant date, marking when he visited Silbury Hill and Avebury for the first time. This led to works such as 'Druid Landscape' (1934, below). (Okay, druids had nothing to do with megaliths. That may have been less known then.)
Buried in the land, pointing to the sky, megaliths suggest at the same connection between supposed opposites as 'The Pyramids and The Sea'. But there's more to them, in fact more to them than any symbolic system seems capable of holding. When you come across a megalith or longbarrow on the landscape it just calmly sits there, seeing no reason to explain itself. It can even seem as though it's you who is the interloper. And it's mystery seems magnified by it's misshapenness. Classical columns seem to manifest the universal rules of geometry, just as they're connected to a language we can decipher.
And so their strangeness becomes in itself strange to us. This should be our home turf, the most recognisable thing, and yet it’s impervious to our understanding. Inevitably we come to see these things as outside ourselves, a puzzle to be solved with measuring tape and aerial photographs. Yet there's the nagging sense the answer is within us, one of those things we seem to know but cannot quite recall. In short, it's not the megaliths themselves which are Surreal, it's our relationship to them.
Nash accentuates all this, in fact painting an object which seems to be morphing before our eyes between stone megalith and abstract metal sculpture. Notably in the same year he painted 'Stone Tree', after finding an actual fossilised tree.
He wrote an article in 1936 called, rather brilliantly, ‘Seaside Surrealism in Swanage’. Nash himself said “the landscapes I have in mind are not part of the unseen world... They belong to the world that lies, visibly, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.”
Georgina Coburnarts writes “One of the best rooms in the show 'The Life of the Inanimate Object' is also one of the most unexpected.” And she's right, though perhaps it's surprising that we’re so surprised. All Nash has really done is shift from a focus on the spirit-inhabited place to the objects found within it. While found objects (or “object personnage”) were an established Surrealist device. And yet it does seen unexpected when we see Nash do it.
It’s the photographs and photo-collages which work the best, for example 'Swanage' (c. 1936, above), which seems reminiscent of Ernst. Or perhaps the assemblages Nash made from his findings. (Which often now exist only as photographs, making it harder to distinguish between the two.) If these objects do have a spirit, they’re best of exhibited directly and straightforwardly, the best to transmit it. He essentially takes their portrait, as he earlier did with trees. And the next-best thing is the pencil drawings, which delineate the objects dryly and faithfully. However he'd often then go on to paint them, which can seem distancing, getting away from their spirit.
Euro Standardised Surrealism
When the International Surrealist Exhibition was held in London in 1936, Nash didn't just exhibit but was on the hanging committee. As far as the European art scene was concerned, he had arrived. But the truth is that he was better before he left. As the Thirties went on, he slowly lost what had made him 'provincial' and with it what had made him distinctive. It turns out, what we really wanted was English Surrealism for English people. Who knew?
Later works such as 'Landscape For a Dream' (1936/8) are too blatantly juxtapositional, too resonant of the trickery of his earlier still lives, too made up to have any genuine sense of strangeness. They look like Surrealism by numbers for the awaiting Athena poster generation. The point about Blake seeing angels in trees is his implicit assumption there was no reason why he shouldn’t, that he didn’t accept the same demarcation between worlds as the rest of us. These works look like Nash has just cut and pasted the equivalent of angels into trees, then congratulated himself. One of the better examples is 'Nocturnal Landscape' (1938, below).
A Dream of Flying
Then, as the Forties hit, history was to repeat itself. War thrust it's way back into his life, to both upset and reinvigorate his work. Nash was by then too old to go to the front, but he became an official war artist working at home.
This coincided with his turning back to watercolour and 'Bomber in the Corn' (1940, below) looks such a conventional English pastoral scene it takes a while for the strangeness to work on you – even though that wrecked plane is right in the foreground. It's a surrealist juxtaposition, but rather than being merely manipulated like the works from a few years before, it's drawn entirely from life.
Nash said at the time “a statue on a street or some place where it will normally be found is just a statue, as it were in it's right mind; but a statue in a ditch or in the middle of a ploughed field is then an object in a state of surrealism.” JG Ballard probably expressed this sentiment more succinctly when he said “war is surreal”.
'Totes Meer' (1940/1, above) seems to refer back to the metal sheets of 'Winter Sea'; the 'sea' now in a less calm state emphasising the idea they could be companion pieces. (Even the name, German for 'Dead Sea', invites the comparison.) Yet this scene is also drawn from life. Nash visited a dump for shot-down planes at Cowley, the show even includes photographs he took there. (The gouged ground in the lower right is presumably where the metal carcasses were dragged to their resting place.)
Unlike any of the First World War works, both show visible Nazi insignia on the planes. While British planes, present at the actual Cowley dump, are excluded. A contemporary film, shown at the gallery, claims them as propaganda images. Yet it's their matter-of-fact surrealism which lingers.
If both works featured planes, that was scarcely surprising. With Nash in England, the war had to find him. Nevertheless, he continued with themes of flight after hostilities. Not just the sky but celestial images, the sun and moon, recur in highly symbolist works. In 'Eclipse of the Sunflower' (1945, below), the images of the sun, a sunflower and a flaming wheel seem fused. In some ways these bypass the Surrealist works and go back to the beginning, eschewing solidity for immateriality. Lines of force seem to radiate from the objects, as if spirit forms.
And the fixation on the sun is significant. We all have notions of the magic, transforming moon. It blooms when the workday world is put to bed, and can encourage strange ceremonies or turn men into animals. But with this comes the notion of the sun as normative, it's rising restorative, causing spirits to scatter. But Nash paints both moon and sun as occult forces, just as he did the pyramids and sea, with no normality on offer.
Nash said he had always dreamt of flying, and only realised late in life that this was only achievable through death. It's an image that goes right back to 'The Combat' but is perhaps at it's strongest with the disembodied spirits of Dymchurch. He died a year after 'Eclipse of the Sunflower'.
Perhaps the big question about Nash, one to which I wouldn't have an answer, is whether the unevenness of his work was inevitable. He was remarkably adept in reworking his deficiencies to his advantage. Poor at drawing the human figure, he went on to make an ostentatious statement of it's absence. But his modus operandi, to find the numinous in the parochial, possibly wasn't going to emerge every time clutching a pearl. Nash never tells, he creates general moods, hints, suggests at things. And perhaps hinting is harder.
Coming soon! More art exhibition reviews, probably after they've closed. (Well I'd rather write something good than quick. Yes I know that's not the regular internet way...)