Saturday, 11 September 2021


Towner Gallery, Eastbourne

The Trudge Of War

Paul Nash the very English Surrealist had a Tate retrospective led to one of my most-read blog posts. (Faint praise, I know.) His younger bother John also became an official War Artist for the First World War. This show recounts an anecdote of how, working in the same studio, they’d keep to their official war work until clocking off at six and reverting to their beloved English landscape. Which suggests that war merely interrupted what was otherwise a smooth career path, and probably with more accuracy for John than for Paul. So let’s look at each war in turn, then get back on that original path.

’Oppy Wood’ (1918, above) is a very large work with just two human figures (down from three in the original sketch), looking out upon a vast No Man’s Land. We see they’re soldiers but they’re entirely passive, effectively audience surrogates. You’re first struck by the eerie silence which is conveyed. They look towards two shell bursts going on to the left, but you feel instinctively they’d be too far away to hear.

To the right there’s a neat comparison between blasted trees and the remains of some building, both coloured silvery grey. They turn into identikit planks of wood, angled downwards. It’s a striking and effective work. But its iconography of a barren nature doesn’t vary much from Paul’s.

’Over The Top, First Artists Rifles at Marceong’ (1918, above), is perhaps more original, with its greater focus on human figures. It details an abortive attack he participated in, when still enlisted, from which he was one of few survivors. In a letter home he said: “We passed a Boche officer dead on the road, frozen over and sparkling… nothing unusual for we were just as crystallised, only living.”

If it details an attack, this is again anything but an action scene. We should perhaps see it as a timeline. The dead figures, lying on the left, resume animation. They clamber wearily from the trench, and trudge forward sunken-shouldered, their weapons not raised but borne heavily. Of the many figures, we see the face only of one. It’s a kind of anti-resurrection, in body only, where even death offers no rest. It’s war as a kind of Sisyphean task, emphasised by the way the advancing figures are cropped so brutally on the right edge.

And this theme is taken up again in ’A French Highway’ (1918, above). The marching figures are not conveyed in landscape format, as you might expect, but portrait. Again this means they're closely cropped, so we’ve no idea how many  there are. This time the emphasis is on the weight of their backpacks, whose straps they clutch. Horsebacked, the officers inhabit a higher layer of the painting than the enlisted men.

Looking Technology In the Face

Like his elder brother his World War Two pictures look unlike those from World War One. But they take quite a different direction. In fact for an artist often happy to dismiss Modernism as a foreign affair, ’French Submarine La Croole in Swansea Dock’ (1940, above) shows a remarkable compositional similarity to Christopher Nevinson’s ‘The Arrival’. Nash’s is typically a naturalist image, while Nevinson’s is Cubo-Futurist. Nevertheless, were we to sweep away Nevinson’s shards of imagery we’d see two compositions dominated by the elegantly sweeping prow of a vessel.

Co-incidence? ’Destroyer In Dry Dock' (1940, above) takes quite a similar composition, even if it eliminates the prow. The colour-scheme also ensures the ship stands out from its surroundings. A preparatory black-and-white sketch shows how vital this is to the work. (Though I remember it being more gun-metal grey in the original work, and consequently the ship looking less like a brightly coloured toy.)

These images induce two contradictory-sounding responses. The vessels present technology like a landing UFO, an intrusion on the landscape which inevitably becomes a centrepiece. But they’re also like peering into a beehive and spying the Queen, everything not just dwarfed by her but arranged around her, an order whose workings cannot really be comprehended. This is an English pastoral artist at his most Futurist, technology as a subject for awe and veneration.

The Country Path 

And that original path? It was a country path. Like his brother, his early inspiration was not Modernism, which would then have seemed the latest thing from the Continent. Instead it was the rolling landscape of his native Southern England. In fact, in the show’s words, he “found much of his subject matter within walking distance of his successive homes.” He wrote in 1914 “I think I shall do farmyards for the rest of my natural… how can nature be dull? What is Cubism or anything else to nature?”

And this is pretty much the South Downs landscape you ride through, when taking the train from Brighton to the Towner. There’s even a local Eastbourne connection, he recuperated there after contracting what they then called Spanish flu. (Less than half a mile from this gallery, we’re proudly told.) It’s a hard thing to capture, at least for those of us who live round here, precisely because it’s so familiar. It falls into a gap in your perceptions, your eyes not treating it as new information while your brain doesn’t assign it to memory.

It’s tempting to conclude that inspiration lies all around us, should we look. Yet life is not so easy. The impetus for an artwork may come from outside, but inspiration is always within. So, to return to Nash’s quote, the problem is not that nature can be dull but that dull artists have ways of rendering it so. In fact the reason we so like to see the English landscape defamiliarised in art is because so many artists have done so much to familiarise it for us, and their damage needs to be undone. And truth to tell, there are works here which look merely twee and provincially English.

We may disagree about precisely which to consign. The show uses ’The Cornfield’ (1918) for its poster image (up top). Which on first sight I described as “genuinely corny” and depicting “a tidy nature”, words 
I stand by. But overall it seems unsure what direction to take, taking a title which refers to his English landscapes (curator Andy Friend having already written a book of that title) but opening with the better-known First World War work. (Laid out so ’Oppy Wood’ is the first thing you see on entering.) But his dullness does seem to increase over time, like there’d been an original inspiration which was slowly leaving him. (While, alas, many of the better earlier works do not seem image-captured to the internet.) 

Nash himself became worried he was creatively spent, just as his elder brother branched out into Surrealism, mysticism and other new directions. Commendably perhaps, the show diligently details all of this. (Most strangely, it quotes a friend pointing out the solution to his impasse lies not out there but in his earlier work, which had a rhythmic energy that later dissipated. Useful advice he doesn’t seem to have acted upon at all.)

One solution was simply to expand his frame of reference, to North Wales, Brittany and (after ’68) Scotland and Provence. ’Afon Creseor, North Wales’ (1951, above) for example does capture something of the brooding majesty of the Welsh mountains. The familiar device of an inviting path leading you into the work, here doubled up, is offset by the sombre colours and the snagging dead trees in the foreground, but mostly in the way they seem to fall to a halt before those mighty peaks.

Nash had thought this an attempt to “step beyond habitual motifs”, and was disappointed by its contemporary reception. True, it may not be as evocative as David Bomberg’s mountain landscapes (once on show in this very gallery), which suggested at remorseless geological forces barely captured by flurries of paint. But it’s effective enough.

But there’s more. Nash’s method had been sketch while the sun was shining, then work things up into paintings over evenings and winter months. So naturally, by stepping outside of this comfort zone he became more genuinely creative.

First we have winter, in works such as the inviting ’Winter Landscape, Wormingford’. 
Though admittedly they may rely upon the milder nature of the Southern English winter, an afternoon stroll through which can seem an appealing thing. Winter in the Scottish Highlands might have been a different matter.

More importantly there’s the crepuscular, often combined with the porous border between land and water, as in ’The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble’ (c. 1923, above). Its elongated dimensions doesn’t capture tree trunks so much as present a lattice of rising and dangling branches, both emphasised and confused by the reflections in the water. There is something not just eerie but bewitching about it. It looks, for want of a better word, ‘cobwebby’, nature not as something neat but an etherial entanglement, ungraspable yet inescapable. To misquote Blake, did he who painted that corny cornfield really paint this? It seems he did.

If ’French Submarine’ was Nevinson’s Cubo-Futurism just without the signs of Cubo-Futurism, this is a kind of sibling to Andre Masson’s ‘The Picardy Road’, with the surrealism less overt. Which was once described, if only by me, as “sprouting sinister growths, tendrils appearing all over… Masson imbues everything with sentience and menace.”

Wikipedia relatively brief entry for Nash picks this work out, suggesting that, “completed a few years after the war, [its] characterised by a sense of bleak desolation that suggests the profound introspection that for many followed the devastation of the war.”

Perhaps so. But then why transfer such a sense into the English landscape? Why not keep painting No Man’s Land, if that was what haunted you? After all, Paul had said of his war experiences: “I have seen things that would last me my lifetime as food for painting and drawing.” And why go on to paint similar works decades later such as ‘The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall' (c. 1958)? Even if it could somehow be proven he wouldn’t have painted these if not for war, isn’t it more the point that there is such a mysteriousness to be found in ‘our own’ countryside? That we don’t know the places we think we do?

Like his brother, Nash rarely placed human figures in his nature scenes. And like his brother he almost but never quite anthropomorphised trees, in works such as ’The Fallen Tree’ (1955, above) or ’Edge of Rendlesham Forest’ (1967), which shows an ancient forest seemingly guarded by two stout-trunked sentries. This enhances the sense of our senses being limited, our never quite sure of what we are seeing.

“This exhibition”, we’re told, “attempts to reposition Nash with the history of Twentieth century art”. If he’s never been seen as on the same creative level as his brother, that isn’t about to change now. Frustratingly, there is a lot of tweely pastoral country scenes to trudge past. And he seems to have been aware himself when that was and wasn’t working, but without knowing how to channel it. But at it’s best his work had its own appeal.

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